Duke University Alumni Magazine

Swimming Uphill

by David Tonini ' 98

sometimes think that if the admissions office could find a way to offer campus tours at six a.m., applications to Duke would skyrocket beyond our already inconceivable numbers. The early morning, as the campus lies asleep, is a time when the beauty and simplicity of our four short years in this place comes into perspective. It is familiar only to the groundskeepers, a few professors and administrators, and the swim team, bundled in thick parkas to brace them from the piercing chill while scurrying off to the Aquatic Center to get in a few miles before breakfast.

On the night of the last day of classes in May, the men's and women's varsity swimming and diving teams got together for a final celebration of the 1996-1997 season. Amid the spectacle of team awards and final senior speeches, we made the selection of this year's team captains. I can't say that it surprised me when I was chosen from among my peers. My class, which initially had consisted of twelve people, had in three years dwindled to only five guys. Over the past three years, I had given my life to that team.

For the most part, I'm an introverted person, preferring to set my example by quietly working hard in practice rather than standing up and leading the charge. My memory of past captains was that they carried a physical presence that made me want to excel; they had set a standard that I wasn't sure I could live up to. My apprehension was eased when I recognized the simple fact that I know this team, I know the season, and I know the sport as well as anyone else could possibly know them. I have seen it all--the high points, when we are rested and swimming fast at the Atlantic Coast Conference championships, and the low points, on Thanksgiving mornings, when we have 10,000 yards to get through before the turkey and dressing.

While our teams over the past three years have had an overall losing record--never finishing better than sixth at the ACC championships--they have been enormously successful. They have succeeded because past captains had cultivated a team that was so tight and so proud that we were driven to exceed our potential.

The season starts "unofficially" on the night before the first day of classes in September. At an introductory meeting, Coach Bob Thompson does his best to intimidate the group of 150 or so freshmen who think that summer league swimming is all that they need to compete in the ACC. Fifty percent of that crowd won't make it to our first practice the next afternoon.

Swimming is a sport built around pain. Most closely identified with distance running, swim practice aims to over-train your body for the race: Train until you fail. In order to accomplish this, we travel back and forth in the pool roughly 320 times in four hours of practice each day of the week during the heart of our season.

Although I cursed it as a freshman, I have come to love the fact that our team is one of only two at Duke that does not have scholarships. What has developed out of our lack of scholarship money is a team of athletes who simply want to be swimming. Otherwise, we don't have a reason to go through this grueling routine. It honestly takes the support of the entire team--unity and the tradition of togetherness--to endure a season. My Duke friends outside the team understand that through the fall semester, I go into "hibernation," meaning never really going out in the evenings because of practice at early-morning hours, and that every breakfast and every dinner from September to January will be eaten with my fifty teammates.

I love to compete. Growing up, so much of the way that my family operated was centered on competition. My dad is the most intense competitor whom I have ever met. While our attraction to the water must have come from somewhere else, both my sister, a phenomenal athlete and captain of her high school swim team, and I certainly got our fire and tenacity from him. When I began swimming competitively at the age of ten, my dad started recording all of my times for the season on a spreadsheet. To this day, whenever he and I talk swimming, his spreadsheet will come out and he will analyze what I need to do to jump to the next level. My competitiveness was only sharpened by my elementary years on the club state champion team, the Lakeside Swim Team, and high school swimming for the Kentucky state champion Saint Xavier Tigersharks.

As I have developed as a swimmer over the past three years, the biggest obstacle I have had to face was understanding that there are very few meets where the Duke swim team is capable of being competitive. Every competition on our schedule is an uphill battle; we compete against teams that possess scholarships, larger budgets, and more speed than we do. Realistically, conference meets are often so one-sided that our races are more against the clock, looking for personal improvement, than against any of our opponents. After another loss and an 0-3 start at three away meets, I reiterate to the team the importance of understanding that our season focuses on season's end and on swimming fast at the ACC championships. And then I get in at practice and train harder and faster than ever.

As captain, one of my main responsibilities is to do what it takes to get the team mentally in the game and ready to compete. I'm not one to stand up on a bench in the locker room and deliver stirring "win one for the Gipper" speeches meant to carry us to victory. Generally, I leave the speech-making for the coach's pre-meet talk. Instead, I rely on my own intense competitiveness to motivate my teammates. I am lucky that as the backstroke, the lead-off swimmer in the 400 Medley Relay, I am the first person on the team to race. Right from the start, my effort in the first race sets the precedent for how our team will compete over the course of a thirteen-event meet.

Not many undergraduates make it out to cheer on the swim team in their four years at Duke. Usually, what few people there are in the stands are boyfriends or girlfriends of swimmers, or fraternity brothers who lost some sort of bet and have to pay up with their presence. I once helped the captain of the Dancing Devils dance team move several hundred pounds of luggage into her dorm room in exchange for a performance at one of our home meets. Two years later, I'm not holding my breath that she'll ever pay up.

Still, swim meets turn out to be spectacles. I've been in the stands at more than one meet in my days as a swimmer, and I can say honestly that watching people cheer for swimmers is something that defies my understanding. All kinds of sounds are made, from shouts, barks, and whistles, to strange "whooping" noises, as the swimmer turns his head to breathe. The crazy thing is that any swimmer will tell you that we don't hear a thing when in the water; yet we continue this bizarre ritual of noises.

From the time we arrive in Durham in September, our practice schedule makes weekend get-aways impossible. We stay on campus for both fall and Thanksgiving breaks for our most intense periods of training of the season. Our coach uses the unlimited practice time to break us down physically to the point of exhaustion. But for me, the demands of swimming during breaks are overshadowed by experiencing the relaxed pace of the campus--and by the promise of our January training trip to Fort Lauderdale. That trip directs our attention to the ACC championships. By the first of February, morning practices have ended, and afternoon practices begin to center on establishing the rhythm and pace necessary to swim fast at the end.

Professional swimming does not exist. For a senior, ACC championships are the conclusion to his career. In my case, when I finish the last lap in the final heat of the 200 backstroke in late February, I will have brought to a close fifteen years of competitive swimming. Will I be satisfied with my last race? While I'm certain that I will, I want to avoid the question for as long as possible.

If I could go back to being a freshman on the team, I would do it in a heartbeat. I always hated the end of the season, when I had so much free time that I didn't know what to do with myself. And this is the end of the last season. The sport that has come to define my life will be over; I will have to find a non-swimming route to travel.

You don't even begin to understand the value of what you do as a varsity athlete until your senior year. It's only then that you start to find deeper meanings to common words like success, dream, and love. If I can pass on this senior knowledge to my teammates, then I have succeeded as a captain.

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