Some of my swimmers dabbing at practice. I love these kids.

When I walked into the pool area yesterday, one of my swimmers was waiting for me. She looked up at me with doleful eyes. The corners of her mouth were turned down. Way down.

“What’s wrong?” I asked, crouching down to talk with her.

She pressed her lips together and I could see her lower lip quivering.

“Is this because you moved up?” I asked. Technically, she wasn’t my swimmer anymore. She had moved up to the next group.

Almost imperceptibly, she nodded yes.

“Aw, Genna*,” I said, “we talked about this the other day. You are so ready to be part of the Orange group. Plus Coach Katy is super-fun, so much more fun than I am.”

She looked up at me doubtfully.

“Don’t worry about the warm-up. Coach Katy will tell you what to do,” I told Genna. “It’s different from ours, but you can do it.”

I was running out of encouraging/reassuring things to say to this sad little girl who obviously didn’t like change.

“Coach Sally,” she finally said in a tiny voice. I leaned in to hear what she had to say. “Coach Katy doesn’t have lollipops like you do.”

I laughed. At the beginning of the season, Genna had hung back, hesitant to try anything.

“What can I do to motivate her?” I asked her sister one day.

“Candy,” she replied.

I bought a bag of dum-dums. They were magical.

Yesterday I whispered to Genna, “I’ll give some lollipops to Coach Katy. Would that be good?”

Immediately her face brightened and off she went with her new coach. I sighed and headed to my lanes where my swimmers were already warming-up.

I studied the swimmers who were in the water. “Where’s Bern*?” I asked.

Bern had just moved into my group. Katy spotted him and brought him over to me. He stood shivering beside me, chewing on his goggle strap.

“They’re finishing their warm-up,” I told him. “You can get in and do 100 freestyle. We’ll be moving on to something else soon.”

He didn’t respond. His expression was inscrutable as he stared at the water and chewed his goggles.

“Do you know any of the other kids in this group?” I asked.

He took his goggle strap out of his mouth. “I don’t want to warm up,” he said.

“Warm-ups are important,” I said, and was about to launch into a mini-treatise on warming up when his mother came into the pool area and called him over.

Bern went over, stood in front of her, and immediately burst into tears.

I backed away. I had a dozen or so kids in the water who needed attention. Mom could talk to Bern.

I handed out kickboards and explained what we would be doing.  The kids started their kick set. Every so often I looked back at Bern. He and his mother were having quite a têteà-tête. Finally I saw Bern drying his tears.

Soon his newly-dried face wouldn’t matter because he jumped in the water and started swimming. He did fine.

At the end of practice his mother told me, “Bern doesn’t like change.”

“Neither do I,” I told her.

She said, “He told me, ‘I don’t care about swimming fast. I just want to swim with my brothers.'” His two younger brothers were still in the group he had graduated from.

With that, I appreciated Bern so much more.

We all hold onto things that are sweet and dear.

For Genna, it’s candy.

For Bern, it’s his brothers.

For me, it’s a thousand little things I want to freeze in time instead of watching my father age.

But time marches on, and change comes with it.

It will be okay.


*not their real name





I repeat the word “streamline” at least a dozen times every I’m on the deck.  I probably say it in my sleep.

What I mean by streamline is what Michael Phelps is doing in this picture:

It’s pretty straightforward (no pun intended).

A couple of seasons ago I showed my swimmers the Michael Phelps picture, and then photographed them imitating it. I got quite a few variations on the streamline theme.

We work on streamline at every single practice.

I demonstrate while standing on the deck. I show them pictures. I stand behind them on deck and squeeze their little arms against their head, holding them in the correct position. I have them watch other swimmers in the pool who are doing it correctly. Still, streamline is a struggle and ends up in conversations like this:

Me (speaking to Cute Little Swimmer –or CLS — after watching her forget to streamline): Hey, CLS — when you leave the wall for backstroke, I want you to hold your streamline.

CLS: I do.

I watched her again, and then tried different words to explain it to her.

Me: When you leave the wall for backstroke, you’re doing a good job getting those arms up into streamline, but what you’re doing immediately after is pulling them to your side.

CLS: No, I don’t.

Me (pretending I didn’t hear that): This time really think about holding your arms above your head until you’re ready to take that first stroke.

The next time, I took pictures. Here she is, leaving the wall. Her arms were heading towards streamline.But then she disappeared under the water, and I couldn’t see what was happening.

When I saw her right arm, it was out to the side. Not in streamline.

Then both arms were at her side.
She tried to get them back up into streamline.

But she pulled them down again.

When she came back to the wall, I showed her the pictures.

She looked at them, rather disbelievingly.

“I can’t do it,” she finally said to me. “I have asthma.”

It was my turn for disbelief.

Once I had a swimmer tell me she couldn’t kick at practice because she had gotten new boots. “My feet are still getting used to them,” she said. But she obviously wasn’t wearing her boots in the pool. And her feet looked fine.

I’ll keep working on streamline with my group.

At every practice.

Some day maybe CLS will get it.

The Perfect Job

My home away from home. At 5:30 AM, so serene.

“It must be boring,” said one of the swimmers this morning, “just watching people swim back and forth.”

No. It really isn’t. Something about the rhythmic splash-splash-splash of a single person swimming down the pool is very Zen — and I say that in the most Christian way possible.

It’s meditative. Contemplative.

Add in a few more swimmers, each with their own rhythm of splashes, and it’s a trio, a quartet, a quintet.




I also love my co-workers. I hadn’t realized how much I missed people, until I was spending time in quiet conversation with another lifeguard every weekday morning.

When I go back later in the day to coach, the atmosphere is totally different.

Confusion. Cacophony. Unbridled energy.

Forty to fifty swimmers fill the lanes. The youngest group splashes with their coach in the shallow teaching pool working on skills, or playing a game, or both. A couple of other swimmers practice a specific skill or do a late warm-up in the diving pool. Young swimmers are everywhere.

This, too, is perfect for me. The hustle-bustle-excitement of coaching. Both frustrating and rewarding. A puzzle to solve as I try to figure out what makes each child tick. I watch to see what skills they need to develop, and I fall asleep thinking about how to help one swimmer learn to dive, and another master the breaststroke kick.

Three hours a day. That’s all I work at a paying job.

Don’t tell them — but I think I would do it for free.

Two hours of quiet. One hour of craziness.

A perfect ratio.

And the perfect change of pace to balance out my time as a caregiver.

How did I get so lucky?



The Record Board

Whenever I go to a pool, my eyes are drawn to the record board.

It’s kind of funny, because I haven’t always been a fan of the record board. Helen still holds over 20 age-group records at the pool in Cooperstown — the earliest from when she was 8 years old, and the latest from when she was 13. Then we moved, and she started racking up high school records in Greene.

Margaret in the middle

A couple of years ago, I caught one of the swimmers in my group staring at the record board in Cooperstown.

“Do you know Helen Zaengle?” she asked.

“I do,” I told her. “She’s my daughter, and she’s Laurel’s sister.”

“Wow,” Margaret said. “She has a lot of records. I’m going to break some of them.”

That was the moment my feelings about the record board changed.

Helen was very good at swimming from a young age. She loved winning races — although there was one time when she asked me why she couldn’t get a rainbow ribbon (the ribbon handed out for participation); all her ribbons were blue.

The record board wasn’t posted at the time, and, quite frankly, I think Helen and I were both unaware of all the records. When the record board went up, part of me felt a little embarrassed because I never sensed that Helen was swimming for the glory of the record board or all the accolades. She swam with the truest sense of the amateur — a love of the sport.

But I worked in the pool these last few years with all those records at my back, and I tried not to look at them. Don’t misunderstand — I am very proud of Helen, but not because she rules the record board. I just think she’s wonderful.

Margaret helped me to see that the records are goals for other swimmers, not to induce pride, but to produce hard work.

Michael Phelps said, “Goals should never be easy,” and Margaret took that to heart. She’s 10 years old now and continues to push herself harder than her peers. She still hasn’t made it to the record board, but I have no doubt that she will.

Laurel swimming breaststroke

Last year, Laurel made it to the record board, by breaking a record that had been up there since before Helen was even born. 11-12 100 Breaststroke.

This year Laurel was studying the records to see if there were any she was close to.

“How about that one,” I said, pointing to 13-14 200 Breaststroke. “I think that one is do-able, maybe not this year, but next.”

The name next to the record: Helen Zaengle.

Helen called me right up. “I heard you told Laurel to break my record,” she said.

“Heck, yes, I did,” I replied.

“I think that would be great,” she said.

She holds her records with open hands, bidding other swimmers to take them, and I think that makes me even prouder than all the records combined.


The Role of Timers

misc 0048 & Under swimmers swarm around the pool deck like ants on a sidewalk. Some are aimless, while others seem to know where they are going.

Clueless. That’s often the word I use to describe 8-and-unders.

Mama can’t hover on the deck. Only those who are supposed to be there can.

Guards — aka Meet Marshalls — protect the entrances. Most coaches and officials wear their credentials on a lanyard.  Swimmers enter through the locker-rooms; their suits and goggles are their credentials. The other support staff — the timers, the timing table, the meet marshals themselves, the ribbon writers and heat winner awarders — are either known to the people running the meet or wear a lanyard identifying their role.

Of these, my heart always goes out to the timers.

Timing is the first role most parents get to play to help at a meet.

“What if I do it wrong?” new parents ask.

“We’ll train you,” is the usual response.

Start – Stop – Reset. Those are the only three buttons that really matter on the stopwatch for the timers.

Start the watch — not at the sound of horn but when you see the strobe. It’s important for parent/timers to understand this for two reasons — 1) since light travels faster than sound, it may be slightly more accurate, and 2) the strobe is why no flash photography is allowed at the start of a race. Swimmers who learn to watch for the strobe may react to a flash from a camera and be charged with a false start.

Stop when you see the hand touch the pad. That means you have to stand where you can see that happen which isn’t behind the blocks.

Reset. Write the times on the clipboard as fast as you can and reset; the next race starts almost immediately.

One of the officials I work with loves to tell the story of how he decided to become an official. “I couldn’t write fast enough,” he says, laughing. “After I got yelled at one too many times, I said, ‘Hang this — I’m going to become an official!'”

Timers are the unsung heroes of swim meets. They are moms and dads who come out of the stands and work the deck. Their feet get wet. They miss their own child’s finish because they have to watch the lane assigned to them. They get yelled at and blamed for all sorts of stuff. They are expected to make sure swimmers are in the right heat and the right lane, get up on the blocks, and have their goggles on. And all of that is mostly the swimmer’s responsibility.

Which brings me to yesterday.

I was standing on the side of the pool as a stroke official. That means I walked along the side watching the strokes to make sure everything was in accordance with the rules of that stroke. No flutter kick during butterfly, stay on the back for backstroke, toes pointed out for breaststroke kick, and so on.

The referee blew the whistle for 8 & Under girls 50 backstroke. Seven girls hopped in the water and grabbed hold of the wall. One lane was empty.

I looked at my program to see who was missing. It was a little girl from a team in our league. I could see her standing behind the timers, wrapped in her towel, shivering, looking clueless. I wished with all my heart that the timers would turn around and see her, but they were talking.

The starter said, “Take your mark.”


After the horn, the timers parted and saw the little girl. I watched them look at the clipboard and start talking. I shifted my attention to the swimmers in the water.

“What just happened?” her coach asked.

“She was right there behind the blocks,” I told her. The coach bustled over to the meet referee to see if they could get her in another heat, but no dice.

The ruling was that it was the swimmer’s responsibility to get in the water. The timers didn’t prevent that. The swimmer didn’t try to get through.

She was clueless as to what was going on probably because other people are always looking out for her.

Which is part of why I love the sport of swimming.

From an early age, swimmers learn to take responsibility for themselves. They have to pay attention.

It’s small stakes when they don’t. A missed race. A possible missed ribbon.

But the world keeps spinning and another race will come.

Or you can blame the timer and teach kids that they are never responsible for the things that happen.

It’s those blasted volunteers with wet feet who sacrificed something who are at fault.




This is the pool where the meet was held in which Laurel swam:img_1316-1

This is the  bulkhead upon which I stood judging the turns of competitive swimmers who swam in the pool where the meet was held in which Laurel swam:img_1318

This the coffee that lacked flavor and oomph that I drank before I went to the pool and stood on the bulkhead judging the turns of competitive swimmers who swam in the pool where the meet was held in which Laurel swam:img_1315

This is the bed where I didn’t get much sleep so I needed the coffee that lacked flavor and oomph that I drank before I went to the pool and stood on the bulkhead judging the turns of competitive swimmers who swam in the pool where the meet was held in which Laurel swam:img_1313

I’m home, tired, and going to bed early.

Good night.





Swimming Posters

I loved the idea of reenacting a piece of art for this week’s photo challenge: Life Imitates Art

But what to do?

I asked Laurel if she would sit on my lap and put her hand on my cheek, like a Mary Cassatt painting, but she said no. It probably would have looked kind of strange anyway. She may be my baby, but she’s taller than me now.

So — swimming. I decided to ask my swimmers to recreate some swimming posters.

This one — Michael Phelps doing streamline — I just wanted them to see. Streamline is such a foundational skill. We work on it from Day 1 of swim season — and still, about half look nothing like this, hand over hand, squeezing the head.

Michael Phelps — Streamline

I stood on the balcony and took pictures of each swimmer leaving the wall in streamline. For you photo-geeks, all I have is a little Sony Cyber-shot that I bought on sale at Target for $59. I guess you get in clarity what you pay for.

DSC05572 (1)


Still, it was a great learning experience for the kids. I showed each one the picture I had taken of them and we talked about how they could make their streamlines even better.

For fun, at the end of practice, we tried to recreate another swim poster.

I pulled our little Kodak PlaySport out of retirement (it can take underwater photographs), charged it up, and prayed that it would work.  Laurel was the photographer as each one of my swimmers did a cannonball off the diving board. This was the best shot.



Or this one.



So — thank you Daily Post for the photo challenge. I may not be much of a photographer, but this was fun.