Leanne Shapton spends a day at the pool

… 20 years after her last Olympic trials

Sunday, July 29, 2012, Day 2, Swimming

8 a.m. Wake to alarm. Check phone. Read email from my mom declaring, “Phelps dethroned!” Head to my computer to watch footage, but am diverted by an email from a friend reminding me to watch footage of the racehorse Frankel at the Queen Anne Stakes. We’d spoken the night before about how some swim coaches train their swimmers as if they were horses, essentially “breaking” them. I watch the remarkable horse first, then footage of Ryan Lochte beating Michael Phelps in the 400 IM. Phelps’s world record stands.

8:45 Buy the paper on way to train. There’s a full-page image of Phelps, the headline reads: “That sinking feeling.” He’s quoted saying, “It was a crappy race.” It often happens at the Olympics or a dual meet, you can just be off.

9:45 Arrive at the Olympic Park. Herded along by volunteers brandishing giant pink foam hands with pointy index fingers.

10:05 I take my seat, a great one, directly above the press photographers. I’m between a family from Vancouver and a group of Australians. The Canadians are wearing red hats, maple-leaf-shaped mittens and maple-leaf antennae.

10:10 Canadians Sinead Russell and Julia Wilkinson swim in the women’s 100-m backstroke. Both qualify for the semifinal. Looking at the pool, I get a sensation of warped scale: it’s a length and width I know well but transposed into a coliseum-like arena. It is the same pool, but it’s Olympic: suddenly extraordinary. I get the same feeling looking at tennis courts and baseball diamonds. The dimensions are constant but the stakes amplify them.

10:20 Men’s 200-m freestyle heats begin. In the second heat is a swimmer from the Philippines named Jessie Lacuna. I think about visiting the Philippines when I was 10 and swimming with my brother in the China Sea. This was before we began to swim competitively. In the third heat a swimmer from Israel, Nimrod Shapira Bar-Or, pounds on his thighs like Rocky Balboa on a side of beef.

10:22 I watch the machinery behind the events. Swimmers are led behind their blocks, where they disrobe, putting their clothes in plastic bins. As they race, the full bins are replaced by empty ones. When the swimmers finish, they walk, barefoot and without towels, to pick up their credential badges, past the media, then all the way around the diving tank and off the pool deck. I can understand the efficiency, but not being able to wrap oneself up in a towel after a swim seems chilly.

10:30 Canada’s Blake Worsley swims the 200-m freestyle and wins his heat. Lochte swims in the next heat, and the underwater camera coverage, shown on the Jumbotron, makes his unusually broad trunk look like a shark’s.

10:40 Feels odd to be so near a pool and not be able to get in it. Zaha Hadid’s natatorium is smaller than I imagined it would be. I’m curious to see it without the Olympic bunting and signage.

10:44 The women’s 100-m breaststroke heats begin. My pride high-fives itself when I calculate that my best time 20 years ago would have put me in third or fourth place in the first heat. The times descend in hunks of seconds until Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte clocks the fastest, a little over a second off world-record pace. Canadians Tera Van Beilen and Jillian Tyler both make the semifinals.

11:06 I marvel at the quality of the underwater- and overhead-camera images. A swimmer from Belarus turns at the wall in the men’s 100-m backstroke and for a split second resembles Botticelli’s St. Sebastian. Canada’s Charles Francis qualifies fifth for the semifinal.

11:32 Great Britain’s Rebecca Adlington is in the third heat of the women’s 400-m freestyle. The crowd goes nuts. There are two Canadians in the fourth, Brittany MacLean and Savannah King. MacLean passes the world record holder, Federica Pellegrini.

11:55 Lochte’s father is interviewed on the Jumbotron. He’s asked what he told his son before he swam to victory the night before. He replies, “Go out and have fun.” I hate this cheerful all-American catch-all. When I hear an athlete say, “I’m gonna go out and have fun,” what I really hear is, “I can’t even begin to bother to tell you, a stranger with a few seconds to spare, how complicated my feelings are right now.” John McEnroe wouldn’t use such platitudes. Though I admit, a father saying it to his son is code for love.

12 p.m. During the heats of the men’s 4 x 100-freestyle relay, the scene is so familiar that I have to remind myself that these are the Olympics. Having never competed on an international level, I can’t reconcile the sheer enormity of the staging with the repetitive tasks at hand. There is a theatricality to it all.

12:10 The crowds file out. On the Jumbotron, Emma Watson, Charlize Theron, Geena Davis and Daniel Radcliffe bid the spectators farewell in pre-taped segments.

12:25 Am ushered out of the aquatic centre into a huge lineup. It begins to rain.

1:14 I duck into what turns out to be the infirmary. The sight of empty cots makes me realize just how tired I am. I ask to stay, am given a red blanket. Fall promptly asleep.

2:15 The rain has stopped and I can hear Rihanna over the loudspeakers in the nearby square. Napping is what the competitors do between heats and finals, too. I leave the infirmary and walk in the direction of the music.

2:45 I approach one of the McDonald’s in the Olympic Park. The familiar unease creeps in: resignation at the commercial opportunism, shock at the irony of such low nutritional fare sponsoring the highest paragon of physical achievement. It’s like meeting the overbearing spouse of someone you love. I remember a McDonalds ad on the back of a swimming program from 1987 that showed an illustration of a juicy Big Mac. The copy read: “It’s not whether you win or lose, but how well you eat after the meet.” Fast food was always a part of my swimming landscape. I want to wade into those special sauces again. I order a Filet-o-Fish.

2:50 Find a seat. The last time I had a Filet-o-Fish was with a friend who was ill with cancer. He had spoken publicly that night about losing the use of one of his limbs. He later suggested we go to McDonald’s. My sandwich today doesn’t taste as good as the one I shared with him. I think about the body and how prowess and illness can bind us.

4:30 I make my way back to the aquatic centre. A volunteer atop a lifeguard chair asks the crowd through a megaphone if there are any Americans in the crowd. Brits? Some half-hearted cheers go up.

5:30 I find my seat. It’s not nearly as good and it’s hard to believe it cost £450, while the one directly over the deck was £150. But these are finals. I watch a Russian swimmer do a few sprints and remember the sanctity of making the finals: the drawn drapes in the hotel room, the precious nap, the shaving down, the solemn meetings with coaches. Then the warm-up. All of the swimmers’ strokes are relaxed and long. They move along the length of the pool, puttering, low-gearing. During the warm-up sessions, pop music is played over the speakers. Rihanna again, followed by Adele.

6:04 I am alone in my section. There are divers practising in the diving tank, so I watch them plummeting over and over, sometimes sloppily, sometimes perfectly. It is hypnotic.

7:22 The main pool is cleared. Photographers gather at the end of lanes three, four and five, where the fastest qualifiers will swim.

7:30 Eight swimmers are marched on for the night’s first final, the women’s 100-m butterfly. A few minutes later, Dana Vollmer, raised in Fort Worth, Texas, wins gold and breaks the world record.

7:49 The semifinal of the women’s 100-m breaststroke. Canadian Tera Van Beilen ties for eighth with Jamaican swimmer Alia Atkinson. An announcement is made: “Would the team leaders for Canada and Jamaica make your way to the FINA resolution centre.”

8:00 The medal ceremony for the women’s 100-m butterfly. The swimmers are marched on to the Chariots of Fire theme. Vollmer can’t stop smiling.

8:11 The finalists for the men’s 100-m breaststroke are marched on to the deck. I am rooting for Kosuke Kitajima of Japan, but the world record is broken by Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa. I laugh as he reclines along the lane rope as though he were in a hammock.

8:20 The finalists for the women’s 400-m freestyle are marched on. Canada’s MacLean swims next to Adlington. Adlington finishes third, while MacLean, in her first Olympics, finishes seventh.

8:28 Canada’s Francis swims in the 100-m backstroke semi, finishing 16th.

8:39 The medal ceremony for the men’s 100-m breaststroke. Kool & the Gang’s Celebration is played while the medallists circle the pool. Van der Burgh is smiling.

8:50 The semifinals of the women’s 100-m backstroke. Canada’s Russell and Wilkinson (who arrives on the deck wearing gold booties) are both in the second heat. Neither make the final.

9:02 The men’s 4 x 100-freestyle relay. France wins. The Americans look stunned.

9:21 Swim-off between Atkinson and Van Beilen for a spot in the final. This is the third time they will have swum this race today, which seems triple-decker brutal. Atkinson finishes almost a full second faster. Van Beilen did not look like she was out there having fun. For all the Olympic clichés, there are many moments of spirit-vacuuming defeat. 9:45 I make my way back to the train station. 10:10 When I get home, I email with Byron MacDonald, my old coach and a former Olympian, who tells me that he can’t recall another Canadian ever being in an Olympic swim-off. I write an email to my brother telling him I wish we’d watched the events together, then turn in.

Leanne Shapton is the author of Swimming Studies. She was the art director of the op-ed page at the New York Times from 2008-09.

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