Wild West Challenge

By David

This weekend the “2007 Speedo International Age Group Invitational” took place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. If you’ve never been, you should make the effort. It is a special sort of event. I’ve written about it before in an article called “The Biggest Meet in the World?”

Fort Lauderdale’s fantastic aquatic center

In spite of my earlier advice the organizers still insist on giving their event an impossibly long and boring title. I’m told years ago the meet was known as the “Wild West Challenge”. Now that’s an improvement I intend to use.

This year’s “Wild West Challenge” was just that. Each session of preliminaries involved two 50m pools operating simultaneously, and only five meters apart. Up to 650 athletes competed in each session in each pool – that’s bloody huge. The standard of those entered wasn’t too bad either. There were Olympians all over the place including, at the risk of being immodest, Rhi Jeffrey from our Club. We also had John Foster and Andrew Meeder, our two other fastest swimmers. But more about them later.

I enjoy the presence of Gary Hall’s Race Club at a swim meet. There’s that slightly rebellious, older athlete feel about the things they do. The men are usually unshaven in a Hollywood, designer, scruffy sort of way – Marlboro men without the cigarette. Not for this team is the regulated march to begin warm ups. Not for them is the coach’s stop watch and whistle demanding obedience. They must work hard though. These guys are as fast as fish. Shows you don’t need to be in the swimming marines to crank out a fast 50 or 400.

I love going to the Swimming Hall of Fame Pool; parking across the road from the Fort Lauderdale beach, admiring skilled roller-bladers dodging Mustangs, Hummers and Corvettes along the beach road, the huge pictures of Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams on the Hall of Fame wall, executives with their fishing tackle climbing aboard the Lady Pamela for a trip the website tells me is “just what is needed for everyone to have a memorable experience while in town” and the whole range of sidewalk cafes, pubs and bars – it’s great.

But even the best run meets, and this one certainly merits that title, can experience interesting problems.

One of our swimmers missed the final of his event after another swimmer was disqualified and then reinstated by the referee. This is the massage I got from the Meet Director explaining the reinstatement. “The issue was that the backstroke pole was bent and the wind was blowing the flags away from the wall and in the judgment of the Referee the displaced backstroke flags were the probable cause of the swimmers turn being illegal” Sounds reasonable except that US Swimming Rules demand that swimmers affected by an equipment failure in this way be given the opportunity to re-swim the event; not be reinstated.

In an understandable and commendable effort to speed up the meet two or three events were switched from one pool to another. The men’s 400 however was switched from the East Pool to the West and finally back to the East. For athletes who have swum over 6,000 kilometers for this chance to qualify for the US Olympic Trials or US Summer Nationals changing and recharging the venue on them forty minutes before their event is not fair.

I do not want to imply that these officials are country-cousins, more used to the challenge of high school dual meets. Far from it, in fact one of the most impressive bits of administrating I’ve ever seen came just as the meet was about to end on Sunday night. A horrible rain and lightning front was threatening Fort Lauderdale from the south. There was no chance we would get through the program. And then the officials picked up the pace. I was mightily impressed. In thirty minutes they gained fifteen. And they did it with an easy efficiency that would have been a credit to any of the world class athletes they controlled. The meet was completed and the storm arrived.

I was pretty pleased with our three senior swimmers. Seventeen year old Andrew Meeder, in just his second meet of the season, completed a fine 24.72 and 53.92 double in the 50m and 100m freestyle; both personal bests, both the fastest for his age. John Foster, in his first meet of the season, swam 4.01.52 in the 400m and 52.95 in the 100m freestyle and Rhi Jeffrey won the 100m butterfly in 1.02.61 and the 100m freestyle in 56.20, the fifty-second fastest time in the world this year.

It’s a joy to coach such fine athletes as they work their way towards success or back from difficult days. This last weekend I’d have happily paid to watch them go about their trade. My guess is there is much better to come. It’s going to be a fun ride.