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Because, in a way, we live in an age of arrested development. We tickle our adolescence much in the manner our wives employ when amusing the very young. We cannot let go of it—the game we played or the joy we took in playing it. The 80-yard run or that long, last hook shot that won the game for good old—you name the school. We sprint in our sleep, some of us, like dogs adreaming. But only rarely is the old jock fool enough to reenter the fields of play. Sure, there are the pickup games of touch in the park or of half-court at the Y, these paid for often enough in the coin of pain: a charley horse or a bent nose. The old baseball player wallops the horsehide at the company picnic, sucking down beer between innings, enjoying both the memory and the prospect of hangover.
Ah, but the man who was once a champion swimmer—where does he go to recapture the psychic garlands of his now-drained glory? Usually he ends up swimming laps in a motel pool, a dinky well of nostalgia fraught with kids and chlorine. He hopes his stroke will announce to the world, or at least that portion of it sizzling like pork chops at poolside, that he was once akin to Schollander and Spitz. But at the very moment of his grandest fantasy, he usually clips a little girl on the side of the head with his nifty, bent-armed recovery and hears her porcine papa bellow: "Hey, showboat, look out for my kid. Who do you think you are, Weissmuller?"
The swimmer returns to his laps, chastened, slower, thinking that, after all, the real thrill of swimming was not in the workouts. No, not in those endless, dead-armed hours of ennui punctuated by retching. The real thrill was in the race itself, and in the hours leading up to it. He relives the scenario. There was that fine, visceral balance that had to be struck between fear and fury as he shaved down for the meet. Then the dry-throated shimmer of horror when his event was called. Followed by a feeling of calm, yes, of readiness, rising like mercury in the competitive thermometer of his backbone as he mounted the block. A quick glance at the crowd—the grim-faced fathers, the hot-eyed girl friends. And then the climactic moment: the crack of the starter's pistol....
Four ancient swimmers from Wauwatosa, Wis. recently relived those dubious thrills. Hoping against hope, teetering against time, they swam a 200-yard freestyle relay—50 yards per Methuselah—against four of their inheritors, topflight members of Wauwatosa West High School's 1971 state championship swimming team. The senior citizens lost, as they knew they would, but not so badly as had been predicted. At the same time they won a victory of Proustian magnitude, a successful search for the past—� la recherche du temps perdu—without the aid of tea cakes. These four men, whose combined ages totaled a century and a half and averaged 38� years, proved that Thomas Wolfe was a liar: you can go home again!
The instigator of this juvenile exercise was a man whom I shall call Splash, age 37 and possessed by some strange coincidence of the same fingerprints as this article's author. Splash now lives in the exurbs of the Northeast, but in his day as a high school swimmer he was the fastest 50-yard freestyler in the state of Wisconsin and the fourth fastest high school swimmer in that event in the U.S. Lean, swart and crew cut in those years, Splash affected a sullen mien that he thought would score points with the girls, but at heart he was a happy romantic. He believed in competition for its own sake, and knew that the lad with the best attitude would ultimately win—at anything, anywhere—provided he trained properly. Four years of college, three in the U.S. Navy, followed by many more in the corporate dueling salles of New York City had complicated that vision. But Splash was sure his unarticulated major premise was still right, although sportswise, at least, his spreading waistline, balding pate and pallid hide were slowly but surely eroding its credence. "If I could only get back in shape," he would frequently lament over his fifth martini. "If I only had the time...."
Clearly it would take a major psychosocial shock to jolt Splash back into competition. And in the sports world of the 1970s, none of the psychosocial shocks had any impact. He could not feel outraged pro or con over the plight of the black athlete: he had never particularly wanted to hear Duane Thomas talk, or to smoke pot with him either, for that matter. The premature death of Dick Tiger had moved him, but that was more a geopolitical and medical sorrow (Splash had kind of liked Biafra, but he hated cancer). The trades and fades of athletes in any sport, of any color, were interesting but hardly emotional matters. They all could have been stories on the business page for all Splash cared, and probably should have been. He shared the Western world's mild contempt for Avery Brundage and envied Karl Schranz his commercial cunning. Still, the Olympics was "teevee" to Splash. And Splash could take "teevee" or he could leave it alone.
Thus he was surprised when the major psychosocial shock actually hit. It came on the commuter train one morning when, in the tattletale-gray shirttails of The New York Times sports section, he discovered that a 19-year-old girl swimmer—a girl who had swum the 100-meter freestyle faster than Splash had at the age of 22—had retired. Retired because she could no longer "get it on" for swimming. The effect was one of instant outrage, followed by a flush of self-doubt.
"How could I have been that stupid to be a swimmer?" he wondered later. "It was like one of those dreams where you suddenly find yourself on Park Avenue in your pajamas. I tore the paragraph from the paper and stuffed it under the seat. I don't even remember the girl's name—Debbie Flyer or one of those cutesy monickers they give the little twerps these days—but I'd known there was a revolution going on in swimming, an earlier start in competition, a tougher training regimen, a total disregard for the-sanctity of records, which is as it should be. But this was too much. Over the hill at 19—my sweet Weissmuller! This one cruel development had undercut all my happy memories of swimming, had curdled the milk of my nostalgia and made me old before my time, as we say. For days I tried to submerge the fact, sublimate it so that my ego might heal, but the ache endured. It was then I realized that we had to swim The Relay."
To Splash, with his love of metaphor, The Relay suddenly seemed to symbolize meaningful transition in an age of instant rejection, a rapid but orderly transfer of confidence and tradition from one man to the next, if not between generations. "I reckoned that if I could get some guys together from our 'Glory Days' and swim them against our counterparts on the same high school's team of today," he said, "then even if we lost, which we surely would, we'd at least know the measure of our decline. And perhaps by swimming out our humiliation, we might drown it like a nagging, unwanted alley cat. And what the heck, it would be a lot of fun just to get together again."
On his next trip to Wauwatosa, where his parents still lived, Splash set about locating his relay team. It was not easy. Just finding three old friends still living in one's hometown after a 20-year absence is pure luck in this age of corporate diaspora. During Splash's youth, Wauwatosa had been a small bedroom suburb on the western outskirts of Milwaukee, a quiet, tidy enclave whose middle-class affluence was as sturdy as its stone houses, as neatly clipped as its putting-green lawns, a town where men often took the streetcar to work, or else walked whistling under the elms. Now Milwaukee's sprawl had locked the town in a crablike embrace and the elms were dying—as much, it seemed, of woe as of blight. Warehouses and ticky tacky covered the fields where Splash had shot prairie chickens; where woods had grown, freeways ran thick with black plastic cars full of pink plastic men in brown plastic suits. Some benevolent authority had placed a concrete bottom in a stretch of the Menomonee River where smallmouth bass had swum.