Here’s a story I wrote four years ago that was published in our local newspaper; people seemed to like it then, so maybe you will too?  Photos added now to show Annie’s zest for life!

Annie loves to play!

Santa Clara,California– May 15, 2008 through May 18, 2008

Walla Walla Swim Club coach Dustin Perry, my daughter Annie and I recently travelled to Santa Clara, California, where Annie swam in the Santa Clara International Invitational.  It’s part of the Toyota Grand Prix series that attracts many of the best swimmers in the world.  We arrived at the George Haines pool in Santa Clara on Thursday morning, before the distance freestyle events.  Endless freeways darting in all directions caused plenty of confusion.  Ultimately, we arrived at 50 meters of water, much like Pasco, Wenatchee or Spokane.  The water was quite salty, according to Annie, but it was much like other pools.  Well, not exactly.  Here we stood on hallowed swimming grounds.  Mark Spitz stroked these waters.  Haines walked this concrete as he coached the Santa Clara Swim Club to fame.  Dick Jochums did likewise as he returned the team to its former glory.  The mighty shaded grandstand bellowed the status of swimming in these parts.  Rumor has it that they plan to tear it all down soon, only to build a bigger and better grandstand with two fifty meter pools, both much deeper, and thereby faster, than the old one.  After all, it’s an old school pool, 4.5 feet deep at the ends and 6.5 feet deep in the middle.  It’s nothing special, but it’s so very special!  The flags of twenty-five nations flew over the forty-first edition of this famous swim meet.  The statue of Haines continues to look out over this pool with amazing history and tradition, home to a club that boasts of “developing champions since 1951.”  Michael Phelps comes here each year to cement his place in swimming lore.  It felt like I imagine golfing at St. Andrews or watching football at Lambeau Field would be like.  We joined with decades of history to celebrate the sport of swimming with people who truly appreciate it.  The thousands of dollars and hours of training were well invested.  This was living fully! 

Annie swam a light workout before we headed to San Francisco.  The Golden Gate Bridge has a cool park near it, with a view of Alcatraz.  While the pool in Santa Clara was sweltering in unseasonable 100 degree weather, it was pleasant near the bay.  The majesty of the historic bridge and Bay area can not be done justice in word or in photos.  To fully appreciate it, it must be experienced first hand.  We saw cable cars, steep hills, tremendous views, spectacular homes and hippie heaven.  The sixties live on!

The weather for Friday’s preliminary heats was extremely hot, perhaps 100 degrees.  Annie swam a 400 freestyle time trial eleven seconds faster than she’d ever gone before.  The parade of flags before finals was inspiring, as were the international athletes.  Davis Tarwater, Phelps’ teammate, broke Phelps’ meet record in the 200 butterfly final, finishing strongly.  Phelps was equally impressive in the 400 individual medley; no one seems to challenge him in this event.  Brendan Hansen was strong, as usual, in the 100 breaststroke.  His upper body muscles resemble a body builder.  The strong, rippling and flexible muscles of elite swimmers and their minimal body fat are awe-inspiring.  A strong breeze for finals and eventual shade were welcome relief from the blistering afternoon sun.  The evening breezes were typical.  It became easy to understand the popularity of this meet: top athletes from around the world competed in a pleasant setting in front of supportive fans and extensive media.

The media frenzy was a new experience for me.  At one point, I counted twelve photographers shooting Phelps.  With all the photographers and advertisements between each starting block, the deck ends were very crowded.   Annie knew things were a little different here when there was a camera in her face upon arrival on the first day of the meet.

Most of the big time coaches were there with their best athletes.  Pablo Morales, coach for the University of Nebraska, spoke at Saturday’s officials’ meeting.  His legendary butterfly earned him four gold medals at two different Olympic Games.  Though he did consider quitting, he never regretted the hours invested or the sacrifices made to be the best he could be, which for him was the best in the world.  Being great appears way more fun than being good.  I’ve been good or mediocre at many things in my life, but I’ve never invested the time and effort to be great.  My sense is that greatness is a magnification of how I feel about everything when I’m getting a lot of regular exercise: life is good! 

The overall feel of the meet was electric, somewhat like an endorphin rush.  I liken it to my youthful golfing days.  The difference between this meet and the local meets I attend was like the difference between shooting a score of 80 and my lifetime best of 73.  Both are good, but one is memorably special.  The explosion of energy as incredible athletes launch from their starting blocks defies description.

For this meet, swimmers were divided into “A” and “B” flights, so that elite finalists could finish preliminaries earlier to rest for finals.  Some events had fewer entrants, so some women’s events had no men’s events in between.  Annie was scheduled for the last “B” heat of the 200 freestyle and the first “B” heat of the 100 backstroke.  As a result, she was scheduled for two heats in a row; she and Coach Perry were forced to choose which event to skip.  They scratched the 200 freestyle and Annie just missed her lifetime best in the 100 backstroke.

Saturday’s finals were very exciting.  Watching Natalie Coughlin’s extensive stretching session was intriguing; she used small balls to stretch her toes and feet.  She attributes her exceptionally strong kick to her flexibility and, of course, years of diligent practice.  She stretched a lot on deck and a little more behind the blocks in her pre-race routine.  She then swam a meet record 59.44 in finals, equal to her world record before she broke it in February at the Missouri Grand Prix (which I was lucky enough to be on deck to see!).  Almost all events enjoyed meet records in finals on Saturday, including Peter Vanderkaay’s American record in the 400 freestyle.  Aaron Peirsol and Phelps staged a classic battle in the 200 backstroke.  Phelps grabbed a small lead early, Peirsol battled back for a small lead of his own and Phelps closed at the finish.  Peirsol won by .03 seconds; it was one of the best races I’ve ever seen.

The camaraderie between coaches, swimmers and officials is like instant family, wherever you go.  Many know each other from years of attending big meets together.  It felt like home to me, perhaps aided by encountering three officials I’d worked with before and some big meet familiarity created by our trip to the Missouri Grand Prix.

At Sunday’s officials meeting, Scott Goldblatt spoke about his Olympic experiences in 2000 and 2004 and about his current passion: promoting swimming online via swimnetwork.com.  He’s partnering with USA Swimming to showcase the sport in a new era.

On the last day of the meet, it was pleasantly warm.  Annie’s 200 backstroke was the last event of the day, just before time trials, so she skipped it to focus her efforts on a time trial of the 100 backstroke.  Curiously, I was the starter for time trials on this day.  Annie listened to her coach, went out fast, improved her kick and qualified for USA Swimming’s Junior National Championships.  Her long-time goal was realized!  Her beaming smile told the whole story.  We celebrated with sushi and soda!

Rich Robinson gave me feedback on my starting.  I learned that he would have likely been a starter for the 2012 Olympics in London if FINA hadn’t changed its age requirements for officials.   He’s started multiple National Championships and turned down an offer to be head starter for this year’s Olympic trials so that others could have a chance.  His advice on patience, calmness and positioning is treasured.

Disqualifying swimmers for rules violations is part of life for an official.  It’s frequent at many meets, but quite rare at Grand Prix meets.  On Sunday evening, I had to disqualify a swimmer in the “B” final of the men’s 100 backstroke for not surfacing by the 15 meter mark. Though I felt bad for him, it was a reminder that we treat swimmers equally, whether they are six-year-old novices or 25-year-old professionals.  I nearly made it through an entire meet without disqualifying a swimmer for the first time in my seven-year officiating career.  Maybe next time I will?  In the “A” final of the men’s 100 backstroke Phelps, Peirsol and several others used the entire 15 meters before surfacing.  Underwater swimming is faster, every detail counts, and they’ve practiced it so many times.  Phelps beat Peirsol in backstroke for the first time.  Phelps also won the 100 freestyle final from lane 9, meaning he was the slowest preliminary swimmer to qualify for the championship final.  I wonder what his coach, Bob Bowman, would have said to him if he’d not made the “A” final.  Phelps also won the 200 individual medley, giving him three wins for the night.  It was truly a pleasure and a privilege to watch the greatest athlete of all time in the prime of his career, particularly in such an intimate setting.  Millions of us around the world will watch him on our television screens as he powers through the water at the Olympic Trials and the Olympics.  Perhaps taking a cue from Phelps’ exploits, Eric Vendt swam to an American Record in the 1,500 meter freestyle final.  He went out fast and stayed fast all the way!  It was a fitting way to close out a great meet.

Sleeping on a pillow too thick, missing my exercise routine, facing short nights of sleep and overexposure to sun and heat; why do I still officiate?  Because I get to serve a sport I passionately believe in and I meet a lot of wonderful people along the way.  It happened by chance and it’s become one of the best parts of my life.  Officials are right next to the action, getting rare glimpses into the thrills and the agony.  We watch kids mature into active, responsible adults.  Sometimes, they become incredibly motivated high achievers.  They represent the essence of progressive society, pushing the boundary between what is perceived to be possible or impossible.  What might be?  With great coaching, they learn to believe in and even expect great outcomes.  First they let go of excuses and then they embrace great challenges.  It’s the American way!

I think it’s the Australian way too.  The Aussie women dominated the gold medals in freestyle at Santa Clara.  The United States men did likewise.  Are they faster?  Were they more rested?  It adds great intrigue to this Olympic year.  Many mysteries will be solved when the United States Olympic trials are held in Omaha, Nebraska in early July. Only fifty-six slots are available to thousands of talented American swimmers, each of whom would love to have the title “Olympian” associated with their name.  Perhaps even greater suspense will play out later: who will be fastest in the Beijing Olympics in August?

Coach Dustin Perry has rehabilitated, coaxed, pushed, taught and inspired Annie to achieve both Senior Sectional and Junior National qualifying times in just fifteen months.  Previously, she had a three-month layoff due to an injured shoulder that threatened her career.  In recent months, Annie has added nearly daily runs to her already heavy workout schedule.  It’s because she dreams big and expects great outcomes!  Coach Perry has led many swimmers to dramatic improvements in personal accountability, positivity, physical condition and performance.  I’m very curious to see what levels they’ll decide to achieve.  To have access to this high level coaching is an exciting opportunity!

Annie & Zach enjoying lake time!

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