Our oldest daughter Elizabeth swims. By this, I mean, she is on a swim team. She shocked the heck out of all of us a few months ago when she announced that she wanted to be on a swim team. Elizabeth had never shown any desire whatsoever to watch sports or play sports or even be around sports.* Whenever I tell people that, they invariably say the same thing: “Oh, well she’s still young, that could change when she gets older. When I was young, I didn’t like baseball at all, but now …” I suppose anything’s possible, but I’m not sure I’ve explained it well enough. Elizabeth actively, passionately, enthusiastically does not like sports. Put it this way: When we go as a family to baseball games, the most important thing we must remember to bring is not a glove or a hat or sunscreen or a blanket but a book for Elizabeth to read. She might last a few innings at the game if she has a book with her. If not, well, no.
*Except NASCAR, which fascinates her.
I get the biggest kick out of her at those baseball games. She will be reading her book — usually something about angst-ridden pre-teens or fairy tales gone awry or magical beings being weighed down by everyday problems or wolves — and then she will look up in this dazed way when the crowd grows loud after a double play or a bases-loaded strikeout or a stolen base. That look — not exactly confusion, perhaps something closer to perplexity — might be my favorite Elizabeth look. It has nothing whatsoever to do with what kind of baseball play sparked this book-interrupting outburst. She couldn’t care less about that. No, that look instead suggests that she has just remembered something important, something surprising — that she is at a baseball game. Once this mystery is solved, she will go back to the book fully satisfied until the next loud cheer pulls her out of her reading coma again.
I have absolutely no misgivings or concerns about her lack of interest in sports. This is how she is wired, and I think it’s great. Our younger daughter, Katie, is the sporty one, the one who has told us on several occasions since the Olympics ended that when she grows up she wants to “run the last leg” of the 4×400 meter relay at the Olympics. It’s always the last leg. She wants to be the one to cross the finish line. But even Katie could not care less about watching or following or even knowing the rules of the sports Daddy writes about for a living. We all spend a lot of our time these days talking about penguins, working out how to play “Call Me Maybe” on the piano and (oddly enough) watching old “Wonder Years” episodes. The Strasburg shutdown hasn’t come up.
So when Elizabeth said she wanted to join the swim team, I expected it to be one of those fleeting things that occasionally pass through her 11-year-old mind, like her temporary but fervent fixation on fake mustaches or the song “I”m Elmo and I Know It.” But she did not back down when I reminded her of a key family rule: You don’t have to start anything — hobbies, sports, clubs — but if you start you have to finish it. After dealing with her usual mountain of anxiety, she decided: She wanted to join the swim team.
And it turns out that she is a good swimmer. I don’t mean she is good in an Olympic sense, or a Junior Olympic sense, or even in a “she is faster than any other swimmer” sense. I just mean: She can swim quite well. She does not come close to drowning. She went to her first practice, and she had to swim, I don’t know, 10 or 20 laps total — we’re talking about a recreation league — and she did it. Her backstroke is quite a lovely thing, at least in her father’s eyes, and her other strokes look pretty good too, and she listens carefully to her coaches, and she gets better at every practice. I have to say it has been an extraordinary thing. I have been writing about sports for more than a quarter century now, and I’ve been in some pretty amazing places and seen some pretty amazing things. But — you already know — nothing is like watching your daughter swim a lap of butterfly for the first time. Nothing is even close.
Now, you might notice how I started this piece. I wrote: “Our oldest daughter Elizabeth swims.” There seems to be a word missing at the end there. The correct sentence, you might expect, is: “Our oldest daughter Elizabeth swims competitively.” But while that might be the way the sentence is usually constructed, in this case it would be totally wrong. Our daughter swims. Our daughter does not swim competitively.
It is striking. Her best stroke, as mentioned, is the backstroke. And in backstroke races, all the swimmers start in the water, the bell sounds, they kick off the wall, and then race to the end. Elizabeth does not do this. She too starts in the water, the bell sounds, she kicks off the wall. And then she swims the backstroke like she’s in some Esther Williams MGM swimming musical. My wife calls it the “La la la” stroke. I cannot possibly exaggerate this. She’s not trying to win the race. She hardly seems aware there is a race. She’s just enjoying the moment, floating on her back, living the life. When she finishes swimming her “race,” she has that same look on her face that she has when her book is interrupted by baseball cheering. It is a look that says, “Oh, yeah, I guess there were other people swimming too.”
Now, I’ve always said to my daughters that the only things that matter to me about playing sports is that they play fair and have fun. That’s it. I mean, yes, quietly I want them to try hard, and I want them to pick up a few of those sports lessons about teamwork and dedication and perfect practice and the rest. But I figure that stuff will happen naturally. Just the other day, Katie was at her soccer game, and there was a very nice professional soccer player giving tips to the 7-year-olds. He told the kids, “Don’t just run to the ball. If you see your teammate has the ball, run to the goal and get open for a pass.” Most of the other kids did not seem to be paying much attention, to be honest — 7-year-old soccer does not tend to be much of a passing game — but Katie was listening very carefully, as she tends to do, and, sure enough, the next two times she was on the field she ran AWAY from the ball, got open, someone actually passed to her, and it led to two great scoring chances. She didn’t score either time (we’re still working on those foot skills, you know), but I couldn’t have been happier. She learned something. And that something might help her in life — to trust other people, to be different, to listen to smart people.
So, I do not care at all if Elizabeth wins or finishes in the top three or finishes in any particular spot. I really don’t. I promise you I don’t. She’s getting stronger, learning discipline, developing an understanding of what it takes to get good at something. That’s what I care about. But here’s where it gets, you know, kind of tricky. I watch her in the water, swimming casually (and usually keeping up with most of the other swimmers because, like I say, it’s a good stroke) and something happens in my brain, something I would rather not happen. I find myself thinking, in capital letters and with explanation points: “HEY! SWIM FASTER! WHAT ARE YOU DOING? SWIM FASTER!”
I realize this is not a helpful thought. It’s not exactly technical advice, either. Swim faster? That’s all I’ve got after covering a bunch of Olympics, after watching Michael Phelps swim dozens of races? But this is the natural way of things, I guess. I’m the dad, she’s my daughter, and while I’m happy that she’s swimming, proud that she’s swimming well, thrilled that she’s found a sport she enjoys … my mind still thinks I’m Stefano Capriati: “COME ON! SWIM FASTER! MOVE YOUR ARMS FASTER! KICK FASTER! GO FASTER!”
I try to suppress it, but I cannot entirely. As a sportswriter, I have for 25 years watched stage parents scream at their kids for mistakes, cheer other children’s mistakes in a ghastly way and and try to live vicariously through these little games. You can see parents — in every city, in every town, at every youth sporting event — emptying out their own frustrations, their own discontent. You can see them pour their unrealistic expectations on children who almost certainly won’t win gold medals or Cy Young Awards or NBA scoring titles. Before I was a parent myself, I had nothing but fury for such people. Leave your kid alone! Let your kid enjoy childhood! I still have plenty of that fury.
After you become a parent, though, you realize that it’s not so simple. I have interviewed many of these parents and have found that they don’t push merely out of greed, but also out of love. And yet, they don’t push merely out of a pursuit of excellence but also out of the regret they feel not having pushed themselves. They want their children to succeed badly, but they also don’t want their children to fail. They understand that these are just games, but they also think that it’s a hard world out there and they want their kids to learn how to compete and win right from the start. It’s jumbled chaos, this relationship between parents and children, and much of the flammable stuff explodes when kids play games.
I don’t have a lesson here … or an answer. I tend to stay quiet, and I tend to offer positive feedback, and I tend to remind her again and again to have fun. But I also sneak in a “Swim faster!” in our talks — in the moments after the race, in the car ride home, in the quiet moments. I can’t help it. I try to sneak it in casually, in an off-handed way, you know:
“Hey, did you study for your test on the Pilgrims? Good. Who were the Separatists? Good. Swim faster.”
“Hey clean up your room, OK? Swim faster too.”
“Quit fighting with your sister! Why can’t you just swim faster and get along?”
So far, I don’t think she’s caught on. So far, she is still swimming in her own world. In my calm moments, I love this — love that she is swimming for herself and not for ribbons, love that she is not overtly competitive and gets real joy out of other people’s successes. But let’s face it: Deep down I’m The Great Santini. Maybe most of us are. I certainly don’t think I’m going to start bouncing basketballs off my child’s head like Santini did. Then again, the fall races haven’t begun.