Recently Scott wrote about masters swimming, arguing that times should not matter there. Granted, he was talking about swimming times in the grand and glorious sense--national records, world records, even racing with one's competitors. He did allow that times could matter as a benchmark for individual assessment, although I suspect he would note that an adult swimmer measuring their success or failure against their times from their youth is in for nothing but hurt.
This is true. As adults, we not only lack the time and compunction to train at the level necessary for peak achievement, but our bodies are disintegrating around us. I suppose I am even more aware of this fact since I am still not able to use my arms for more than 600 yards in a practice (total), but I also see around me plenty of other swimmers with injuries or whose bodies are betraying them.
But I want to argue for the importance of competition in mastsers swimming.
I am not writing from the same perspective as Scott, since I have no dreams of real glory, nor do I have much of a swimming past. I swam avidly growing up, but only during the summer season. There was one year when I swam year-round, but I did not much care for it, and I knew that I would never be that calibre of swimmer. Really, I swam all year just to be in better shape the next summer.
The coach at my previous team often argued that his swimmers should be super-serious about the sport, prioritizing it above other activities, willing to train with great dedication. "Jack of all trades, master of none," he would say. Sure, if you want to achieve, you have to put in the work. But I hate the idea that kids who are willing to put a good bit into swimming, but want to do other things too, were discouraged.
To me, there is an analogy between these two positions, that masters swimming times are irrelevant and that swimming should be the top of the list for kids who swim.
What I would hope for instead--or really, in addition--is a space for achievement and even small bits of private glory, even with the knowledge that those achievements and that glory would not matter to the wider world.
One of my favorite aspects of masters swimming is seeing people who you might not expect kick ass. For instance, the man who broke world records in the 90+ category in the 1000 free and 1650 free at nationals last year. Sure, those records might not mean much compared to the current time standards for Olympic trials, but to do that swim--and to prepare for that swim--at that age is pretty awesome. Similarly, when you see someone who can hardly walk helped to a starting block so that they can dive in and then swim like a shark to beat everyone in your heat, that is awesome too.
What I am saying is that masters swimming (like other lifelong sports) offers many ways to achieve glory. For me, someone who often wonders what it would have been like to take my swimming seriously as a teenager, it is the chance to achieve the physical and mental gains that come with athletic discipline. And times are definitely a part of that. To be able to qualify for various national or world meets means something important: it means that the work I am putting in (limited, as it is, by life and other obligations) is paying some kind of reward. Then to race with the other swimmers in my age group who show up means something more: it is an acknowledgement of all of our place in a sport that we love.
So even though I do not swim just for the times, and I do not swim just to race, and I do not race just to win, the swimming, the racing, the times all matter.
But not as much as getting back to something other than kick.