Poolside Electricity


There is a mass of muscle and sinew purposefully moving on the deck of the Ithaca College Aquatics Center, bunched super-fit human specimens in various stages of dress from swims to sweats with deck-coats, fondling swim caps and goggles. There are slippery porpoises sliding in fluid concert in the pool around which that deck is wrapped. I am at the New York State Swim and Dive Championship watching the best swimmers in the state work – a corps of elite athletes that would make a Marine drill sergeant proud – their warm-up laps enough to dishearten the most fit athletes in other sports. My daughter is in that sea of huge hearts and ultra-efficient cardiovascular systems. I can hardly believe it.

The New York State Swimming and Diving Championships played out over two days last weekend. Forty three high schools participated. Southwestern High School sent six swimmers, five who competed and one just-in-case-alternate. The five that competed (for the record, Sydney Thomas, Xiane Smith, Jillian Lawton, Katie Lawton, and Sydney Burk) swam in three individual races and three relay races. They finished tied for 10th in the meet as a team, which is highly impressive if you consider their numbers alone. The feat elevates a little when you know the teams that finished ahead of them. Consider this list:

Place School High School enrollment
1. Pittsford 1,998
2. Bemore Merrick 1,371+ 1,289 (yeah, they have 2 high schools)
3. Orchard Park 1,577
4. Ithaca 1,418
5. Fairport 1,639
6. Clarence 1,650
7. Pelham 848
8. Horace Greely 1,319
9. Clarkstown 1,547 South High + 1,482 at North High
T-10th. Southwestern 444 (tied with Shenendehowa at 2,188)

Anything stick out there? Break down those numbers any way you like and you can see that the five swimmers that competed did a pretty special job. They were one of only 12 schools to score over 100 points, and achieved 3rd place from Section VI behind Orchard Park (1,577 students) and Clarence (1,650). Thomas, Smith and Katie Lawton are juniors. Burk and Jillian Lawton are sophomores. Their names are currently on the Southwestern pool record board six times in various combinations. (note: yes the Lawton swimmers are sisters).

I believe talent is like electricity. We don`t understand electricity. We use it. You can plug into it and light up a lamp, keep a heart pump going, light a cathedral, or you can electrocute a person with it. Electricity will do all that.

Maya Angelou

Electricity arced through the Ithaca Athletics and Events Center. It was there, where maybe it shouldn’t have been, what with a chlorine sea pooled at our feet. But it was there nonetheless, charging off the walls and ceiling, barely contained, from spectator to spectator and down into the pool to the competitors. I swear I saw it. Electricity, like faith, something you can’t see except in the effect it has on that which it touches.

I goose bump up pretty easy, and I’ve seen more than my share of athletic events, both big and small, that raised a welt on the ol’ epidermal layer, but I’d be hard pressed to name another venue I’ve attended in person that has impressed me more than the state swim meet. The specific qualities of building materials needed to house a chemical-filled, heated lake tend to echo sound, all tile and glass and hard surfaces. There’s little to dampen the background murmur of a thousand people (much less their shouts) save fellow spectators and a few hundred beach towels. And the passion that binds naturally to athletics that feature a single competitor and a clock make each effort a little more extraordinary.

There is nothing quite like a swimmer on the final leg of their heat – one they’ve spent a season, a year, a lifetime preparing for – and the anxious, breathless, dizzying journey of the people who care deeply how they finish. You hope from your core that they get to the wall faster, you pray for the damned clock to suspend, to please slow down this one time while my daughter, my teammate, my friend gets through the water and to the wall. It’s excruciating, and vivid and shrill and acute. And then you look up at the clock and there is a number that’s attached to your daughter, your teammate, your friend, for better or worse. Sometimes, frankly, I don’t know how they do it.