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He waved his hand nonchalantly.
"Cheers," he said, and I left.
It was only later that I learned I had committed a faux pas. I was always finding out things later. You did not "go out" for the varsity. College sports, O.K.—you could turn up whenever you liked. But the varsity was strictly invitational, so much so that in my day the Varsity Boat Club had never used an American oar. There was a faint general resentment of Americans and Colonials taking over Oxford sports. However, I paid my shilling and trundled a slow half mile every day up and down the bath. It was like swimming in church.
In a couple of weeks Pace sent his note round and the season opened. I was astounded. It was not so much that they swam badly—I had more or less expected that from their record times—it was that they worked so little. In fact, they didn't work at all. They swam until they felt tired and quit for the day, refreshed. Where was the old pepper, the old fight? Slowly I began to comprehend the English attitude toward sports, which, unless Dr. Bannister changed it drastically with his great meticulous mile, is this: sports are for fun. If you are good at one or two of them, it is somewhat in the nature of a divine gift. Since the gift is perpetual, it is there every day and you can pull out a performance very near your best any time. With a little practice to loosen the muscles and clear the pipes, you are ready for the severest tests.
I was drinking beer one night in Balliol College with several men, one of them an Olympic runner, a 1,500-meter man. It is rare that a subject so trivial as sports would come up in Balliol, the intellectual center of England, but it came up and eventually came down to the question of how fast could this Olympic man run 1,500 meters at the moment? We all piled into a couple of taxis and drove out to the Oxford Sports Ground, where there was a cinder track. The runner, full of confidence and beer, supplied a stopwatch and a flashlight, and there in his street clothes, in the rain, in the dead of night, this man took off and ran 1,500 meters in just over four minutes. This proved to me that the English were right, but it did not prove to me that I was wrong. I knew I could not swim 100 yards in less than a minute, untrained.
But I stayed untrained. It seemed to be overly zealous to go on chugging up and down after all the other members of the club had showered, dressed and come to stand at the edge of the bath to watch me as if I were a marine curiosity, like a dugong. I tried it a couple of times and quit. I swam as little as they did, no more. Then there was the problem of entertainment after the matches—they didn't call them meets. There was little university swimming in England, so our competition was usually a town club whose members might be aquatic plumbers and carpenters—not gentlemen, you see. With a splendid condescension, we set out a table loaded with whisky, beer and wine after each match, and we had to drink to make our guests feel at home so that caste differences would be concealed and we could pretend to be all jolly good sportsmen together. After a match, say, in London with the Paddington police, the coppers would set out a table of whisky, beer and wine, and we had to drink to show our appreciation of their hospitality. This drinking was not a detestable chore, but it meant that, with two matches a week, we were getting mildly stoned twice a week just in the way of business. This was not how I had been taught to train, and it came over me suddenly how far morality had invaded sports in the U.S.
I won all my races except one, but the times were shamefully slow and I was chased right down to the wire in all of them. In May, John Pace had the whole club to tea in his rooms. There was an hour of conversation interspersed with tomato and cucumber sandwiches. Then Pace stood up by the chimney piece. "Now, chaps," he began facetiously (I never heard anyone use "chaps" except facetiously). "You know we swim the Tabs two weeks from now." "Tabs" meant Cambridge, from the Latin Cantabrigia. "Please smoke only after meals and cut down your beer to a pint a day. And do try to swim every day between now and then."
People clapped and cried, "Hear! Hear!" as if Pace had been in the House of Commons. I gathered we were in hard training from then on. I had not gone under 61 seconds for 100 yards yet, and I had heard that Cambridge had a fancy Dan named Hill who had done 58. I was scared.
Someone said, "This rationing of beer, John. What if we're sconced?"
"Behave yourselves and you won't be," Pace said.