The following essay was written by Tom Peterson, an All-American pool swimmer, at his induction at the Harvard Varsity Club Hall of Fame. While Tom's words are meant for his peers, teammates, family and friends, his words also speak volumes to competitive and committed swimmers of all ages and abilities, including those who do open water swimming.
...Swimmers are a different breed. Many of you who know swimmers or know of them will probably not debate me on this point. And yes, you could say that this is because we are often a bit socially awkward, and actually choose to spend 20 hours a week under water, in isolation, with the exception of 3-second breaks where you are carrying on a conversation in bits and pieces.
We sweat chlorine; it actually comes out of our pours; our hair is so brittle it breaks when we take our shirts on and off; we put our bodies through excruciating things twice a day, one of which times is disturbingly early. We can spot a fellow swimmer from 10 yards out because the sport actually transforms our bodies to become more efficient in the water - well, that and we also tend to be a bit awkward on land. We can sleep standing up, are known to take naps several times a day and we don’t really have an "off-season". We talk about things like negative splits, buoys and paddles, conseys and finals, going to "The Show", anchor legs, and 4, 6 and 8 beat kicks. And, while many non-swimmers know that we shave our bodies on a regular basis, we also occasionally wear panty hose in the pool. We are not normal.
I have been asked so many times while I was swimming, why I did it? Why did I spend 11 months a year doing 10 practices a week for 25-30 hours of training time, covering 8-10 miles a day and 50 miles a week in the water, not to mention the time spent in drives or walks to and from practice? The answer has always been the same. It is who I am and it is in my blood. There is pure joy in being able to master a substance that is so foreign to others. There is elegance and simplicity and knowing that whether you beat your best time, and whether you win a race comes down only to you and how hard you’ve trained, how hard you wanted it. When you are no longer swimming, you realize how illusive defining victory can be in other venues and how diffused the outcome can be from your effort. The work world just doesn’t come with a pace clock, or a scoreboard or electronic touchpads.
Swimming is mostly, and is at its core, an individual sport. What is so incredible about...swimming is that it transforms a bunch of individuals competing (often against each other, at times on relays with each other) into a brotherhood that transcends generations. I have an affinity and a kinship with those Harvard Swimmers who came before me, and those who came after. I feel that I know exactly what they are experiencing, the nature of their friendships and the quality of their experience. I know that they, like I, have bonds with their teammates that will last a lifetime.
Part of the reasons behind the closeness of these bonds is that which happens when any group goes through a difficult challenge together. It is akin to the Marine’s emerging from Paris Island, the shared experience of putting your body through incredible challenge and emerging stronger, more confident and with the knowledge that your closest friends were there with you.
But this doesn’t fully capture the full essence of the brotherhood that is Harvard Swimming. The rest of it exists because of the constancy and tradition across the past 77 years. Regardless of the year, the coach we swam under, or whether we had suits that cover much of our body, or very little of it; we share a common identity...
...I would like to thank my college roommates, who were so supportive of me through four years of "keeping the noise down" and wild mood swings from lack of sleep; my teammates, in particular Donny, Stephen, John, Brent, Chris and Sean, who cheered me on, even when we competed against each other; for my coaches in particular Joe Bernal, Mike Chasson, and Matt Kredich who had such different styles, but made such a tremendous impact on me in different ways; the University for giving me a chance to represent this incredible institution; and, mostly my parents, who sacrificed so much to let me have this experience. You all mean more to me than words could possibly express.
Photo of Beijing Olympic 10K Marathon Swim race by Kevork Djansezian.
Copyright © 2009 by World Open Water Swimming Association