By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, August 29, 2018The seconds and minutes before a championship race can oftentimes be as interesting as the race itself. Imagine, if you will: Eight athletes, each behind the blocks (or about to march to the blocks), eight personalities, eight pre-race routines to observe. Phelps had his patented backslap-and-cough routine. Amy Van Dyken used to spit. Missy Franklin smiled.
I wore cow pants. To this day, I don’t remember why. But it started when I was fourteen: I had these cow-printed pajama pants that I wore before a championship final, ended up swimming a best time (by a lot) and thus, I forever wore them before every championship final and forever became known as “Cowpants.” I wore those cow-printed pants throughout my age group swimming career and even before the final race of my career at the Big Ten Championships. (I think I still have them somewhere, though the opportunity to wear them once again has yet to present itself in my mid-thirties.)
Whatever the superstition or pre-race routine is, most swimmers have one. Or two. Or several. Sometimes it’s a particular pre-race stretch. Other times it’s a stare. A few swimmers jump around. Others stand completely still. Could be a particular song listened to on headphones, or a very specific arm-motion.
Most swimmers behind the blocks have something. And many of them have been doing that exact same “something” for years.
Here are, in my opinion, the more intimidating of the pre-race, behind-the-block routines. (Though be careful with any pre-race routine, as sometimes they can backfire and instead give additional motivation to one’s competitors. Oh, and also pay attention to pre-race rules, as you don’t want to get DQ’d.)
1. The casual sit-on-the-blocks-because-there’s-nothing-to-be-worried-about routine.
Some swimmers, before a big race, just sit. They don’t jump around. They don’t get fired up. They sit and just be. This, to me, is super intimidating: Why so calm? Because you know something? Why so serious?!? I can think of a few swimmers who sit and chill behind the blocks before the biggest race of their lives, and I was always scared of them.
2. The even more casual arrive-just-seconds-before-the-race-starts, emerging from air like Batman.
Gotta be careful here. You don’t want to be disqualified for not showing up to the race on time. But for the right race, there’s nothing more intimidating than simply showing up like you are a superhero emerging from the natatorium’s ventilation system itself. Emerging from nowhere. A few times I’ve seen this happen. Once, I was so scared a particular swimmer was competing in the lane next to me, only to be relieved in the minutes before that race because he hadn’t shown up, only to be heartbroken to see him casually strolling up to the blocks seconds before we were about to begin. Oh, the casual cruelty.
3. The water taste.
Some swimmers love to taste pool water before their race. I don’t know why, but I’ve seen it hundreds of times. They dip their hands into the pool water and willingly taste that water that has been sweated in by hundreds of other swimmers… I tried it once, and it made me feel vaguely chemical. So, when I see it happen, I wonder, “What kind of magic power are you getting from that chlorine, friend?”
4. The behind-the-blocks entourage.
Intimidation always arrives in numbers. For those swimmers who compete with their entire swim team crammed behind their starting blocks all cheering their names, I envy you. There’s no better feeling than stepping up to the blocks for a championship final with your entire entourage of friends and teammates next to your block or near the side gutter. I always envied high school teams who brought huge numbers of swimmers to state. Definitely a mental edge, like marching into battle with an entire army at your side.
5. The cloaked parka.
It must be something primal, but whenever I see a cloaked parka’d-up swimmer, it’s a little intimidating. Maybe because it’s like a villain from Star Wars? Or some ancient Druid warrior? Or a wizard with unknown magical swimming abilities? When you want to march out to a championship final, and you want to feel like a rogue ninja warrior about to do battle, go with the cloaked parka, hood over the head, headphones in, walking to the blocks.
6. The all-hair-on-deck approach.
When I saw a swimmer race without a swim cap or tech suit, and with all that hair just begging to add three seconds to their 200 freestyle, I was intimidated. Because it meant one of two things: Either that swimmer was so not into this race, or that swimmer was about to dominate while looking like Big Foot. Maybe this is more relevant for guys than girls, but I respected those teams who swam without caps and tech suits until the championship race (as opposed to eliminating all possible drag for dual meets).
7. The stand-and-stare.
Once, a swimmer stopped mid-march and turned around and stared at me. I think he was doing this to fire himself up or intimidate me. The reverse happened: I got mad. And I beat him. So be careful not to stare at someone; if you’re going to stare, do the stoic stare-down-the-length-of-the-pool thing. After all: Swimming is swimmer versus self. It’s not like someone can jump into the pool and physically stop you from swimming fast. Don’t stare down others; just stare down that pesky pool.
8. The championship final pre-race bow.
If you talk this talk, you have to walk this walk. I love swimmers who take pre-race championship introductions with a little hint of self-deprecation or humor and do a bow. Just a little courtesy for the audience, a little acknowledgement, a little entertainment. It’s all in good fun. Boxing. A bow. Whatever.
So, the next time you’re watching a championship final, watch also the little moves, stretches, slaps, sits, stares, and side glances of the swimmers about to compete. There’s an orchestra at work — each athlete tuning, twisting, tightening, loosening, prepping. And though it’s no race, it’s nearly as fun to watch.