NFL training camp is back underway, and all of your favorite players are being reminded once again: Football practice sucks. That's well documented. The pain. The violence. The hot sun. But you know what sucks worse? Swim practice.
Before I ever put on a football helmet, I had been a competitive swimmer for nine years. I started swimming for my local cabana club, the Pinehurst Piranhas, when I was five. I was fast. I broke a lot of records. And I wore my Speedo to bed the night before swim meets. Didn't want to waste time changing into it in the morning. During a meet my goal was to finish the race, get out of the water, and put on my towel before my competitors touched the wall. I wanted them to look up and see me standing there, dry. I was a little asshole.
After three years of cabana-league swimming, I joined a year-round swim team called San Jose Aquatics. That's the natural progression for the promising kid swimmer. For the next seven years, I had swim practice daily.
So each day after school, I carpooled with friends to Gunderson High School, where we practiced. We had an hour to kill before we got in the pool. This was the funnest part. We played butts-up on the concrete wall, ran through the halls of the school avoiding janitors and teachers, tried to coax candy bars out of the vending machines, and pried opened lockers with various gadgets. Eventually I went out front to wait for my dad. He brought me a quarter-pounder with cheese before practice. My friends were jealous.
Then practice started, and I started thinking of ways to cheat the system. Because swim practice was invariably shitty. Back and forth, back and forth. Get up! Go! Faster! Faster! Every breath I took, I peeked at my coach. If he wasn't watching, I flipped at the flags and cut 10 yards off of my rep. During backstroke I was pulling on the lane line for some extra push.
If I could muster up some faux-nausea I would spit up some puke and make sure my coach saw it. He'd have no choice but to send me to the locker room to rest. I'd sit in the hot showers for the next hour until my friends came in, and I'd laugh at them for not being as smart as me.
One time I had some sort of bug bite on my forearm that had swelled up. I noticed it during the day at school and saved that information for later. Fifteen minutes into practice, I pretended to hit my arm on the wall on a backstroke flip turn and showed coach the swollen spot: "Wow, that doesn't look good. It sure swelled up quick. You'd better go ice it." "You sure, coach? I really want to practice!"
I especially prized early morning practices, when it was cold out and the fog and steam shrouded the entire pool in a haze. I could hide on the opposite wall all practice long, blowing bubbles between the legs of my teammates as they did flip turns over my head, and my coach never knew the difference. I just had to finish the last lap of the set and I'd come into the wall along with everyone else, breathing hard for effect.
It was no use. My feelings for swimming were gone. I had fallen in love with ball sports. I wanted to be on a field, making plays, running and jumping and bleeding. That's all I cared about.
So when I got to high school, I said good bye to year-round swimming for good. By that time, one swim practice a day wasn't enough for the year-round industry. It was two-a-days, every day, all year long. Later, boys. Have fun. I played football and basketball, and swam only in the spring with my high school team. And what do you know? I started enjoying it again.
I think about this every time the Olympics come around. Specifically when Michael Phelps comes on TV. He is a 27-year-old swimmer. This is his fourth Olympics. He's the most decorated swimmer in history. He's been dragging himself out of bed every morning at four-something for the last too-many years. And he already knows exactly how it feels to be the best swimmer in the history of earth. So how, after the comedown from Beijing, did he motivate himself to start training again for a meet that was over three years away?
Apparently it took some coaxing. When it came time to start training again, Phelps wasn't so Phelpsian. He was skipping workouts and when he did show up he was bullshitting, sitting on the wall blowing bubbles while Ryan Lochte did flip turns over his head. According to his mother and his coach, it was the two of them who finally convinced him to get serious. Never a good sign. But people get used to the spotlight, no matter how they get there.
Whatever got Phelps training again, he managed to get back to form. But imagine the inner monologue. Swim practice is all inner monologue. It is lonely and repetitious, and it gives birth to obsessive-compulsive tendencies that germinate in the altered perception of sound and gravity created by the submerged eardrums. You can literally hear yourself think. Even the tiniest grunt, mumble or whisper bounces back into the brain as an amplified sound wave cresting on whatever mood you're in. And it's breaking whether you're ready or not.
Football two-a-days are brutal, yes. But it's a frantic brutality, a violent chaos that sweeps you up and allows no time to consider its merits. Swimming is the opposite. You're all alone down there. No plays to remember. No snap-count. No variables. Just you, stroke after stroke, counting and singing and talking to yourself to the rhythm of your body. And it's all in the mind. It's always all in the mind.
"ONEtwothreefourONEtwothreefourONEtwothreefourFIIIIIIIVE…Whats with these HOmies dissing my GIRL? What's with these HOmies dissing my GIRL? What's with these HOmies dissing my GIRL? What's with these…BAdadadaBAdadadaBAdadadaDAAA, BAdadadaBAdadadaBAdadadaDAAAAA!" That was my inner monologue, to infinity and beyond. Cue the psychosis.
Only when you touch the wall and look up at the clock does your head come out of the water and you can have a look around. Maybe a quick word to your friend in the next lane, some encouragement from your coach, then you're pushing off the wall again, back to the one-man band in your skull.
It's an endless banter, a back-and-forth so delicate that if you're not in good spirits and ultra-motivated to be the most awesome swimmer ever, it can send you spiraling quickly into lethargy. It did me in and many of my friends along the way. Swimming is half ability, half motivation. And the better you are, the more time you have to spend swimming back and forth, before you can reach the prize.
For the average swimmer, there are meets every few months to get up for. But for the greatest swimmer ever... You get the picture. The same is happening on the track, with Usain Bolt. He's been to the mountain top. To climb again, then?
Phelps is used to all these mind games, more so than anyone. But the longer you go through any ritual, the more likely you'll learn to hate it. Professional ritual is the bane of our instinct as free humans, even if its ritualizing something we used to love. Especially if its ritualizing something we loved.
And the more success you have, especially in the public eye, the less free you become. Phelps took a bong rip and got banned from competing in the sport he carries on his back. A bong rip. Imagine the internal monologue there.
All of this, I'm sure, is in the back of his mind when his alarm goes off in the morning. Yeah he gets out of bed and jumps in the water, but when it comes to that extra push at the end of a long set, he sees the future. And it's Andrea Kremer with lipstick on her teeth asking him about Ryan Lochte.
This would explain his melancholy lately. And his slow start in this Olympics. But he got punched in the mouth a few days ago when he didn't medal in one of his best events. And NBC quickly passed the crown to Lochte. Bob Costas has one hand on the gallows lever. He's itching to pull it and send Phelps out to pasture, with a pat on the back for being the "most decorated Olympian ever." Now tell us more about Ryan Lochte, would you Andrea? Not so fast, Bob. Not so fast.
For a handy master schedule of every Olympic event, click here.
Nate Jackson played tight end for the Denver Broncos from 2003 to 2008. His writing has also appeared in Slate and The New York Times. He is working on a book about life in the NFL, to be published by HarperCollins.