Friday, February 8, 2008

Some race-type intensity

Novelist and swimmer Robert McCutcheon kindly sent me a copy of his young-adult coming-of-age novel The Starting Block, and I am happy to report that I enjoyed it very much. It will particularly be of interest to triathletes, aspirational or otherwise, because of the absolutely wonderful depiction of teenage swim-team life in suburban Pittsburgh in the late 1960s. It's a tale of three brothers (Chip's the oldest, and a champion swimmer, Billy the middle brother and Teddy the youngest and the book's sometime narrator--sometimes he imagines an italicized third-person narration of his own life in story-book mode), and here's a bit I especially liked:
"Today we're going to do some fifties, then some starts," Ed went on. "That's all. But I want to see some race-type intensity in the sprints, people!"

This was the most enjoyable kind of practice. Ordinarily we swam in circles, an innovation Chip brought back with him from his AAU workouts. The whole team would be in the pool at the same time, with everybody keeping to the right in his lane. It was like driving in rush hour traffic or, alternatively, like living in a horizontal ant farm. But today we would approach the blocks in heats, by age group, beginning with the girls over sixteen. Everyone else would watch and wait their turn.

The proceedings had a certain oblong, sideways, and shimmering character from Ted's vantage point, as he lay on his back and let his head rock to the side. The covey of girls on the starting blocks scattered at the sound of the gun.

Billy's group took the blocks next. He was not as fast a swimmer as Chip, but he was a more earnest swimmer. In fact, he was the most earnest swimmer I had ever seen. In fact, he swam as earnestly as he slept. As Ed barked his "Take your mark," Billy snapped into his crouch. Conserving his blanks, Ed started this heat with his disyllabic "Ho"; when someday in late middle age he retired from the lifeguard's trade he would be qualified to lead wagon trains. The swimmers dropped out of sight as though into another dimension. Foam sprouted from the deck.

From my ground-level view all I could see was Billy's hands, which he looped high in the air with his distinctive straight-arm recovery. I followed them along my low concrete horizon like a pair of diving birds. Billy had never gotten the hang of the classic elbows-high style that Chip had. He had a funny hitch in his freestyle. He breathed every stroke even in a sprint, jerking his head up as though for the last gulp of air in the atmosphere. A single kick followed. Rhythm was not in Billy's vocabulary. You wouldn't think he could swim butterfly, but he rocked his way through the water like a sidecar on a railroad track, up and down, kick and pull. He was just big and strong; he gathered bushels of water with each stroke, and he was tough to beat in either free or fly over a short distance.
Sort of the perfect novel for me, eh?!? Thanks for sending, Robert...

1 comment:

Brent Buckner said...

You wrote:
Sort of the perfect novel for me, eh?!?

Yes, complete with "earnest swimming"!