Reflections of a Veteran Swim Dad
Blog By: Michael Popke, Owner of Two Lakes Media
At a recent high school graduation party, my wife and I reconnected with several other parents we met over the years because our kids swam together. The last time I saw some of them was in 2012, while I spoke with others earlier that week. In a few cases, their kids no longer swim; in others, they’re now on college teams. Regardless of our offspring’s status in the sport, we all enjoyed one another’s company as we quickly picked up where we’d left off. I’m glad I can still call all of them friends.
Swim parents are like that. We spend so much time with each other in the stands, on deck, at parent meetings and during practices that friendships develop spontaneously. And they last well beyond the pool.
I’ve spent a good chunk of parenthood — 13 years and counting — at countless indoor and outdoor swimming facilities all over central and southern Wisconsin. My 19-year-old daughter, Kayla, began swimming at age seven on a summer recreational team; a year later she joined a nearby USA Swimming club, and she also swam for four years in high school, where she was a team captain her senior year.
While her competitive swimming “career” is over, Kayla now lifeguards, teaches swimming lessons, and coaches for a local club. In other words, she’s getting paid to enjoy what she’s been doing since she was a young girl.
Not to be outdone, my 16-year-old son, Tyler, started swimming for the same rec league when he was six, joined the same USA Swimming club the following year and will begin his high school season later this year as a junior with his eye already on the state meet. He’s also working his first summer as a lifeguard.
I’ve rolled out of bed at 5:15 more mornings than I want to remember, drove my kids to a meet and then sat and sweat for countless hours in a humid natatorium — just so I could see Kayla and Tyler swim for a collective total of approximately three minutes and 58.67 seconds. When I got sick of sitting, I volunteered to be a lane timer and eventually underwent training to become a stroke and turn official so I could have (as local meet directors would always remind me) “the best view of the pool.” I even helped hawk SpaghettiOs and walking tacos when my wife oversaw concessions operations for several seasons.
Being a swim dad has been the single most enriching experience of my adult life. I’ve studied the rules, endured the emotions, and treaded water through the inevitable politics. I even jumped back into the pool after a few decades of remaining exclusively on dry land. My wife, too, has become an avid swimmer and (confession time) is more active in the pool than me. She will compete in her third triathlon later this summer.
If I’ve been able to reap such benefits, imagine what competitive swimming has done for my kids. The sport has taught them discipline (daily practices sometimes begin at 6 a.m. and eventually become two-a-days that don’t end until 9 p.m.), sportsmanship (swimmers work toward setting personal records while still scoring team points), and self-confidence. And, like me, they’ve built lasting friendships.
Some of my friends who are hockey dads or soccer dads tell me they could never be swim dads. I understand the sentiment, as I could never be a hockey dad. The only icing I can identify is on a cake. And though I’ve recently begun watching a lot more international soccer on TV, I don’t know if I’d want to sit through rain, wind, and near-freezing Wisconsin temperatures watching my kids play the game.
Yes, I’ll definitely take swimming any day of the week, month, or year. In fact, I already do.
Michael Popke is an award-winning journalist and owner of Two Lakes Media Group, a writing, editing and content marketing company based in the Madison, Wis., area. For 14 years, he was managing editor of Athletic Business, the leading business-to-business magazine and website for athletic, fitness and recreation professionals. He also is a swim dad; has coached baseball, basketball and softball; worked as a USA Swimming stroke-and-turn official; and is an avid high school sports and aquatics safety supporter. He would like to swim faster. For more information, please visit his website at www.twolakesmedia.com and follow him on Twitter @michaeljpopke and @TwoLakesMedia.