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by Landon Kirchner

December 26, 2005

Swimming in "those halycon days"

Landon Kirchner writes: "In one capacity or another I have been involved with swimming since I taught myself how to do a passable freestyle stroke as a seven-year-old at a reservoir near my hometown of Flint, Mich. That was during the summer of 1945, and in retrospect signaled the beginning of a consistent motif that runs through my lifelong swimming career; that is, establish realistic goals and set the standard higher once they have been achieved. And in my case, a large measure of whether a goal is realistic has been determined by observing what others have achieved or failed to achieve. My parents didn't swim, and my father was so unconfident around the water that he declined to fish, which is something my grandfather enjoyed immensely, but wouldn't take me with him until I was able to swim. With no mentor, to fish with grandpa, something I very much desired to do, I had to teach myself to swim by watching other people do it. So my older brother and I walked the ten miles to the reservoir nearly every day that summer and imitated swimmers in water shallow enough for us to touch the bottom until we could set sail into deeper water. Mission accomplished, let's go fishing.

To my knowledge there were no age group swimming programs in Flint at that time, but my junior high school participated in a program sponsored by Central High designed to develop swimmers for high school competition. Once a week a small group of us took a public bus after school to Central and practiced under the guidance of high school swimmers along with kids from other junior highs. At the conclusion of a rather brief season we competed as school teams. In that program I figured out pretty quickly there were lots of kids who could swim freestyle better than me, so if I wanted to carve out a place for myself in swimming, I'd be better off to master the butterfly and breaststroke, which very few could do competently due to their more technical nature. If you can't beat them at what they do best, get better than them at what they don't do well.

I don't recall distinguishing myself in the junior high competition, but I did become the best butterfly and breaststroke swimmer for my team, and I carried those over into my high school swimming at Central as well. In the early half of the fifties, butterfly was swum with a breaststroke kick, which I just naturally did well from the beginning, and breaststroke was swum only on the medley relay, and most of that was underwater. I know that sounds crazy to those who were born too late to have seen it, but its true. Because of the reflection off the water surface, spectators couldn't see the breaststroke swimmer after he entered the water until he surfaced just before the finish of his 50-yard leg. We even did the turn underwater. It wasn't until my senior year in 1956 that we added the dolphin kick butterfly, and then only on the medley relay. Of course, after that the breast and fly strokes became separate events.

My major goals in high school were to first become the top butterfly swimmer on our team, second to actually win some individual events in the fly, and third to meet the qualifying times for the state meet. I achieved them all, but had to wait until my senior year for the latter one. So, frankly, I wasn't a distinguished high school swimmer at all, though I'd had an enormously great time being a member of that team for three years. I also ran cross-country and track, but didn't actually see either as more than cross-training for the swimming season.

College: I moved out of my parents' home at 17, married at 18, and began my college career at Flint Community Junior College, now known as C.S. Mott Community College. I needed to work two part-time jobs to support myself and my spouse, but I still managed to swim the initial season of the college team on a very irregular basis. I couldn't train at all, but I could make some meets as my work schedule allowed. The coach, Don Robinson, who was also my instructor for a P.E. class in volleyball and golf, was desperate for swimmers, so he asked me to do whatever I could to help him get things off the ground. Unfortunately, the distances for my strokes had moved up to 200s, and without any training it wasn't very pretty. I managed to race breaststroke events reasonably well, but just didn't have enough training background for the fly. We were going with no entries in the fly until I asked a stroke judge if it were legal to kick breaststroke but not move the arms at all. When he said it was only necessary to take one arm stroke a length, well, as they say today, I was there, dude. I actually won some events using that 'stroke' against dolphin-kicking butterflyers when my arms gave out, and I split 50s faster just kicking breaststroke than when I was swimming full fly tired.

After I transferred to the University of Michigan, where I completed an undergraduate degree in physics in 1961 and a masters degree in philosophy in 1963, I was asked by Don Robinson to become his assistant coach. That started what was to be a series of college coaching stints in men's golf, women's basketball, and men's and women's swimming. Like Robinson, I had the experience of founding a swimming program, this one at Indian River Community College during the two years I taught philosophy there in the late sixties. During my 41-year career in higher education (21 as a professor and 20 as a dean) I tried to maintain my contact with the pool, if only as a lap swimmer, but it wasn't until the early 80s that I discovered USMS and I began swimming with goals in mind again.

Masters Competition: Soon after arriving at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kan., in 1977 as Asst. Dean for Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, I signed up for the county recreation program's adult lap swims. There my wife, Barbara Smith, and I encountered an instructor who had coached the Kansas City Blazers Masters, and she encouraged us to move up to that group based on our abilities. Barb wasn't keen on the idea, not having any personal involvement with competitive athletics, but when the instructor produced a meet entry form for a Masters competition being held in Wichita, I persuaded her to go along with me and give it a try. We were much better than any of the lap swimmers we had seen in the programs we were attending, and I suspected there would be a bunch of not too athletic adults who were just having fun doing some mock racing. Of course I was way off base, and the quality of competition knocked me out. In one heat of the 100 free I was next to Albert Vande Weghe, a 60 something former silver medallist in the 1936 Olympics. I had no idea that former world-class swimmers were still involved with the sport competitively. I realized that Masters swimming is serious business, and if I wanted to be a part of it, I would have to do some very serious training. That led us to join the Blazers team in the spring of 1982.

For most of the 80s I was really hooked on Masters swimming. I trained four times a week with the Blazers, lifted weights, used resistance machines, ran, and jumped a heavy rope to get as fit and strong as possible. I read everything I could on stroke and training techniques, and competed in just about every meet held in the region. By 1985 I had progressed to the point that I felt ready to enter the Short Course Nationals in Brown Deer, Wis. My goal was to finish at least one event in the top ten. To my delight, I was seeded eighth in the 100 breast behind such imposing swimmers as Bill Mulliken (Olympic champion), Drury Gallagher, David Daboll, Hans Reichelt (Germany), Tom Boyce, Peter Jackson, and Cyrus Hopkins. Not only was I to go head-to-head with legendary breaststrokers, but it appeared I would achieve my goal in my very first event. To my dismay I was called for a false start when I was victimized by a quick gun prior to completing my bend to grab the block. I hadn't jumped, but I was still moving down. I was devastated, since in the other events I was seeded outside the top ten. Still I knew I should have been eighth, and I realized I wasn't that far behind in the other two breast events. I refocused my goal around them, and I went personal best times to finish seventh and eighth. Mission accomplished. So I thought let's strive for a national top ten ranking, which is harder to achieve than a national meet top ten, given the former includes every meet swam during that season all over the country.

With persistence I achieved that goal as well, and in fact made top ten in every stroke and the IMs, including top ten in the world in the breast events and IM following a very good performance in the 1989 Pan Pacific Championships held in Indianapolis. Six medals and six personal best times, including the second fastest 50 breast in the nation that year for my age group. If it weren't for Bill Mulliken, who won the event at the Pan Pacs, I would have been an All-American. As it happened, finishing second became a disappointing routine at national championships over the years. I went to nationals in Houston, Buffalo, Grand Forks, Elizabethtown, Minneapolis (twice), Fort Lauderdale, and even the Canadian Nationals in Regina. All at meters distances, since my academic responsibilities conflicted with the short course championships dates in May, except for the one at Indy in 2000, which had been moved to April when it was shifted from Phoenix. And the swimmers I finished second to reads like an honor roll in the Masters hall of fame; Bill Mulliken (50 breast), Drury Gallager (200 breast), Dick Peterson (400 IM), Dennis O'Brien (400 IM), Nester Miyares (50 breast), David Harrison (800 free), and even Jack Olson the Canadian Olympic breaststroker (50 breast).

During those halcyon days I thought myself lucky to be as close to the gods of swimming as that, and accepted second as first among the mortals. After all, I really am not a great swimmer with credentials of an All-American or a national champion. But I did spy an opportunity to achieve something unique in my own backyard. Since few meets are conducted at the short course meters distance, in Missouri Valley it was just one a year, a small one day affair near Thanksgiving, the MOVY records for that course in the 50-54 bracket weren't all that intimidating, so I set a goal of doing something no one else had ever achieved; holding all 18 records for any course at one time. The six PRs at the Pan Pac helped, and I finished it off in 1990 when I won the 1500 meters at the Canadian nationals. I also won the 200 fly and the 400 IM at that meet, but not in times better than I already had. MOVY officers presented me with a framed certificate listing the records on it, and it's a good thing they did, since now, 17 years later, only one remains. How fleeting fame is. I look back at that certificate and the times I swam seem divinely inspired. But I realize it was really the product of my acceptance that it was an achievable goal.

I've had some bad times (not just on the clock) since then as a result of injuries, surgery, and various physical problems that slow you down long before age gets to you, but I've had some unexpected bonuses as well that didn't come to me as a result of my striving for them, but seem to me to be gifts from the swimming gods. In 1998 I took advantage of the absence of any of the immortals in the 400 IM at the Fort Lauderdale LC nationals and won my first and only US national title. I barely edged out John Medici of Ohio, and I felt really badly for him, since I lost a close battle with Dick Peterson in the same event in 1993 in Minneapolis after leading from out of lane two at the 300 mark. I know full well how disappointing second can be. I also swam on three All-American relays in the last few years after we initiated an all relays meet through MOVY where we swim all three courses on the same day. I am a hot commodity in the meters events due to my age, but no one under 50 wants me for the yards course. Can't say that I blame them.

So what is left to shoot for? The one obvious missing element is becoming an individual All-American I suppose, but right now that seems unlikely. And if I don't think it will happen, it isn't likely to. I believe the swimming gods have been overly generous with me as it is. Perhaps the most significant achievement is that Barbara and I have persevered in our year-round competitive swimming training for what will be 26 years this spring. We swam four times a week, sometimes doing as much as 5,000 yards in an hour and a half under one Blazers coach, the one I won a national championship for in 1998. That seems like a lot of reps looking at it from a distance. But each workout was not just reps, but fun to do, and an activity to share with our team and lane mates, and so it seemed more like play than work. Perhaps the value isn't in the goal and its achievement, but in the activity itself; the physical, mental, and social pleasure one receives from just swimming with a group of like-minded people regardless of any external purpose for doing so. We've met so many really fine people in the places we've swam that I couldn't begin to praise them all. So just maybe I could aim for another 26 years of simply moving through the water. There are lots of interesting and engaging people yet to meet in the pool, and a lot of fun yet to be had. My grandfather and I had great times on the water fishing, and we never competed with each other. We used fishing to grow closer to one another. I'd like to think that's a realistic goal for a man of my age, and it just possibly raises the bar a little higher as well."