A bleary-eyed 18 year old boy walks up to the team breakfast area a little after 7 yesterday morning. He takes a patty of sausage, adding it to a plate of watermelon cubes. He’s asked if he wants eggs or French toast with his sausage.
“Neither”, comes the reply. One of the cooks asks if he wants anything else. “Nope”, he replies, as he walks away with a sleepy-eyed shuffle, staring down at his plate.
While it hardly seems like a precursor to success, it’s the kind of activity the Columbia Falls Swim Team dads see every Saturday and Sunday morning as they rise at 6 am each weekend of the summer to start the swimmers off with a good breakfast before they swim the day’s events.
No one really seems to remember who started the tradition, but it continues to this day every summer weekend morning, all season long. The dads change every few years as kids come and go, but the results are the same. Hot pancakes on Saturday, French toast on Sunday; along with hot cocoa, OJ, milk and coffee as necessary. For Divisionals and State, baggie omelets are added to the menu. All cooked up by a few old guys who seem to take more pleasure in having fun with the bleary eyed than from the cooking itself. But, the kids don’t seem to mind, if anything it seems to be part of the fun.
Before long, the sun heats up Lewistown City Park, the hustle and bustle of the meet begins and the crowd gathers around the pool for the first event of the day – the 400 yard freestyle. At slightly less than a quarter-mile in distance, the 400 is a grueling event. It starts the meet’s Sunday swims and often dictates how its participants feel the rest of the day. It’s 16 lengths of the 25 yard pool.
The 400 is all about finding the right mix of strategy, stamina and adrenaline. Get a lead and you won’t often lose it. The energy required to swim 2 football fields at a competitive pace leaves little more than adrenaline for the rest of the race. Making up even a 15-20 yard deficit in the remaining 200 yards is an effort that few are capable of. The alternative? Go out too fast and burn out, only to be caught and overtaken by those who paced themselves more wisely.
After a hair more than 4 minutes and 30 seconds, a swimmer hits the touchpad and stops the timer. He went out at a fast pace – 28 seconds, 31 seconds and 34 seconds were the split times for his first 3 fifty yard laps. Somehow, he managed to maintain a 35-37 second pace for each of the remaining 5 fifty yard laps.
As the exhausted boy climbs out of the pool, his thrilled dad congratulates him at poolside, while trying to remain calm “like a dad is supposed to”. As another group of swimmers arrive at the blocks for the next event, the boy grabs his towel and heads off the pool deck. His dad and I chat while waiting for the next heat to begin. I tell him that his son has a lot to be proud of; swimming a 4:30 in the 400 is a gutsy performance, and doing it at the State meet is outstanding.
After the better part of a decade of 6 am summer practices, on the last day he’ll ever compete in the Montana Federation of Swimmers, an oldest son has just put in a career-best performance in the toughest event the league swims. When Dad turns to see his son being congratulated by friends and teammates, pride overwhelms and he wipes tears from behind his sunglasses.
Nate Donner is Columbia Falls’ only individual State Champion swimmer for 2007. He had sausage and watermelon for breakfast.