Humor by John Christmann

Sinking And Swimming

Feet on a starting block

When the starting gun finally fired and the anxious young swimmers hurled themselves from the starting blocks into the water, Lane 6 was empty and my son was nowhere to be found. “I had to go to the bathroom,” he explained to me later.

I tried to be understanding. After all, he was only six. But after hearing his name—our name—announced repeatedly over the PA system while impatient parents groused about the inconsiderate kid who was delaying the meet, I grew personally embarrassed by his lack of motivation. And I told him so.

He reminds me now that this is why he gave up swimming; because I was upset with him for not peeing in the pool. That and the fact that he didn’t like jumping in cold water wearing a tight swimming suit.

Still, to this day I remain embarrassed for feeling . . . well, embarrassed. After all, his disinterest in swimming was not about me. Even if it was because of me.

When I was in high school I participated in an impossible swimming meet against a rival school. We had never lost to this team, but unless we broke almost every school record, we faced certain defeat.

The annual swimming meet was highly anticipated in and around our schools. And given the stakes, this particular contest was unusually nerve-wracking. I was riddled with angst that I would let my teammates down. Or worse; that I would swim out of my Speedo.

But thanks to Jim McKay and the ABC Wide World of Sports, we understood that the human spirit could triumph even under the most hopeless competitive situations. Even, apparently, when that human spirit was waterlogged. One by one the records fell until the outcome of the meet hinged on the very last relay.

To this day, with only a minimal amount of imaginative editing, I can play that slow-motion sports reel in my head and highlight every fever-pitched detail: hands splashing violently against the wall; fatigued swimmers panting uncontrollably; volunteer timekeepers furiously scanning stop watches; open-mouthed fans waiting for an official ruling.

And suddenly, raucous pandemonium as our time is displayed verifying that we have touched out our rivals and won the meet.

In my highlight reel, my teammate, just out of the water before me, pumps his fist high in the air and celebrates our hard-earned victory by joyously tossing an equally exuberant girl timekeeper into the roiling water. Our record-breaking time is still frozen on her stopwatch as she hits the water.

Unfortunately, our second relay team has yet to finish. Fortunately, the flailing girl misses the surprised swimmer’s head.

My edited ABC replay abruptly cuts to my teammate careening wildly out of control off the end of a 300-foot starting block shaped suspiciously like a ski jump. He has just learned that we have been disqualified as a consequence of his jubilant celebration.

On the other side of the pool, where our rivals previously sat dejected, a new kind of pandemonium breaks loose as we trade in the Thrill of Victory for the Agony of Defeat.

To be honest, as ABC sporting dramas go, I don’t remember feeling all that bad about losing something we won. In fact, it was pretty funny.

But here is what I do remember: I remember the lonely silence in the long corridor leading from the pool. At the far end I can hear an unrestrained voice. It is a father speaking harshly to his despondent teenage swimmer. “I am so embarrassed,” he says. “How could you be so . . . stupid?”

They haven’t even left the school yet.

It is natural to be proud of our children. But pride reflects our own perceived contribution to their success, even if we haven’t offered much more than questionable coaching or an open lane in our gene pool. As fathers, our real test is how we handle the misfortunes, mistakes, and miscues that can fill our kids—and sometimes us—with embarrassment and humiliation.

This weekend I travel to my hometown to participate in a rematch, even though I have forgotten how to swim. The clash is a fun “grudge match” echoing that historic swimming meet ages ago, which I think occurred shortly after water was invented.

Appropriately, it has been dubbed The Geezer Meet.

My son accuses me of reliving my glory days as a dredged boat anchor. I remind him with a warm wink that my glory days are still waiting for me to emerge from the bathroom. No, I tell him, this event is nothing more than an excuse for old friends to drink beer and reminisce over a fleeting, but memorable event in their lives.

Despite endless requests, my former teammate, who I have not seen since high school, will not be attending. I don’t know exactly why, but I do know that splashes in a pool, no matter how insignificant they may seem, can ripple a lifetime.

And that a son’s mistake should never, ever be about his father.