Imagine a swim club in France with a longstanding reputation as a top-ranked women's team. Among its stellar achievements are over ten years of Interclub Championship titles, arguably the most important competition in the country.
It is a team that for years was blessed with a core of talented, competent, and dependent girls, who grew and evolved together, combining studies and the competitive lifestyle to the glory of the entire club. A team whose departmental and municipal governments provided such strong financial backing that when there was a space to fill, it could afford to "hire" swimmers from outside and abroad, seemingly as needed. Anything to keep the yellow caps on the podium, and keep the grant money flowing in.
But all good things come to a reluctant end. Slowly, the team loses momentum. As is only natural, many of the older women move on to life beyond the lane lines. Imagine that not one, not two, but three of them go on to have a child, immersing themselves in their family and professional lives the way they once did in the pool. Some of them still swim when they can, for pleasure, to stay in shape. Some of them don't swim at all.
Imagine that the younger generation, coached for years to aspire to those coveted spots on the 'A' team, doesn't quite fill the deck shoes of the champions past. It's a hard reality, but talent isn't made to order.
This spells trouble in Interclub season. A full "team" is made up of thirteen swimmers--one for each event plus one substitute. The team usually fields full teams in both the National 1 (A and B) categories. but they are lacking a second flyer, a backstroker, a sprinter. With barely weeks to go, the scramble is on to come up with the extra bodies.
When I got the phone call, I thought I was dreaming. Swim? You mean actually race?
The idea was crazy. And yet it was serious. The holes in the team were such that all the golden oldies were being solicited, anything but take defeat easily. Would we please help?
It had been more than two years since I had bent, poised for the gun to go off. A baby in between, and a globetrotting lifestyle that hardly allows for a regular training program. But they were willing to bank on my experience--on nearly twenty years of mileage and competition. Interclub competition is about times, in that points are calculated according to the performance ratings. But it is also about beating out those from the rival team, and for that good racers, no matter what their age, are an asset.
So what could I do with three weeks of training?
I reflected a moment. I had spent four years competing for this team as a foreigner, and it wasn't really in me to refuse to participate, on whatever grounds. Besides, it could be fun. It was high time, however, to state my conditions. Traditionally a medley specialist, I was in no shape to fake an IM. Even a short one. Given my age and the short notice, I stipulated, "No more than 100 metres."
Since I had last competed at the Interclubs in Boulogne-Billancourt (a Paris suburb) in 1994, the competition had moved to Chalon-sur-Sa™ne, a picturesque town on the banks of the Sa™ne river with impressive sporting facilities.
The weekend was the traditional mix of carnival ambiance, costumes, and deafening noisemakers. And it was not without some good performances (3 national records), a lot of fun, and some farcical mishaps.
For instance, one swimmer from Antibes (we'll spare naming him!) miscounted in the 4x200 freestyle relay, diving in at the 150 mark just as he realized his teammate was about to turn. With admirable agility, he managed to turn the dive into a jump and fell in just shy of the unsuspecting swimmer. There was much humming and rumbling in the stands but the team was not disqualified. Thank goodness for them, because they won! The premature jumper climbed out and redeemed himself with a PB of 1:50.30.
The fashion for foreigners still rages and Britain's Mark Foster led the pack swimming for Cannes (who swam in the National 1B this year). Clichy boasted recruits Susan Rolph, Sarah Whewell, and Marie Atkinson, all from Great Britain. Rolph won the 100 freestyle in 55.14, a swim that scored 1016 points for her team. Bernd Zeruhn of Germany swam for Montpellier, while Romanian Larisa Lacusta won the women's 200 IM (2:17.07) wearing the colours of Caen.
In the men's 50 freestyle, Mark Foster thought he heard a whistle, causing him and his neighbour to stop short after the dive. The other swimmers continued on as officials bumbled the false start rope. One by one they came to a stop, at 20 m, 30 m, 35 m and the unfortunate outside laners swam the whole 50 m. Much booing, and the race was called back, to be swum again later in the session. Foster got it right that time and won in 22.33.
The final drama came when the leading men's team, the prestigious Racing Club de France, suffered a disqualification. The team was in first place when Franck Schott (the father of two children) was spotted dropping a shoulder on the turn in the 200 butterfly; the devastating loss of points sent the team plummeting to fourth spot. Their angry protests were in vain. Powerhouse Toulouse ended up winning both the men's and women's titles. The Clichy women (that's us!) saved second place, while Antibes (with flyer Franck Esposito, also a father) took second "chez les hommes."
Through foreign eyes, a meet where the retired come out of retirement for the team and for the love of the sport sounds like fun, but hardly serious. And yet it is very serious, because clubs in France are a serious business. It is also admirable that talent and experience, which still exist after retirement, can be exercised once a year in a truly team venture. Why not? It not only implies that the retirees are still in very decent shape (which is positive in itself), but it's a couple of days during which they relive their not-so-distant youth. Take it from me.
The flip side of the coin is the statement such a festival makes on French swimming, and the clearest example was the men's 100 freestyle. The race was won by Stephan Caron, who retired in1992 after winning a bronze medal in the100 freestyle at the Barcelona Olympics. A successful businessman, he is still one of the mainstays of his team (RCF). But while his winning time of 49.91 demonstrated his unquestionable talent, the 52.5 that took second place testified to the drought that, for the other 363 days of the year, shows little sign of letting up.