Some kids seem to know what sport suits them; others need a nudge in the right direction. At age 13, I wanted to join the swim team because that’s where my friends were. It turned out to be a good choice. Athletically challenged, I was usually the last kid picked for games and sports during recess.
Swimming improved my coordination and boosted my self-confidence. In addition to racking up swimming medals, I lettered in high school track and volleyball and thought of myself as an athlete rather than a klutz. Now 47, I teach dance, body conditioning, balance and other group exercise classes to clients at Miraval Arizona; something I never imagined on playground days when team captains argued over who “would be stuck with me.”
Children who enjoy swimming as a competitive sport usually have very supportive parents, says Justin Slade, a 12-year swim coach who is now head coach for the Flying Fish Arizona Swim Team (FAST), a youth swimming program in Tucson. He suggests parents attend meets and practices and offer unconditional support.
My parents never “forced” my participation or reprimanded me when I swam poorly. My coach, Skip, made practices more fun than a chore and I have fond memories of traveling to meets with teammates. We’d stay in hotels or campgrounds and when not competing, we’d play cards, brown marshmallows over a fire and have pillow fights.
Our parents made it fun, too, by traveling with us, watching us compete, and tracking our improvement. The only teammate I remember who hated swimming had parents who screamed at him in front of us whenever he swam badly.
The experience a child has, good or bad, will likely become an ingrained, lifelong perception of training or working out. As a certified personal trainer and athlete, I’ve heard people refer to exercise as “suffering,” “torture,” “back breaking” and worse. I feel disconnected from such descriptions. Since most of my youthful swimming experiences were positive, exercise brings to mind laughing, friendship and feeling vividly alive. My participation in swimming as a youth led to a life-long love for fitness.
Parents sometimes ask what physical and mental qualities competitive swimming requires.
“It is like their first mini-job,” says Slade. They learn the relationship between hard work and success. They gain confidence in their abilities and learn “perseverance to overcome failure or tough situations.” The sport doesn’t deliver “instant gratification like a video game.” Weeks or even months of hard training are often required to get results.
Even though Michael Phelps’ long limbs, large feet, and amazing flexibility give him a physical advantage, determination and drive can often compensate for disadvantages in physique. Slade and I agree that any child who loves swimming should be encouraged to participate. For the most part, success “is in the hands of the swimmer,” he says.
I’m often a head shorter than other women on the starting blocks, but that doesn’t decrease the thrill for me. I’m not Dara Torres, but I still climb out of the water a winner every time. I feel healthy and exuberant and my physique remains sleek and athletic. I just hope that kids swimming today will feel the way I do when they grow up. — Susan Dawson-Cook
Susan Dawson-Cook lives in Tucson with her husband and two high-school-age children. A fitness professional, freelance writer and nationally ranked U.S. Masters swimmer, she holds three state records in breaststroke for the women’s 45 to 49 age group. Read her blog, Fit Women Rock.