The following is an essay from Theo St. Francis, a graduated Senior from Marin Academy, team captain, Junior National Qualifier and MIT freshman on the value of swimming in his life, the lessons learned, discipline and team.
“Why should I swim for North Bay?” — by Theo St. Francis, May 2013
Good question. That’s the same one I was asking almost four years ago. Evidently, I found an answer good enough to convince me to join, and boy, wasn’t that the greatest decision I’d made. It would be an understatement to write that I am a changed person because of my becoming a Tuna, for it wouldnot be a stretch to say that our coaches, Ken DeMont and Don Swartz, are in the business of lifesaving, literally. The program they have created is unlike any other. In the next several pages, I’d like to share some of the lessons I’ve learned as a competitive swimmer of 10 years and as a Tuna for four.
I want to guide a discussion you might be having regarding what the benefits are of devoting a large portion of one’s energy and focus to an athletic endeavor—in this case the competitive, aquatic kind.
In the broadest sense, at every step along the way I made the best decision I could: to choose this team over another one, to quit piano (at least for a time), to forgo this party for that practice…and these decisions, however isolated, put me in a good situation and a receptive frame of mind for accomplishing other things, such as schooling, testing, working and collaborating. In essence, my swimming career has been a give-and-take. There’s nothing like having to wake up at 4:30am thrice weekly to teach you that there are some things you have to give up if you want to excel at others. It is impossible to project what one might glean from a swim team experience, but I can say with certainty that if a swimmer commits to his or her training—or “leans into it,” as Don says—he or she will gain more in character and mental wherewithal than is lost in missed social engagements and in the embarrassment of goggle tans. I mean to share my accomplishments, however modest or grand they may appear, to illustrate that given a desire to improve oneself and possessing a willingness to work, I, and many of my peers, have been able to bring tremendous focus to our lives and perform both athletically and scholastically at a high level.
A few miscellaneous notes: North Bay Aquatics (NBA) is the third club swimming team of which I have been a part. I am a graduating senior, captain of NBA’s senior group, as well as captain of Marin Academy’s varsity team. Any mention of ‘college life’ is not, obviously, from my own experience, but rather from what I have understood in talking with current collegiate athletes, either alumni of our program or others at schools I visited. I will use ‘he’ throughout this paper for convenience to reference a ‘student-athlete’ as what I write is from my own experience—please substitute ‘she’ if that is appropriate. Regardless of the level of education the reader will pursue, and whether or not he plans to compete collegiately, it is assumed that the reader has in mind to grow to be a functioning part of modern society. Indeed, participating on a swim team is a great place to start…catch those italics?
One of my earliest experiences with ‘team’ was at age 10. I was on Twin Valley Aquatics in Sonoma at the time and it was a Wednesday: pace-set day…the day that you didn’t show up if you didn’t want to do the 10x100s on the hardest interval survivable. My send-off was 1:35 and I was not feeling very good that day. I’m sure I gave a litany of excuses. But, then again, others weren’t feeling that great either, particularly Alex, who was a grade above me and with whom I rode bikes to school each day— and whose father, not coincidentally, competed in college.
“Hey, Theo, let’s see if we can go fast on these!” was his 11-year-old encouragement.
“I think I’ll go slow; I don’t feel too good today…”
“Me neither but c’mon you gotta!”
And that was it. That was the entire interaction before we began the then-Herculean 1,000-yard set. We started out on-pace together, swimming in adjacent lanes, but instead of fading in the middle of the set as I thought I would, Alex kept with it and so did I. We finished the last 100 in a faster time than I had the previous week —we’d persevered and, because of it, improved.
I didn’t really know what it meant at the time, of course, but I have come to appreciate the significance of that seemingly unimportant exchange. Its essence is what is significant about belonging to a group and having a common purpose. Alex did not only dismiss my excuses but, more importantly, he invoked a fundamental part of what it means to be human, given that we have lived and thrived as social creatures in a community: together, we can accomplish more than if we act separately. I am writing this to tell you that that is what the team experience is all about; if that lesson is the only nugget that I take away from the sport, it all will have been well worth my while.
Group dynamics are ever-present on a swim team, as is true anywhere individuals collaborate. Swimmers learn early-on that though it is not required that every team member treat every other as a friend, it is essential that every individual be respected for what he has to offer. In this way, an atmosphere of trust is built.
At practice, we learn to give encouragement—as Alex did—and to accept it as well: sometimes we are able to give support and sometimes we must take it from others. The important part is that we must be sure to contribute when we are able, and not solely demand it from others.
Although the role may not be for everybody, every team member has a chance to demonstrate leadership skills by how he balances his own goals with those of the group. If someone can steer and support the team’s interests in a productive manner, he demonstrates an ability to contribute to a group in any context. I have a friend who was captain of his high school’s football and wrestling teams as well as his college’s football and rugby teams. (He is what is known as an athlete.) He was offered a job directly out of undergraduate school to manage a large Midwestern AT&T store. Sure, he had internship experience where he learned about business, but the key component in his résumé that was of interest to AT&T was that he had demonstrated his leadership in the demanding environment of competitive sport. I mention this only to provide an example of how much opportunity for personal growth one will have in a competitive environment. The corollary would state that in swimming (as in running) there is arguably more room for growth because an individual’s success is not as closely tied to the team’s, as in either football or fútbol.
Now, I am not a biochemist and don’t plan to be one, but I can say qualitatively that the chemistry of the brain is altered both by daily, rigorous exercise as well as by frequent positive, constructive input from the same group of people. For me, this means that if I have a test before noon on a given day, as long as I get at least seven hours of sleep before, I will perform better on writing and problem solving if I go to our 5:30-7 workout than if I sleep till 7 and head to class with the rest of my nonswimmer classmates.
In my junior year, I participated in the American Mathematics Contest by taking the AMC12. It is an extremely demanding multiple-choice written exam for which you have 75 minutes to complete 25 questions. The first half-dozen to dozen questions are fairly manageable, but after that they become nigh on impossible. After morning practice on a Wednesday, I decided I wanted to sign up for the test, thinking it was the following week. Turns out that the tests were going to be passed out in 20 minutes. Well, I guessed I didn’t have a choice. Happily, I ended up doing really well (high-point scorer at my school) and here’s (I think) why: 1) I had been awake for 3.5 hours at the start of the test and had been doing aerobic activity for 1.5 hours, so I was definitely alert, and 2) I had engaged with my teammates during practice, challenging them to swim faster, just as they did the same for me. I went into the exam with my mind and body exercised, feeling confident, and having a healthy supply of endorphins in my system (a hormone whose name means “self-produced analgesic”). In effect, I strongly believe swimming that morning made me perform at my best. Now, can you imagine what impact such a sport would have on your life and livelihood if you did it at least once every day? Bingo bongo, my friend.
To elaborate in plain terms, there is no question in my mind that swimming has boosted my confidence immeasurably. I approach most everything in life now the same way I look at a hard swimming workout or a championship meet: yeah, it might be tough and I might not know how well, or even if I’ll complete it, but I certainly trust my training and I know I can persevere. In this way, I have learned to deal with uncertainty. When the questions start to creep in—“My warm-up didn’t feel great; I don’t know how well I’ll do,” or “The guy next to me is seeded so much faster; I don’t think I’ll be able to keep up,” or “I didn’t study for this test; I’m probably going to do really poorly,” or “She’s really not that into me…”— I have learned to shut them out. Since life is often just a game of mental fortitude, that skill comes in handy quite frequently.
I want to return to the points I made earlier about ‘engaging with my teammates’ and ‘feeling confident’. There’s a reason team members—for really any sport—often refer to each other as ‘brothers’ or ‘sisters’: spending so much time with each other, especially in an environment where we are testing the limit of our physical capabilities with exercises that tear muscles and draw tears (yes, tears), we develop bonds similar to those shared by a family. We stay together through tough practices and we trust each other immensely. We recognize that for the team to improve, every individual has to contribute in his own way, and that we will be disappointing our mates if we fail to commit to the extent that they do.
This relates to the often-discussed notion that we only improve when we strive with intention. The sport facilitates the connection that forms between the work one puts in and the rewards reaped from training. This applies basically to anything in life where it is possible to excel, so, yet again, swimming provides an athletic analogue for a fundamental societal value. Personally, my training has helped me push through SAT and AP and even US History exams, as well as simply very hectic weeks which, let’s face it, are the norm for our generation. The swimmer’s persistence to train every day—in whatever inclement weather except lightening—is directly applicable to thriving in the workplace; not only is one expected to show up each day, but to perform at one’s best as well. It was not my dream job to pick-ax ditches during a couple summers, but it was partly a result of the work ethic that swimming had imparted that enabled me to grit my teeth and finish the water-conduit job on which I was working.
Regarding the coaches on working-out: Ken and Don don’t take excuses from people. If a swimmer didn’t achieve the time standard wanted, Ken and Don are more than happy to strategize with the swimmer to figure out where the missing link in the training regimen was. Under few circumstances, however, will they take responsibility for the shortcomings of a meet performance. Rather, it is one of their main goals to impart a sense of self-accountability to their swimmers. I wrote ‘few circumstances’ because there have been instances when Ken or Don will acknowledge that he did not focus enough on training us for the underwater component of the race, or that the distance group should have done more 10x500 sets, etc. They are professionals, and those apologies are rare. By forcing each swimmer to take responsibility for his failures, and his successes, too, my coaches seek to teach the greater lesson of being proactive and aware. If I live my life more cognizant of the situations and issues that confront me, as well as able to function without someone figuratively ‘holding my hand,’ I will be the better for it.
Also, Ken and Don are two of the goofiest people I know. Some coaches take themselves quite seriously, which means they don’t crack jokes because they’re afraid it will distract from the hard driving atmosphere they have established on the team. Our coaches believe in taking their work seriously, but not themselves: they recognize that we will be more willing to work hard if it’s fun to go to practice. Do keep in mind, though, that when the time is right, they have their games faces ready to go. When it comes to taking splits at a meet or calling times during sprints at practice, they know that we are there to “get something done” (a favorite saying of Don).
So, now you know a little bit about Ken and Don, and you’re wondering: why North Bay Aquatics, specifically? Why not Pirates? Why not just Summer League…after all, there is good competition and camaraderie there, as well…? In response to the last question about Summer League, I’d say: You’re right, for some there is good competition and a healthy camaraderie, but in my view, it’s not the same. On a serious club team, you get more interaction with the coaches, better instruction, and a more complete set of experiences that teach the lessons I have outlined above. NBA’s time commitment is too large, you say? It might seem formidable, to be sure, but bear in mind that it is because a club swimmer must forgo invitations to events and other appealing occasions that he will be better in the end.
Why not Pirates? Because of 1) the hate mail I’d get and 2) I don’t want to bother citing sources, I won’t go into why we’re vastly superior. Only kidding…they, too, have an awesome club program. It is similar in some ways and different in others and, the truth is, I am only comfortable writing about NBA as I know its program has worked for me.
North Bay Aquatics is a great group of people, and one that I will miss dearly when I am in college. This is partly because basically every character can be matched with an SNL persona (we’re a wacky group), but also because our coaches care very much about the culture of the team. They make it easy to contribute—and fun, to boot! The coaching legend Forbes Carlile said of his program in Australia, “Our aim is not to produce champions, but to create an environment where champions are inevitable.” (CarlileSwimming) In a similar manner, Ken and Don recognize that a successful team should be a healthy place to train. While I may not have learned the lessons above first on NBA, every quality stated has been nurtured during my time as a member on that incredible team.