November 28, 2016, Bangkok, RBSC swim meet. A 9-year old girl is getting ready for her 4th race of the day. Nervous, she can’t stay in place. She keeps laying her moist hands on the block to dry them up, puts the diving platform back in place several times, puts on and off her goggles ten times. Behind her stands a nervous dad, he’s there to film the start of the race. He’s proud of his daughter, very proud, but more than anything he starts feeling anxious too.
The minute before it all happened…
A long whistle, and Belem climbs on the block. Take your mark! Belem bends and grabs the block. At that same moment, I feel as if it were me on the block. I see through her eyes, I feel the extreme tension that she feels… in a split second, I travel 37 years back in time. I am a 9-year old boy about to dive, in 2 seconds I will be underwater staring at the empty blue space in front of me, thinking “go go go go, as hard as you can to the wall and back!”. Belem is underway churning her arms as fast as she can, just like I did at her age. I’m gone, my mind has traveled somewhere else: “I want to feel that extreme pre-race anxiety, that deliverance when I hit the water. I want to race in the pool again. I will race. It’s a fact, I will race again“. Before Belem touched the wall, I had made my inner transformation: “I will sign-up to a club and race as a Master’s swimmer, regardless how slow and clumsy I may or may not be.”
When I announced the news to my family, nobody seemed overly impressed. After all, they saw me dive into distance running, diving, mountaineering, open water swimming, triathlon, trail running and lately swimrun with always the same passion. But for me, this time, this is different. It is about reconnecting with my inner self, with the child in me, it is not about starting a new sport and trying to be good or even excellent at it, it is about coming back to the origin of all things, the first sport I have ever done, the one thanks to which all the rest became possible, the one that built my personality, for better and for worse.
Fast forward 6 months, March 27, 2017: my first pool race as a 45-49 Masters’ swimmer. My program is quite diversified: 50m free, 100m free and 800m free. As a kid I raced 50s and 100s countless times. While the most I ever trained at the time was twice a week, which does not sound like a lot compared to the ‘real swimmers’, and which was not enough to ever be ‘fast’, I do have times to beat in my mind that will remain hard to reach as a 46-year old man training for 3.8k triathlon swims. And indeed I get crushed on the 50m and 100m, not so much by the competition who, barring a few superstars, is not in much better shape by me, but by the challenges themselves. I virtually killed myself on both races, not knowing where I’m going with leaky goggles, how fast, in horrible pain as all my muscles scream to slow down. I end up far from where I was as a kid, a tough wake-up call difficult to digest. Somehow I get a bronze medal on the 100m but it has no value to me, the time is just too slow.
With swimming, you need to regroup and find inner strength many times during the same day, you can have a horrible race at some point, but then the next minute you can still do well. That’s what I do. I forcefully set myself in the present moment. The longer race of the year organized by the HKASA, the 800m free (no 1,500m and only one 800m once a year) is about to start. As many swimmers signed up, they put two swimmers in each lane, so no diving start. Given my diving fiascos on both 50 and 100 races (slow reaction times and water in goggles… beginner’s mistakes), I am quite happy with this unusual configuration. I know where my competition is as we all had to provide seeding times (either estimated times or past race times) before the race. The biggest threat will swim in the lane next to mine, on the left.
The race starts and I use the first 50m to gauge my fitness and even more importantly, my technique. I reach the turn and do a nice and long tumble turn. My left shoulders that tends to be weaker stays well in place, high up, and I focus on making sure my left side swims as efficiently as my right side. Meter by meter, I ‘set up’ my stroke. High elbows, both fine, rotation, can improve that, head position, more down, flip turn again, loooong underwater stretch, only 120-130m into the race and I’m already starting to catch up on my main competitor. Left shoulder still holds very well, I start to get more and more relaxed, man, this feels easy, let’s see if I can push a bit more.
Then at around 300m, I enter ‘the zone’: my technique is as good as it can get, I swim at threshold, uneasy to go faster, but OK to sustain this for an extra 400-500m. I am enjoying this so much. To cap it all, I lengthen further my stroke and glide a tad more. This is great swimming, it looks good and it feels awesome, I am so much in control of my race. How I love this, this is the best feeling of all. Finally, the rhythm and pacing between my arms and legs turnover improve even further, I accelerate effortlessly as a result, I’m in heaven, time flies, while my competitors starts to slow down. 200 more meters, so much more left in the tank, time to get moving Olivier. My legs beat increases and immediately the feeling of bliss subsides, now it is all about redlining for the remaining 2’30. Last 100m, I rev up the motor one notch higher, legs are kicking all out. My main competitor is beaten and I catch someone else on the right, someone I do not know from another Age Group. I touch the wall in 11’18, right under 1’25 per 100m on a long course race, and while I have never raced that distance as a kid, I know this is faster than I would have done. Great! The cherry on the pie is obviously the gold medal in my category, even if today it was all about testing if I could be as good as I used to be, and if I had my place in Masters’ races. Obviously I do, even if I remain aware that in other age groups I would have been crushed and that, in itself, my time is nothing extraordinary. Still, I belong to this crowd, and they’ll see me more. Hong Kong 45-49 Age Group swimmers, take note, there’s a new competitor in town.
Looking Strikingly Alike!
“Thanks to My Daughter”
So here is the story. From spectating my daughter in a swim race to becoming a Master’s swimmer. I put Belem in the water when she was 6 months old in Paris. In fact, I registered her to the baby swimmers BEFORE she was even born. It didn’t take long before I reaped the benefit of that great decision… that’s Karma, Swim Karma. Thanks to my daughter I am back to pool racing. I had to write about it: isn’t it the coolest thing ever?