I asked myself this Saturday morning at my next attempt to swim 200 yards straight of butterfly: what the heck does this have to do with Truth, Justice, and the American Way? This is nuts.
Near the end of my workout, I completed a 50, and then two more 25s, and then the lifeguard said it was time to get out. I was about to tell her about my Mission, but then realized that if she complied, I’d have to swim four more laps, so I called it a day and rode my bike to get some coffee instead.
Maybe you are wondering what that this Mission is. Before I get to that, I should explain my issue with butterfly. It is common. My issue with butterfly is that unless you are a freak of nature with tweaked shoulders, butterfly is the most difficult and possibly the most stupid of swim strokes ever invented. If I should ever fall off a cruise ship and be forced to swim for survival, butterfly would be my last choice. Only if I felt I had no hope left, and would want to exhaust myself into unconsciousness, would I choose this stroke.
For some people, it is a source of joy, and I believe that correlates to one’s flexibility. Take my old college roommate Brigitte. Her shoulders were so nimble all those years ago, and her arms so long, she could touch both of her elbows in front of her. This is probably still the case. This was fun to see at college parties, especially when we were dancing to ABBA. She swam fly it every day at practice for thousands of yards at a time, making it look smooth and effortless.
Butterfly is not effortless for me, and yet, apparently to the naked eye, I make it look easy. It’s not true, however, especially as I near the end of the second lap, when heart thumps in my chest and ears, my arms drag along the water’s surface, and I panic as I lift my head to breathe, wondering is this the stroke when I’m going to die?
Now I can’t stop swimming it. It had become a symbol for me, as my former swim coach from my junior college swim team was sentenced to forty years in prison, having pleaded no contest to twenty counts of child molestation in a serial pattern spanning the last thirty years.
I was not one of his molestation victims, but I thought he was a jerk. He was terrible to me. I’m not going to get into the worst part, but on a good day, he was obsessed with butterfly, among other things.
At last Friday’s sentencing, the psychiatrist who spoke on behalf of the defense, in attempt to demonstrate how treatment, not prison, would change this man for the better, said that what turned this coach down this path of brainwashing entire swim teams to tolerate his abuse so he could abuse young girls even more, was something his first girlfriend told him in his first act of intimacy. She humiliated him. She told him he didn’t know how to use his “butterfly muscles.”
Naturally, it follows that he would be attracted to twelve year old girls instead. They would be too inexperienced to know any better. This is what the psychiatrist said. Thirty years of trauma can be undone with treatment.
I wanted to puke.
A friend there later assured me that, no, he was lying to get some kind of sympathy, to rationalize the abuse, he had to be, don’t connect it with butterfly, and I believe she is right. Still, he was obsessed with butterfly, much more than any coach known to human kind. Let’s say, not even the team I swam with in Eastern Europe in the early 90s swam that much butterfly. His favorite warm up was 10 x 200 fly.
This particular summer, when I was 18, I had a fear of butterfly, this coach told me. This was evidenced in my first ever attempt at the 200 fly, at an age group meet one summer between my freshman and sophomore years at my junior college. He was there, because he coached an age group team, too.
Everyone else on my age group team had the good sense to scratch out of the event, because it is so ridiculous, but me. I was the only one who swam it in the whole Olympic sized pool. I am not saying this was why my performance was so poor. It was poor because I was so weak and the 200 fly is ridiculous.
My friends now back from lunch cheered for me at the other end of the pool. They were holding Burger King soda cups. A Coke would have tasted so good. I really should have scratched that event and gone to lunch with them.
“Uh, you looked, um, smooth?” said Ed when it was over. He burped.
“Yeah. You sure make it look pretty,” my said Becca. “French fry?”
My time was the slowest time on record for anyone at the Pleasanton Seahawks and I wonder if that record still stands? I did not purposely seek this knowledge, but I later overheard my girlfriends laughing about it, wondering how I could possibly live with myself, swimming that slowly.
If only they knew that I had received my punishment, maybe they would have been more forgiving?
I am slow at the 200 fly, as my junior college coach explained, because I am afraid of it.
I would not doubt this. Butterfly, as I’ve said, defies common sense. You are supposed to make two big circles with your arms, and lift them both out of the water at the same time.
To help me conquer this fear, this coach designed a special workout. I was to drive all the way to Pleasanton to Hayward on a Saturday morning, for my own special practice, just him and me, after the first morning practice was done. He was going to help me conquer this fear, with this special workout:
1000 meters warm up
30 minutes scream therapy
x number of 200 fly until I improved my time at that meet
The 30 minute scream therapy was the hardest part. He gave up on me on the last set, telling me to just get out.
The scream therapy set I did complete. It consisted of me clinging to the wall, staring into the pool gutter, while he wondered out loud about what was wrong with me. It didn’t start with screaming. He built up to it, but when he reached full volume, his voice bounced off the surrounding buildings’ walls. I was a trembling, crying mess.
He said that there was something wrong with me, because no one can naturally swim that slowly, that I would have to want to swim that slowly, that I was stubborn. He blamed the coaches on my age group team in Pleasanton for making me this slow, that only he could see the real talent that I possessed, that no one else could.
Near the end of this screaming set, Mr. Brown, the PE instructor, ambled by.
“Tell Mr. Brown your time in the 200 fly,” this coach said.
“Please. It was slow, okay?”
“Tell him your time.”
Mr. Brown stifled a laugh.
The star swimmer on our junior college team walked by.
“Tell her your time,” he said. “Go ahead.”
She laughed, too.
So yes. It’s actually documented in various sports journals that screaming, ridicule, and name calling are effective methods to bring out the best in people. I certainly never swam the 200 fly again. I dreaded fly.
A couple of years later, when I was swimming for Cal State University, Bakersfield, I did have some personal success in the 50 and the 100 fly. I was still quite afraid of it, but could muscle through four laps, at least. But at my last college meet ever, at the conference championships, I bettered my personal record by two seconds from just that afternoon, and that had been a PR, too.
Afterwards, my coach asked where that came from. She said she had no idea that I was a butterflier.
I didn’t know I was a butterflier. I was mad at my teammate who was in the lane next to me, I had nothing to lose, and I sprinted every lap as hard as I could. It turns out, that’s how you’re supposed to swim the 100 fly, but I’d always tried to pace myself, so I could finish it. This was the only time I could ever recall feeling like I was flying, for four whole laps. I could do anything, I thought. Then it was over.
In the days leading up to his sentencing of this pedophile, I had decided that eight laps of butterfly would symbolize Truth, Justice, and the American Way. I wrote about this the other day.
I had a fantasy in my mind that I would now swim the 200 fly every day at swim practice as a symbol of the lifting of all the pain that this man brought to my life. I envisioned that it would be a very slow swim, and not to expect any miracles, but the meaning that I would carry with me was going to be that it didn’t matter.
Several tries later, I officially declare that eight laps of butterfly straight is even more painful than I had remembered, which brings me to last Saturday, when I thought, before I was interrupted, Isn’t this a lot of effort to dedicate one’s suffering to one man who has made so many people’s lives miserable? Am I going to have to think about him every time I do this?
There has to be a stronger, more powerful motivation.
Butterfly is fun. I like it. I think I might be good at it.