Friday, May 27, 2016

Michael Phelps and Me (I'm swimming better than ever!)

In my last blog I talked about spending summers on the farm in Bunker Hill, KS. One can learn many great life lessons working on a farm.  But the downside of farm life is swimming lessons are not in the curriculum.  Water safety training consisted of stern warnings about falling in the Smokey River (which had water at the time) or a stock pond. "Don't go down to the creek (pronounced crick)" was a constant warning whenever it rained. Although we often ignored the warnings, we never learned to swim.

I've written before about my failed first attempt at running a marathon, but after successfully completing a few, I was looking for a new challenge. The triathlon beckoned- I can run, been riding a bike since I was 5, but...  So at age 40, I decided it was time to learn to swim.  

It helps that my sister married a former high school swimmer and their kids all swim like fish.  Even better, she was good enough to have put in a backyard pool so my panicked floundering wouldn't be open to public view.  Thanks to the efforts of a patient niece, I was finally able to get from one end of the pool to the other with stopping.  While I never put a watch to it, that trip took well over a couple of minutes in a 25-foot pool.  Michael Phelps began to sweat at the prospect.

In time, I practiced and learned more technique and practiced some more.  This might be a good opportunity to apologize to my fellow early morning swimmers at the Emporia State pool and late afternoon lap swimmers at Emporia Rec.  I wasn't trying to aggravate you by clogging the lane; I was swimming as fast as I could. In time, I got to the point of being able to swim a lap in an Olympic pool in a couple of minutes.  Real swimmers will know that is incredibly slow, but it showed improvement.

I finished my first triathlon and even did a few more, when a cocky school administrator and former college swimmer challenged me to a tri race.  Since this fella has tiny short legs, I knew I could best him in the run, and since he is the tightest man since Ebenezer Scrooge, I knew he would be riding his Schwinn stingray from grade school.  Those two events were in the bag.  But the swim?  I had to get better.  I rededicated myself to the cause, read books, watched videos, and got a little better.  A minute thirty seconds for a lap was my best pre-race time.  

Not long after the race, tragedy struck.   Age caught up with me and shoulder surgery cost me a shot at the 2008 Olympics.  I can still get in the pool and crank out a minute thirty lap, so a graph of my progress would look like this:



If I want to brag, I can probably say I'm swimming as well as I ever have.  I could boast that over the past 15 years my swim times improved 85%, or an even bolder (and more misleading) number would be an average 5.6% increase per year. 

But if I want to be honest, the truth is that over the past five to seven years, my swim times have flat-lined.  The improvement I showed from start until a few years ago is flat or has declined. 

Now let’s look at another graph:


An inversion of my swim graph, this shows that total school spending has increased over the past 18 years. One could fudge a bit and say it’s at an all-time high (unadjusted for inflation) or that it has increased about 3% a year.  But just like my swim times, that would only tell half the story.  The truth school boards are dealing with is that spending has gone down and then flat-lined in recent years. 

If my swimming had continued to progress at my early rate, a trip to Rio might have been in my future.  If school’s are expected to progress in an ever competitive world, resources need to go back to their earlier rate of improvement.


Oh, and that cocky school administrator? He was out of the water before I cleared the dock, but I caught him and passed him in the last 100 yards of the run. The good guys always win.

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