Cultural Observation: Highlander Swim Team

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Cultural Observation: Highlander Swim Team

Lauren Forster

After observing the Highlander swim team from May 2001 through December 2004, I have come to the conclusion that their real purpose is character building. The swimmers train at a very high level and the team practices together every day. They are a culture with their own peculiar customs and values. On the surface it is a culture of building speed and strength in order to win races. Immersed in their work and play are deeper values such as commitment and perseverance.

Who are the swimmers on Highlander? They are young men and women generally between the ages of fourteen and nineteen from various demographics around the greater Orlando metropolitan area. They are all compelled for some reason or another to become fast swimmers.

They practice together for about twenty-five hours per week. Practices are primarily swimming and are written by the coach. As with most swim teams, coaches come and go as years pass. Because swimmers too are growing up and moving on, the team is an entity in constant flux. New leaders emerge as old ones leave. Sometimes promising young athletes go in another direction and develop different interests. Often greatness blossoms in unexpected places. Rarely does a team stand the test of time. The particular group I observed was lead by the same coach for those few years and did quite well.

If you were to observe a Highlander on Sunday morning, and Sunday morning only, he or she would give the impression of a sedentary, perhaps even lazy person. He or she shall I just say "it" for simplicity's sake would sleep as late as possible given the common place interruptions of family or church. Highlanders aren't generally exciting on Sundays because they don't do much other than eat and maybe some homework. The thing is, Highlanders have Sundays off. They easily make up for a grosse matinee on week-days by getting up before the sun.

Mondays through Fridays, Highlanders wake up in time to be in the pool at five a.m. There, they do their first swim practice of the day. It is generally two hours long, and varies in aerobic and anaerobic intensity. Monday afternoon, around four p.m., they swim again for about three hours and sometimes go for a run. Wednesdays and Fridays are the same. Tuesday and Thursday afternoons, they lift weights after swimming for two hours. Saturday morning practices don't begin until around six a.m. A typical Saturday morning would consist of a run, two and a half to three hours of swimming, and an hour or so of lifting. Often there are swim meets on Saturday. Every few weeks, there are larger competitions, and individual swimmers focus on no more than three "big meets" a year.

Swim meets can range from a single day single session to several days with morning preliminaries and afternoon finals. A typical session would begin with warm up. Highlanders do a two to three thousand yard "practice" just to loosen up, which doesn't take the entire hour and a half. The competition portion lasts for about three to four hours and covers an assortment of events. Larger meets cover all the events over multiple days. Spring and summer meets are swam in a fifty meter pool, called long course or LC. Fall and winter meets are swam in a twenty-five yard pool, called short course or SC. The events are:
Freestyle: 50, 100, 200, 400m/500yd., 800m/1000yd., 1500m/1650yd
Butterfly: 100, 200
Backstroke: 100, 200
Breaststroke: 100, 200
Individual Medley: 200, 400

Placement in a race is based on time. Most swimmers keep track of their personal bests to record their progress. Points are allotted according to placement. Individuals may win the overall competition based on points, as well as teams.

Because both training and competitions are challenging, a positive attitude amongst team members is necessary for their success. Swimmers who emerge as leaders tend to be good humored, that is they are focused but are able to make practices fun. Giving up or backing off during a practice or a race is a cultural taboo. Highlanders are expected to give their best effort.

Swimmers with this attitude often find that they go faster than they believed was possible. But it is not just speed in the pool that counts. Most of the Highlanders go on to compete in college. Some of them are primarily swimmers, others emphasize their academic interests. However, what they gain by pushing them selves physically is mental strength to succeed in any endeavor. They also gain a broader perspective on life through their experience. Any one who joins the Highlander team better really care about swimming, because it is a huge commitment! This depth of commitment translates into other fields. The training the swimmers are doing is in perseverance and tenacity as well as physical strength.

What they get out of years of practice is the joy of accomplishing something meaningful. For Highlanders, swimming fast and winning races carries meaning. It is not in the result, but in the act of not limiting oneself that this "winning" takes place. I believe the ability to "compete with yourself" and explore your full potential is useful no matter what your interests are. That is the greatest strength built through the time the Highlanders spend on the team.

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