Given that I’m a semi-trained, quasi-professional sports-watcher, this is a bit embarrassing to admit. But I have a plausible defense – nobody at the USC vs. UC Santa Barbara dual swim meet I attended recently ever made mention of a winning team. I wasn’t even positive they were keeping score.
Let me tell you about my day, and let you decide if I am guilty of Negligent Spectating…
First of all, I know I’ve previously gone on record proclaiming that ALL aquatic events should be conducted outside – but I was young and foolish then. It was the sunshine and 75 degrees talking. It was now January however, and I was wearing layers to an outdoor aquatic event. Be careful what you ask for.
I’m starting a movement. I haven’t got a name for it yet…alright, I admit it – virtually none of the organizational details have progressed beyond the half-baked stage. But I have a cause: I will not rest until it is decreed that all aquatic sporting events must be conducted outside.
I didn’t even know that I was possessed of this passion until I arrived recently at the Splash Aquatics Center in La Mirada, CA. On my way there to watch the U.S. Masters Synchronized Swimming Championships, I had been assuming the event would take place in the same environment that I’d experienced when I attended the U.S. Nationals in April.
Now, I love the smell of chlorine as much as the next person. And what can be more inviting than the still air of a humid, over-heated natatorium? OK, pretty much anything. But my newfound love affair with “synchro” had made the conditions bearable in the Spring, and I knew that the same would hold true now in the Fall.
The son of two elite paddlers, Henry has been in a kayak since the age of 3 ½ (well, other than for meals and bedtime stories). He’s been competing in junior events since he was 6.
He was in Maryland recently – as was I – to take in the USA Canoe/Kayak Slalom National Championships at the Bethesda Center of Excellence training center. There was one small detail that differentiated our visits though. Henry was there to compete in the National Championships.
You know what I like about sports? I mean aside from all of the obvious things that would motivate a previously sane individual to spend a year of his life chasing down events to watch?
It’s the unexpected and the ironic. And I found both at the USA Canoe/Kayak Slalom National Championships, where the unlikeliest of partnerships was on display.
The event venue, the Bethesda Center of Excellence whitewater course, is a man-made one, measuring 40 feet across and a quarter mile long. The beauty of this artificial river – and what makes it truly unique – is that the water that tumbles through it is always at least ten degrees warmer than that of the neighboring Potomac River, whose western shore runs parallel to the course and serves as its runoff point.
“How can this be?” the alert reader might ask. An excellent question.
The thought has often occurred to me when crafting the schedule for the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour that I might occasionally have to deal with weather wiping an event off the scoreboard. I never thought that a lack of weather might be the culprit though.
But when the Pacific turned to glass for three straight days prior to my visit to the ASP Hurley Pro, it occurred to me that I might not be able to claim surfing as one of the Nifty Fifty sports that ultimately make up the Tour. As Jeff Spicoli might say, “Bogus, dude – we need some righteous waves out here, pronto!”
I can only dream of someday being that eloquent.
Fortunately, in the wee hours of the morning, somebody kick-started the wave machine. And while the early action at the Lower Trestles venue was a little slow when I arrived beachside, things got better quickly. Much better.
Action at the ASP World Tour’s Hurley Pro had started out frenetically on the first day of the event, enabling the completion of Round 1 and almost half of Round 2 in near ideal conditions.
But when Day Two arrived, it forgot to bring waves with it. Day Three…the same. Day Four…Ditto. The break between the 5th and 6th heats of Round 2 had stretched out farther than anyone could have imagined.
At the end of the third day of little to no surf though, optimistic reports of a building swell had ASP World Tour officials hopeful that competition could begin again the next day – which coincidentally was also known (albeit unofficially) as “It’s Game Time Somewhere Day At The Beach”.
What I really meant was that there was no more deference paid to him than to any of the other swimmers during the preliminary heats for the men’s 100 meter butterfly competition. It was Day 3 of the ConocoPhillips Swimming National Championships, and things were moving along at a clip that would make process engineers green with envy.
So there wasn’t much time to reflect on Michael Phelp’s 783 (or so) Olympic medals – or much of anything for that matter, as a parade of swimmers went through 14 heats in each of five different events.
In the twenty seconds or so that each swimmer stood on their starting block in preparation for their heat though, I got a good look at what makes Michael Phelps different. Of course, he has the swimmer’s classic V-shape torso, with massive shoulders tapering down to a slim waist. And his arms are long. Very long. But then again, so were most everyone else’s.
At the end of those long arms though, are massive hands. At first I thought he had purchased a couple of those foam “We’re # 1” hands at the AquaZone souvenir shop, and had forgotten to take them off. Upon closer inspection though…yup – those are actual hands. Hands capable of scooping prodigious amounts of water away from one’s path.
Phelps is taller than most swimmers, and here’s the thing – that additional height is not evenly distributed across his frame. It’s all in his upper body. He has the torso of a very tall man and the legs of a much shorter man. So when those XXXL arms and hands go to work in the water, it seems to me that they are carrying along a considerably smaller person in comparison to his competitors.
That would be my understanding of the mechanics involved. But then again, I’ve never completed a “some assembly required” project without having some important-looking bits and pieces left over. So maybe none of the above matters that much. In which case I’ll just go to my fallback explanation for Phelp’s dominance – he’s a wicked good swimmer.
For every top dog there’s a perennial contender. For every Roger Federer there’s an Andy Roddick. For every Tiger, a Phil. And for Michael Phelps there is Ryan Lochte – a swimmer that would be The King Of The Pool were it not for Phelps. Lochte has come agonizingly close on many occasions to unseating Phelps as the top American in multiple events, and has a pretty good winner’s resume of his own. But if you say “swimming” to any random American in the post-Beijing era, they will reply “Phelps”.
If at this point you are beginning to feel the least bit sorry for Ryan Lochte, let me spare you the effort.
First of all, the guy is by all accounts a truly classy competitor who is well-respected by his peers. And nothing that I saw in my admittedly limited exposure to him appeared to contradict that reputation. He’s also getting more than his fair share of endorsements – in fact, Speedo was using these Championships as a vehicle to launch a new line of Ryan Lochte footwear.
And then of course, there’s the girls.
The word went out in the morning prelims that Lochte and fellow swimmer Peter Vanderkaay would be appearing at 4:30 in the Autograph Zone, a tent set up in the expo area that fronted the event venue. I happened to be returning to the site for the evening session right around that time and was greeted by a line of about 300 people, roughly 297 of which were female.
Vanderkaay arrived in the Autograph Zone first and took his place without much fanfare. Lochte arrived a few minutes later. With much fanfare. It wasn’t quite The Beatles at Shea Stadium, but let’s just say that if you happened to be in the vicinity of the Woollett Aquatics Center at that time…you noticed.
I’m comfortable enough with my masculinity to admit that even I was on the verge of a swoon.
I stood off to the side and watched the proceedings for a while, and while I was very impressed with the way that Lochte interacted with his star struck fans, I was even more impressed with the way he acted to make sure that Vanderkaay was not overlooked by the fans who were clearly there for one reason.
As much of a hit as Lochte was with the fans though, it was Michael Phelp’s night in the pool. The only event in which he was entered that day was the men’s 100 meter butterfly, and while he had just barely won his preliminary heat in the morning, he dominated the final. His winning time of 50:65 seconds proved to be the fastest time in the world this year, and was just 0:15 seconds slower than his gold medal winning time in Beijing.
But as soon as he was done swimming, he seemed to fade into the background. I almost had to remind myself that I was watching one of the most decorated Olympians in history. He received his medal with a smile, did a brief interview and then slipped through the gate into the athlete’s private area of the venue.
Maybe he’s more publicity-shy than I had originally thought. Or maybe he was just in a hurry to try on a new pair of Ryan Lochte brand Speedo footwear.
The site constructed to host the ConocoPhillips National Swimming Championships was not too overdone, showy or aesthetically assaulting. Nor was it too minimalist, leaving people to wander around Irvine, CA looking for the event. It was welcoming, well-marked and user-friendly.
This shouldn’t really have been a surprise, for USA Swimming, the National Governing Body of amateur swimming in the country, is one of the “haves” among NGB’s. Among “second-tier” sports in this country, swimming is one of the glamour children, primarily because every four years the Olympics make a household name of one or more American swimmer.
This draws sponsors, which in turn provides the funding to train more and more athletes and to stage bigger, better events for them to swim in. I vaguely remember this type of thing being called a “virtuous circle” in PowerPoint presentation-ese.
Let’s recap: As an organization, USA Swimming wants for nothing.
So you think that they would have someone who could communicate to the public what time the ConocoPhillips National Championships start. Well, you would be thinking wrong.
It was Day Three of this premiere event in the world of swimming and I was up early – you know – to get a jump on the Brett Favre “will he or won’t he” news of the day. Frankly I’m not sure how the country used to manage getting through a summer without knowing what Brett was thinking about. Every. Single. Day. But while waiting for that life-affirming information, I begin to plan out my day’s travel.
A quick virtual trip over to the USA Swimming web site…a subsequent link to the ConocoPhillips event site…a little digging…a little more digging…still digging. Now I’m down to the athlete’s “Heat Sheet” – which I’m not entirely sure was meant for Sports Fans, but nonetheless manages to impart that the first “Suit Ready” time is…well, pretty much now. Uh-oh.
I was packed and in the car within 10 minutes for the hour’s drive to Irvine. And when I got there, I found out that the reason for the unusually early start was that the day’s competition was split into two sessions. That morning’s session consisted solely of preliminary heats – with the finals of each competition to take place in a completely separate session. Six hours later. This tiny detail was not mentioned on the web site.
And the worst part about the whole thing? I blew out of the house before learning of Brett Favre’s plans for the year! Now I’ll NEVER find out!!!
As soon as I arrived at the Woollett Aquatics Center though, I was comforted in having had to make that sacrifice. For I had barely settled into my seat when Heat #4 of the men’s 100 meter butterfly prelims was announced. A heat that just happened to feature Alexander Forbes of Central Florida University.
Having spotted his name in the Heat Sheet earlier I was looking forward to seeing him race. See, the name Alexander – which is not exactly a common moniker – appears time after time in my particular branch of the Forbes family tree. Adding to the intrigue was the fact that I had lived just across town from the Orlando home of Central Florida University for years.
I was thinking that in a weird, time-warp-y, black hole kind of way, that this guy was actually a proxy for ME in the swimming world. And except for the chiseled body, remarkable swimming ability and African-American ethnicity, it just as well could have been.
As I watched the prelims unfold, I was taken by what a model of efficiency they were. Almost every available second was filled with bodies in motion – either swimming or diving into the pool to begin another heat. It was so precisely choreographed that swimmers that had just completed one heat didn’t even climb of the pool until the swimmers in the next heat had begun – by diving into the water over the heads of those clutching the wall and catching their breath.
The introduction of the athletes in each heat actually took place while they were swimming, which actually took a humorous turn during the men’s 50 meter freestyle heats. The time needed to complete a heat in this event was less 25 seconds, and the P.A. announcer had to revert to his best impression of a Southern auctioneer in order to get everyone “introduced” before the race had ended.
While we’re on the topic of introductions, I can’t even begin to describe the difference that a good Public Address system makes on an event. And in this particular event, both the announcer and the P.A. system were top-notch. Relevant information was provided on a consistent basis throughout the day and you could actually make out what was being said.
That may sound simple and basic, but trust me when I tell you that it is the exception rather than the rule for an event to provide quality in both content and sound – two things that differentiate a muddled sports event from a compelling one. You heard it here first, and with crystal clarity, no less.
Reflecting on this and basking in the sunshine that had won the day from the morning fog, it snuck up on me that a member of the royal family of heavily chlorinated water had entered the pool deck. Michael Phelps.
I don’t know whether I expected him to be trailed by Jared Fogel carrying a Subway party tray or what, but he didn’t seem to draw much attention from anyone – not the other swimmers, not the officials, and not even the fans. As he took his position atop the starting block for Lane 4, he looked like just another swimmer.
To be continued…
Spending time with a parent at a sporting event is like buying a ticket to a baseball game and finding yourself coincidentally seated between Bob Costas and Peter Gammons. You’re going to get educated about the sport. And if you want to know the important stuff about virtually any amateur sport, talk to a parent of one of the athletes.
At the U.S. Youth Sailing Championship this week, my MVP (Most Valuable Parent) was Dave Calhoun, who was quietly minding his own business tracking his son Doyle’s race when I dragged him into the vortex of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour.
I recognized Dave’s New England accent right away, and we immediately began to compare notes. It turns out that he was raised in Worcester, MA which just happens to be where The Bird was living when I met her. He now lives in Cohasset, on Boston’s South Shore, after having lived for a time in Plymouth – a town that I once called home. This happens all the time with New England natives. Put us together anywhere on the planet, and in less than five minutes we will triangulate to a shared place, time and favorite watering hole.
Given that he had a vested interest in tracking his son’s progress in the C420 competition on the horizon, Dave was content to follow the action via binoculars from his spot on the beach. I on the other hand, was in search of a better view of the action. Any action.
Now Dave is a good bit smarter than the average bear, so I’m thinking it took him about four and a half nanoseconds to figure out that I was a complete landlubber. Therefore, when I mentioned that I was going to head down to the end of the Cabrillo Beach fishing pier to watch the race being conducted on the “inner course” side of the jetty, he volunteered to help me out by telling me exactly what it was that I’d be watching.
This is what I learned in my briefing…wait, make that this is what I comprehended in my briefing…
The boats that were racing in calmer waters inside the protective jetty were there because, well because basically they weren’t technically full sailboats. They were 29ers, small skiff-like boats that are operated in races by a two-person crew – even though there’s barely enough room for both people to fit comfortably in the boat.
To the best of my understanding, a 29er is operated by one sailor handling the sails while standing and leaning well out over the water – sometimes almost parallel with the surface. The other sailor remains a bit more vertical, and takes more responsibility for manning the tiller and more mundane things. Like making sure they don’t get maimed by running headlong into another boat, for example.
Armed with this knowledge I ventured off to get as close to the action as possible – and to independently generate some no doubt ill-formed impressions about sailing. I have to think that Dave was chuckling to himself as he watched me head down to the end of the pier.
After watching several legs of racing in the 29er competition, one thing that definitely struck me was that, unlike any other race in any other sport, sometimes the best strategic move is to deliberately “overshoot” a turn in order to tack later and get a better (warning: made up term coming) “wind line” for the next leg of the race.
The first time this happened, I felt badly for the boat’s crew. “The poor kids”, I thought. “They can’t manage to control the boat well enough to negotiate a sharp turn at the marker buoy.” I hoped that they didn’t become too discouraged. Lo and behold though, after they had gone well beyond the marker, the poor lost boat suddenly tacked on a floating dime and made up for lost time quickly.
For a linear guy like me, this makes sailing a hard sport to grasp. Whereas in baseball nobody steals second base via right center field, in sailing there’s clearly more than one way to get from Point A to Point B in the water. So inspired strategy to an experienced sailor looks like random wandering to me. On one turn the extremes in how two separate boats chose to approach the next leg of the race took them hundreds of yards in different directions as they angled for the fastest way to get to the next marker buoy Which they each arrived at more or less simultaneously.
I watched this play out for a while, and realized this was really a sport that could only make complete sense to me from the perspective of being on the boat itself. It was very cool to watch the agility with which these kids got back and forth on the boat though. And I’ve always been a sucker for a colorful spinnaker.
It was time to wander back and report on my findings.
When I got back to the beach, I found Dave mildly distraught at the way things were playing out in the 420 competition. Son Doyle had been on a hot streak coming into this event, and like many of the parents that I had met during the NCAA Golf Regionals, despite his best effort to stay low-key about it, Dave couldn’t hide his pride and admiration for what his son had been accomplishing on the water this summer.
We talked a little about the competitive path for young sailors, and I was surprised to learn that sailing is very much a collegiate sport. And probably not coincidentally, the schools that boast the best sailing programs are also those that happen to have the best academic reputations. I learned that, while a good record as a junior sailor won’t necessarily get you a full ride at an Ivy League school, it could very well put you over the top in terms of piquing that school’s interest.
At the end of the day though, what Dave reflected on as the best part of the junior sailing experience is the responsibility that the kids learn to accept. In addition for the “respect for Mother Nature and what she can do to you at a moment’s notice”, he went on to say that the kids learn to be responsible for their schedule and their equipment, more so than in any other sport.
Speaking as someone who was once late for a playoff game because I had to fish my baseball glove out of the rain gutter that I had tossed it into…I’m thinking he’s got a point there.
So the other day I’m pulling my plans together for my maiden voyage into the sport of sailing (last nautical pun, I promise). The web site page with the schedule of events is uncooperative in loading, but much to my delight there is a phone number listed on the home page for “General Questions”. See, being the communications Neanderthal that I am, I actually prefer to talk to a person when I have a question. Weird, I know.
So I called the host site for the U.S. Youth Sailing Championships, the Cabrillo Beach Yacht Club. A very pleasant woman answered the phone and asked what she could do for me. And it was at that point that I realized that I didn’t even know enough about sailing to ask even the most basic of questions. Like what time was…OK, not tip-off…not kickoff…not faceoff, or post time…the starting gun maybe?
Me: “What time does the race start?”
She: “Well, First Warning Signal is at 12:30, you know…”
Me (silently channeling my inner Jetson’s dog Astro): “Ruh-ro Reorge”
Me (out loud): “Is that the time they start sailing? I’d like to see them go off.”
She: “You mean you want to watch the races?”
That should have been my first clue.
She (either amused or annoyed – I’m not sure which): “Well, if you go all the way down to the end of Cabrillo Beach to the jetty, you’ll see the 29ers on the inside course and everybody else on the outside racing area. Trust me, you’ll see the boats.”
I Google Mapped L.A. Harbor, and there it was, big as life – a jetty that went on forever. Sweet. I’ll just read up on the rules, put on some good hiking shoes, drive over to Cabrillo Beach, climb out onto the jetty, and…
Houston, we have a problem.
I scanned the horizon, hoping to see someone else out on the jetty so that I could utilize the “Well he did it too” strategy that proved so effective at the Pac-10 Track & Field Combineds in May. Nothing but seagulls. Not wanting to be the first fan in history to be ejected from a sailing competition, I needed a Plan B.
Fortunately, Plan B – known to his friends and family as Dave Calhoun – just happened to be sitting there in the sand, eyes glued to a set of binoculars – which were a dead giveaway. I knew he was either: (a) an undercover agent monitoring international shipping lanes; or (b) intently tracking the Youth Sailing Championships. I took a chance on the latter.
I learned from Dave that I had indeed come to the right spot and that the competition had just begun. He gave me a brief rundown of the conditions, ending with “the day’s a little bit of a bust – there’s not much air out there”.
I made a note to myself: There’s clearly “windy” and then there’s “sailing windy”. Dave estimated that it had been blowing at 10-12 knots for most of the day, in contrast to the previous day when winds as high as 25 knots motivated the regatta officials to cut short the competition. Which turned out to be fine with the kids once they found out that they didn’t have to actually stop sailing and come in off the water.
Let me think – was I ever that fearless in my youth? Ahhh…no.
Dave was in SoCal with his son Doyle, who with his friend and sailing partner Sean Golden, has been sailing competitively for most of the summer. And doing quite well as it turns out. Coming into this Championship, they had won three events in a row, but on this day things weren’t going quite as well.
Fortunately, there wouldn’t be much time to stew in disappointment, because another event was on the horizon. In fact, on the very near horizon, as Team Calhoun would be packing up quickly after this race and catching a red-eye back home to Massachusetts, where they were scheduled to take part in a three-day racing event in Buzzards Bay that started in less than 48 hours.
Two coasts, two races, three days. It looks like I’ve got a little company here on the Fanatic side of town.
I indicated the fishing pier that ran for a couple hundred yards parallel to the jetty, and asked Dave if the view of the action inside the jetty would be any better at the far end. He smiled and said “Well, a little.” That’s all I needed. I hiked out as far as I could go, and found much to my delight a bevy of sailboats approaching me at a pretty good clip.
Game On! Or is it Race On? Sail On? I really need to invest in a good nautical Thesaurus.
To be continued…