It's surprising how seriously some of us old folks take our athletics. I know a wealthy stock trader who is currently competing at the World Masters Track and Field Championships in Kamloops, British Columbia. Yesterday afternoon, in an effort to win the bronze medal in his race, he leaned forward at the tape, causing him to stumble and take a bad fall, scraping his shoulder and bruising his abdomen.
This morning he emailed, "Sleeping was extra hard last night. I couldn't roll over or cough without causing pain. But all in all, since I only beat [my rival for third place] by three hundredths of a second, it was worth the injuries."
I know a best-selling author who is also a masters swimmer. He has written something like eighteen books, at least ten of which have been bestsellers. I was once in the study of his house on Shelter Island. I expected to see laminated copies of the New York Times bestseller lists he made, or some of his sportswriting awards. There were none of these. (There were about four copies each of his books in his bookshelves, but you had to look for them.)
Instead, on his wall, he had hung some of his medals from various masters meets. This is a guy who for at least two decades has been at the top of the sportswriting profession. But judging from the decor of his study, he's prouder of his swimming.
I can't claim the professional success of either of these two, but I'm no better when it comes to taking my superannuated athletics too seriously. My brother once said, "John sometimes organizes his day around his workout." My initial instinct was to deny it, but then I realized, I couldn't; it was true. I don't keep any medals in my study, but I have to admit that my one record in masters swimming is something I often manage to shoehorn into a conversation. (I actually hold two world records: one, for the men's 55-59 200 meter short course butterfly, and the other for getting the most mileage out of my record.)
I know of at least five guys in masters swimming who are widely rumored to take steroids (and who look as if they do). It's silly enough to juice for big time athletics, but at least there is something tangible at stake there: a pro contract, or prize money, or, at the very least, a college scholarship. In masters athletics, there's only the shadow of a glimmer of a memory of glory.
I was recently contacted for an article on my masters record which appeared on my college swimming team website. I said the following:
"We all know that masters swimming is just an afterthought. But for guys like me, it's fun because it's sort of like a fantasy baseball league: it gives you another shot against the guys who were a lot better than you in college. As far as the record goes, most swimmers have had the experience of looking back at the record books from the 1950's or 1960's and thinking to themselves, 'Hmm, I would have been pretty good if I'd been around back then.' Well, in a weird sort of way masters swimming is a little like that. Setting a record, at least in my age group, is a little like setting a swimming record back in 1924: you simply don't have to be that fast. But you still get to say you set a world record, and it's still a thrill."
Each of the two guys mentioned at the beginning of this post have been part of relays which have set masters world records, and I know them well enough to know they feel the same about that thrill.
Some of us almost seem to take pride in the fact that we never grow up.
And I'm not entirely sure that's such a horrible thing.