Ben's Babbles: The long lonely swim

December 10, 2011

A few months ago my fiancée got me started on swimming again. For the record, prior to that I had not gotten into a pool in ... well, a really long time.

I'm lucky to make it a full lap. I believe my future wife describes my form as being like "a drowning giraffe."

Every time I'm flailing about, just hoping to not lose all my dignity by being force to cling to the lane rope, I can only wonder, "How do those kids swim the 500 freestyle?"

Since I started covering swimming, I'm constantly amazed as to why anyone could swim 10 laps, or how they manage to.

I consider the 500-yard (or the 400-meter for Hood River Valley High school home meet purposes this year) to be one of the most difficult events in sports.

It combines the difficulty of long-distance running with the potential to drown if you fail.

Plus, if you are bad at it, you can look really stupid for an 8-10 minute stretch. In running you can get away with not having great form if you are an exceptional athlete. In swimming, if you are a good athlete, it doesn't matter; you need to have the good form.

And it turns out wanting to develop good form is a reason behind wanting to swim the 500.

To get to the bottom of what motivates someone to even consider the event, I asked an experience hand at the 500, Taylor Tyynismaa, and a newcomer to the event, Diego Ybarra, to explain it to me.

Tyynismaa's specialty is the 100 and 50 freestyle events, but at the start of the season she swims the 500 to help her form and endurance.

"It's a good way to work on your weaknesses," she said. "It makes you have to control your speed and your technique."

The 500 is a lonely race. Sure, your teammates are there cheering you on, but no one can keep up a scream of "GO! GO! GO!" for nearly 10 minutes (although the high school kids certainly give it a shot). The most cheering comes at the beginning and the final push.

It's OK if their teammates are not cheering, because the swimmers are likely too busy to notice.

"You just have to zone out," Tyynismaa said. "You have to forget you are swimming."

At the start of the season, HRV coach Keith Ebbert has the Eagles swimming a hodgepodge of events. It forces the swimmers to stretch themselves, and keeps them from simply falling into a routine of what events they do.

Which is how Diego Ybarra wound up in the distance race for the first time Thursday night against Centennial.

"Your lung capacity has to be big," Ybarra said. "But after my first couple years of swimming I knew I could do it."

That lung capacity comes in handy when one is swimming constantly and competitively for nearly 10 minutes.

Tyynismaa said the biggest difference in preparation for her sprint events versus long distance is that she actually has to remind herself not to go so fast during the 500.

Then she sees the orange flash.

Every 500 swimmer lives for the orange flash. That's when their teammate at the far end of the pool runs all the way through the lap counter and flips it over to an orange placard, which they then plunge vigorously under the water.

"It's a big relief," Ybarra said. "You know it's the last lap and that you are going to make it."

When she sees the lap counter go orange, the inner sprinter in Tyynismaa comes out.

"When I see the orange sign you just go as fast as you can," she said.

After watching swimmers glide back and forth for what probably seems like forever to both those in the pool and watching above it, the last 25 meters becomes a frenzy of activity.

Swimmers who gave too much early begin to fade, and those behind them dig deep for the last ounce of energy reserves to close the gap.

When they finish, the swimmers stumble out of the water and get a quick congratulations from teammates before grabbing a towel and trying to not cramp up before their next event.

Thursday night, Ybarra and teammate Carlos Galvez were locked in a tight battle for second place into the final 50 meters, with both trading leads over one another before Galvez outreached Ybarra at the finish line by about a half-second.

To be edged out in a 400 meter race in the final half-meter is hard for a person like Ybarra to take, so even though he was sore afterward, he plans on doing the 500 again.

"He out-touched me," exclaimed Ybarra, adding with a smile: "I can't let that happen."

Ebbert wanted his swimmers taking part in events they don't want to do.

But for some determined enough to swim it, he won't have to worry about forcing them into the event.

"I actually wanted to swim it today," Tyynismaa said. "It's good practice."

You just won't find me volunteering to do it anytime soon.

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