Sunday, August 10, 2008

In Which Michael Phelps Gives Me Hope

I've never really been one for Olympics mania, although this year is a bit of an exception; if all the buzz about Dara Torres and her sick, 41 year old, post-baby body can't do it for you, what can?

My current interest in Olympic swimming isn't, I suppose, a huge surprise. Once upon a time, I was a competitive swimmer. In sixth grade, I joined the swim team for the best of all possible reasons: because the cute boy that I liked was a swimmer. Of course, he had been doing it for years, and so it's not as if I got to practice with him, which is just as well. What kind of love-struck pre-teen strategy puts you in close contact with your objet de amor while you're dressed in a swimsuit, for crying out loud? [Also quite sadly, the cute boy went on to set regional records, attend two practices a day, and develop a wicked case of tendonitis as a teenager. By the time I met up with him in high school, he was doing coke on weekends with friends.]

I stuck with swimming through junior high. Looking back, I think I approached it in a totally uncharacteristic way; I had little interest in winning or competing. I went to the pool, ground out my 100 laps, went home, showered, ate, and fell asleep doing homework. I was utterly surprised when I went to meets and won, and didn't think much about it afterwards. I was generally too caught up in what a complete spaz I was: in one meet, I managed to cut my knee open on a lane line during a 100 meter backstroke (I'm still not sure how that's possible). At the end of the race, I was standing on the lip of the pool, panting, and one of the judges asked me to get out because I was bleeding in the water. In freestyle, I had a wretched dive in which I always managed to lose my goggles in one way or another---they'd either end up around my neck, or better yet, they'd flip down, fill with chlorinated water, and flip back up onto my eyes again. These incidents loomed much larger in my mind than accumulated medals, and so once I had satisfied my high school phys ed requirement, I happily quit.

I didn't start exercising regularly again until I was studying for my qualifying exams in college, and thus began a flirtatious affair with elliptical machines, weights, kickboxing classes, at-home walking tapes, running, and yoga. Some of these have been more long-standing than others. I caved to some sick form of peer pressure when I was at Cornfield College and surrounded by runners. In successive years, I ran a 5k and a 10 mile race. After the second, I promptly discovered I'd depressed my immune system so badly that I broke out in hives eating things that I'd always liked (jalapenos). Note to self: not a runner. Don't love it, suck at it, although given the appropriate motivation, I can make it work.

Yoga was the same way. Urbania is rife with yoga studios, and with enough urging I was convinced to go for two years. Thought it was good for me, felt pretty good doing it, but never quite committed all the way. There are certain things about yoga that make me frustrated: my arms are too short to bind well; I don't love the idea of other people breathing around me (I hear that misanthropy may go against yogic philosophy); then there's all the touching---hate the touching.

So where does swimming come in? Well, I picked up my cap and goggles a few weeks ago, and took myself to the indoor pool at our gym. It's a short pool, but mostly empty (since the outdoor one is the big draw). After a session or two, I've managed to work up to a mile, which seems like a decent distance.

Swimming as an adult is deeply solitary; there's no noise except that sound of your breath and the water. It involves both monotony (lap after lap of the same view) and constant attention (to form and the relationship of your limbs to the water). Then there's this description of Phelps, from the NYTimes article "Built to Swim":
But he is a type within that type, with a bizarrely long torso and short legs -- an inseam of just 32 inches -- that help him ride high in the water like a long, thin sailboat. The body below hip level is what tends to sag in the water, creating drag, or resistance, so Phelps, relative to his overall height, has a short lower body to keep afloat. ''He has the upper body of a man who is 6-foot-8 but not the legs to go with it,'' says Jonty Skinner, USA Swimming's national team director of technical support. ''It's an advantage.''
I hereby nominate Michael Phelps as an honorary Asian. This is the body type that has plagued me forever. Why do I wear heels, people ask? Because my legs are freakishly short. From hip to head, I'm 5'8", but from hip to ankle I'm 5'. As my favorite colleague (NOT) has said to me: "Well, that's just the stereotypical Asian body, isn't it?" Perhaps, and fuck you.

Regardless, it's delightful to think that the body type that I've always perceived as freakish and unsuitable for sports (believe me, it makes running and biking that much more difficult) actually gives me a leg up somewhere. I'll let you know when I'm breaking my own world records. And in the meantime, it's nice to see that Phelps and I share one more quality:
Phelps has one glaring weakness as a swimmer, and predictably, it is a land-based movement: he is consistently slow diving off the starting blocks. At the Santa Clara meet, the crowd gasped as he slipped off the block on one start and all but belly-flopped into the water -- a typical racing dive for an 8-and-under in his first Saturday morning meet but shocking for someone at Phelps's level.

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