Column: The Mystery of Swim Team Finally Revealed


Photo by: Olly Dungan

Olly Dungan, Student of Journalism

The year of our Lord, 2021, would be my final year on the high school’s swim team. On a usual day, I made my usual walk with my friend down to the orchestra room to fetch my cello, and then made my usual walk down to the pool. As usual, we walked in silence, just the bored shuffle of our shoes and backpacks. 

That is, until my friend asked me, innocently, nonchalantly, what I did at swim practice. 

At first I was taken aback. Nobody asks about swimming. Nobody wants to know, so I had never given much thought to the answer. “Just usual swim stuff” was my reply. 

“So do you just swim laps?” was his next question.

Laps? LAPS? 

A sudden speck of anger blistered on my skin, but I quickly composed myself and smiled. In my mind, however, memories flashed as I remembered sprint butterfly sets, kick sets, no-breath freestyle sets, distance sets, hours of weight lifting, jump squats, pushups, core . . . 

In a glazed over response I told him “just some drills, maybe sprints, and some starts if we’re lucky.” 

I shuddered and thought: If only he knew. 

So I left for the pool, donned my suit, and plunged into the notoriously frigid water of the Neenah High School pool to practice for the most difficult sport one could choose. 

USA Swimming recorded its peak participation in 2013: over 400,000 members. Since then, participation in competitive swimming has dropped, and research from a study conducted in Australia shows that one third of competitive swimmers will quit the sport by age 17. Reasons for dropping out may have to do with individuals’ time conflicts with more pressing matters such as surfing TikTok, not waking up at 5 a.m, and having wet hair. This is especially true, as swim team comes with its fair share of time commitments, with practices before and after school, as well as practices on the weekends. Competitions are lengthy, especially club meets which can involve hundreds of teams. It can be increasingly discouraging to new participants as they realize that entire weekends will be sacrificed to “a 3-4 day competition to swim a combined 7 minutes of races,” writes swimming coach, national trainer and writer Oliver Poirier-Leroy.

Or perhaps it is the lack of recognition that us swimmers experience, when we are the only sport that combines the physical exertion of racing with the inability to breathe.

Despite its challenges, swim team is my home, and the team has become my family. The support I experience on the pool deck and in the water is unparalleled by any other organization I have been a part of. The tiring practices payoff with satisfying time drops and the breaks in between sets are filled with laughter and handstands on the pool bottom. 

But even that is barely the tip of the iceberg. 

And so, dear reader, after much more thought and introspection than I gave my poor friend — whose curiosity I stifled — I have finally come to detail what really goes on behind those metal doors of the locker room.

Senior and NHS swim team member Caleb Youngwerth describes competitive swimming as, “Trying to get through to water as fast as you can without touching the bottom or touching the sides.” And thus, you have the essentials: nothing more than racing up and down a pool. 

But swim team offers many different ways to complete this (literally) breathtaking task. These we call “strokes.”

The most popular stroke is freestyle: a ludicrous display of break dancing on the pool bottom, encompassing anything from hip hop, to Irish Jig to moonwalking. Freestyle comes in all lengths, from the 50 to the 500.

Those numbers of course refer to how many laps the race contains. 

The next most popular stroke is backstroke, or sometimes referred to as backcrawl if swimming knowledge ends with elementary school swim lessons. And, exactly as it sounds, one slides through the water on their back whilst churning their arms in a vestige of hypersonic windmill, arduously dragging their bodies down the lane. 

Then we have breaststroke, which — [REDACTED]

–Unfortunately my editor removed the previous paragraph —

Anyway, the most difficult and most utterly hated event is butterfly, in which athletes swim so fast they simply skim over the surface in a crude replication of a pelican or perhaps a flying fish.

“My least favorite stroke is butterfly because people aren’t meant to fly, they’re meant to walk, and possibly swim — even that has yet to be determined. You spend all of your energy trying to get out of the water, but you just can’t,” Youngwerth recounts.

As far as practice is concerned, we spend much of our time doing drills. There are many drills: 20 volts, cordless, 5 inch, 4 inch, and many more. 

Kick sets are a team favorite as well, testing the tenacity of one’s feet on anything from breaking wooden boards to precisely angled strikes on a punching bag.

The chaos does not end with the practices, however. The locker rooms are a hidden oasis of practical jokes, profanity and people rushing from clothes to swim suit or swim suit to clothes. 

“At one point there was a slip and slide in the locker room, and that was at an away meet,” Youngwerth describes. 

The unpredictability and multitude of inside jokes make swim team a fun experience. All jokes aside, the team becomes a family for its participants, and I have found myself in many friendships that would likely had never occurred outside the pool. 

Do not, however, get me wrong: swim team is possibly the most difficult sport, and Youngwerth warns all participants of the brutal truth: “You have to put yourself through so much pain to see results.” Nevertheless, swim team is a fantastic opportunity for self-improvement.

His final advice: “Don’t do it unless you hate air.”