The Rise and Fall of an All American

The Rise and Fall of an All American:

A Screed in Words and Pictures

Little Jimmy-John Thornton learns to “swim” in the basement pool of the Sewickley, YMCA. It’s 16-and-2/3rds yards in length, but his goal isn’t to attempt such an impossible distance. Rather he hopes, with effort and methodical training, to make it across the pool’s width by high school. Jimmy-John soon teaches his twin brother Johnny-Jim how to “swim”, too. In a blink of an eye, the identical twins are swimming one-two-even-three widths at a time, with only short rests in between. By high school, they are scaring the wits out of their over-protective mother by attempting oceanic bay crossings in New Jersey without life preservers.

In the Mark Spitz era, Jim swims his freshman year at the prestigious University of Michigan where he quickly establishes himself as the second worst swimmer on the team. The worst is a guy with supernumerary nipples whose father is an assistant football coach for an NFL team. Jim gets cut after his freshman year; the tri-nippled fellow does not. Lesson learned: Rules are meant for getting bent, as is Jim himself.


Deeply depressed and riddled with anxiety disorders and other neuroses unrelated to water, post-collegiate Jim is living at home in his childhood bed and taking drugs like Haldol {a dopamine antagonist of the typical antipsychotic class of medications} and Mellaril {a piperidine antipsychotic drug previously widely used in the treatment of schizophrenia} that didn’t work then and seems, in retrospect, something of a psychiatric fishing expedition. He decides to show up at the Sewickley YMCA kids’ swimming practice in the hopes of bludgeoning his drug-resistant misery into submission through laps. He takes two new items with him to practice: goggles, which he has never worn before, and a bottle of Jim Beam purloined from his parents’ liquor cabinet. The kids’ coach lets him swim with the youngsters. The combination of gratitude and inebriation allows Jim to adjust easily to wearing goggles.


Eight years, five state moves, and innumerable firings later (North Carolina to Georgia to Utah to Florida to Iowa; waffle cook to lifeguard to hydraulics shipping boy to private school teacher to graduate student), Jim moves to Minnesota and sees a sign hanging over the new Skyway YMCA in St. Paul, MN announcing the formation of a “masters” swimming team. He joins in 1984 and has swum masters (11 years in Minnesota; 17 years and counting in Sewickley after moving back there in 1995) ever since. Except for 2-3 local meets in Minnesota, he does not compete until the late 1990s. He swims his first USMS meet in 2000 at age 48, doing this in conjunction with a magazine article assignment on the then new drug, Androgel.

At age 50, Jim makes the USMS Top 10 for the first time. A couple swims he does at Cleveland State in the summer of 2002, where LCM Nationals are held in a poorly attended albeit affordably drivable meet that year, manage to hold up in the FINA Top 10 in the world. Jim enjoys a minor epiphany: mediocrity sustained long-term becomes less mediocre. That year, his times in yards pools are very close to his pathetic times at Michigan, convincing him that the key to Masters glory is to rot more slowly than your colleagues. Along these lines, he begins eating a diet consisting mainly of pickling compounds, food preservatives, lard, and GU™.

Over the next decade, Jim manages to rack up a total of 47 individual Top 10 swims. This includes a best-ever personal showing of 3rd in the 200 SCM free at age 56. He also manages a lifetime best 200 yard free at age 57 and 8 months, beating his best high school and college times. He was aided here by the notorious body kayak “floatie” B70 wetsuit technology, which was outlawed by FINA the next year. Greatly chagrined by FINA’s decision at the time, Jim quickly realizes that for reasons he still can’t quite fathom, the floatie suits seem to have helped his fellow competitors even more than they helped him. His 1:54.89 200 SCY at age 57 placed 10th in the TT for the 55-59 age group. The following year his 1:57.75—almost three seconds slower—earns 6th place in the TT.

A series of bureaucratic snafus during the next several years results in four of Jim’s meet performances, in measured, certified pools, and done in accordance with just about every picayune requirement of USMS’s rule-book-mongering legal staff, being yanked ex post facto from TT consideration due to technicalities. In one championship meet, the paperwork is not turned in in a timely fashion; in another meet, attended by less than 50 people, the meet director assures Jim he can swim the 200 and 400 LCM freestyles in the “open” categories, permitting him to get slightly more than 5 minutes rest between events. “Open” during Jim’s AAU-era formative years meant that anybody can swim the event, regardless of age. “Open” in USMS speak means that you can wear fins, life jackets, paddles, and/or violate the rules of swimming in whatever fashion you want to. Hence “Open” swims don’t count for TT consideration. After these snafus, Jim asks for a list of all the ways his future swims can conceivably become screwed up. Four times stung, five times shy! Armed with what he thinks is absolutely fool-proof info along these lines (never swim in an “Open” event and make 100 percent sure that any USMS-sponsored meets have an official sanction number with no mention of weird disqualifying peculiarities), he forges onwards in a spirit of “lessons learned” and Rudyard Kipling If-like “and then you are a man, my son” stoicism.

By age 60, Jim’s neck cadaverous with wrinkly crepe-like flesh, he begins to wonder if his attempts to stave off rot, or at least succumb to it more slowly than his peers, are finally beginning to fail him. He signs up for the Albatross SCM meet near D.C. in the spring and does reasonably well, particularly in the 200. He then signs up for the Spire LCM meet near Cleveland in the summer. Both Maryland and Geneva, Ohio are drivable for Jim, whose psychiatric problems have undergone an uptick in recent years, in large part because of constant and crushing financial stress. Four days before the Spire meet, Jim attempts to lift a concrete slab and suffers incapacitating back spasms. He e-mails the meet director, hoping it’s not too late to cancel his entry and get his money back. Forty dollars can purchase a lot of life-sustaining lard, especially if one is willing, as Jim is, to overlook the expiration date. Alas, it is too late for meet refunds.


Jim drives up with an ice bag affixed to his lower back and analgesics in his blood to the new Spire Institute Sports Complex, which boasts the nicest pool Jim has ever immersed himself in. After a painful back-unkinking warm-up, he swims his first event, the 50 free, diving off blocks for the first time in months and avoiding any SDKs, which he’s sure will cause a seizure of lumbar muscles and trigger a drowning situation. Nevertheless, he dies by the end of the 50. He realizes his only chance in the 100 is to pace it sanely. Twenty minutes of rest later, back spasms still rioting, he swims the 100, splitting 31.16 and 31.52—for a perhaps overly cautious 1:02.68. The next day, he swims the 200 in 2:17.53 and the 400 in 4:58.46. Over the following weeks, he monitors the Event Rankings section of USMS to see how these times are holding up compared to the times of his fellow sexagenarian swimmers. Alas, the great Greg Shaw turns in a 1:02.66 at LCM Nationals in Omaha, eclipsing Jim’s No. 1 time by .02 seconds. However, Jim’s 200 remains the No. 1 time throughout much of the summer…until the even greater-than-Greg Jim McConica leads off an 800 meter relay at the Southern Pacific Masters LCM Championships and posts a time of 2:15.56. Jim’s hopes for a first-ever No. 1 time are dashed.

The wonderful Leslie Livingston talks Jim into trying again. Of the two potential targets, the 100 free requires shaving three one-hundredths of a second, whereas the 200 free requires a nearly 2 second drop. Opting for the former target, Jim decides to drive to the DC area for the 2012 Maryland LMSC Summer Swim Series #2. Desperate to avoid his namby-pamby race strategy from the Spire meet, and free of back spasms this time, Jim goes out much too fast and suffers the full body equivalent of lock jaw in the final 15 meters of the race. His time: 1:03.01 is slower than what he posted at Spire. A long, miserable drive back to Pittsburgh ensues, the theme of Jim’s mental chatter: personal failure confirmed in swimming, and by extension, all of life.

Leslie tells Jim there is a last chance meet—this time at one of the most famous pools in the country, i.e., the North Baltimore Aquatic Club, AKA, Michael Phelps pool. This last chance meet entices more than just the aspiring Jim. The legendary Cav Cavanaugh, for instance, flies in from Florida, and Skip Thompson—arguably the single nicest guy in the USMS pantheon of nice people—drives from Michigan with his equally nice girl friend, Sally Guthrie, in one final hope to improve their TT standings. This meet—AKA, 2012 Maryland LMSC Summer Swim Series #3, is sanctioned, there are no “open” swims, and everything seems as kosher as kosher can be. Skip will later tell Jim that he asked the meet director specifically if the pool has been measured (something most swimmers assume is a key condition for a meet even receiving a USMS sanction in the first place), at which point the official told Skip—somewhat arrogantly—”This is Michael Phelps’s pool. There’ve been all sort of USA youth records set here. Of course the pool’s been measured.” The pool does not have timing pads, so the swims must be hand-timed—which, Jim concedes, causes him a little guilt. When hand timing mistakes are made, they usually benefit the swimmer. Jim thinks if he manages to break Greg’s time by a few hundredths or even tenths, it could be unfair. USMS has a many extremely specific rules, but for whatever reason, it still allows hand timing to count for national rankings. A centimeter too short in a pool’s measurement: illegal. Hand timing, even by people with hearing problems and Parkinson’s Disease: legal.

Jim consoles himself with the fact that NBAC pool is outside and subject to wind and waves and potentially in-blown sea creatures. It is also an older pool, and the depth is nowhere near the 9′-14′ waters of the Olympic Trials pool where Nationals were held in Omaha. Taking the advice of his friend Ryan “Peaches” Lawrence, Jim takes the first 50 out fast but sustainably so. On the second 50, he doesn’t seize up prematurely. One always dies to some degree in a decent 100 LCM free, but this time, Jim manages to finish strong. Both of his hand-timers—a duo of college swimmers—get identical times for Jim’s race: 1:01.43 registers on both their stop watches. This is nearly a full second and a quarter faster than Greg’s now former No. 1 time. Jim is ecstatic but wary!

In the months before the D’Oh!

Jim decides he doesn’t have to feel guilty that a fluke of hand-timing has given him his victory (a couple tenths advantage, perhaps, might have been suspect, but surely not a full second and change!). He also knows he need not worry that his time won’t count because it has been swum in an “Open” event (never again will he make this mistake!) Nor does he agonize over whether the paperwork has been turned in on time, or that the pool is out of official compliance with all meet regulations. USMS has, after all, given it an official sanction number to 2012 Maryland LMSC Summer Swim Series #3! What Jim does worry about, however, is the possibility that somewhere else in the USA, a faster time might still emerge from hiding—perhaps from a small “sneaker” meet, the results of which have not yet been submitted to the USMS Event Rankings database, or maybe a fast swim performed by the lead-off swimmer in a 400 freestyle relay someplace, or even a split request requested by a 200 freestyle swimmer. Mild anxiety stalks Jim throughout the autumn months as his proximity to potential official glory approaches. Finally, the unofficial TT listings for the 2012 LCM season are published, albeit with a prominent proviso that anybody seeing mistakes should contact USMS immediately. Jim holds his breath, metaphorically, for the next month or two, hoping no such mistakes will be forthcoming and dislodge his first ever and only putative No. 1 national performance from its perch atop the unofficial TT listings! Then, on a wonderfully magical day–December, 9th, 2012–the TT listing for 2012 LCM results becomes finally, irrefutably, and wonderfully official! In a triumph of sustained lifelong swimming mediocrity, Jim has finally emerged as No. 1 in something: in this case, the No. 1. 60-64-year-old male 100 LCM freestyle swimmer in the US. Jim absolutely understands his accomplishment stems in large part to his betters deciding not to swim this summer, but still…a personal dream dating back to that first navigated width of the Sewickley YMCA’s basement pool has been fulfilled! For the first time in several months, he can breathe once again, metaphorically, and the oxygen tastes like butter in the alveoli!


Alas, like Homer Simpson winning $1 million in a lottery, some things are just not meant to be. Homer never gets to keep the money. And Jim, we now know, doesn’t get to keep his All American status. In a process that feels to him a lot like a dog neutering procedure sans anaesthetics, Jim is de-All-Americanized, courtesy once again of USMS rule mongering that he is hard-pressed to understand and even more hard-pressed to feel very Rudyard Kipling-stoical about. In an email sent at 11:20 pm on January 6th, ensuring its deleterious impact on that night’s sleep, arriving nearly a month after the TTs became official, Jim learns from the “TT and sanctions coordinator for the Maryland division of the USMS” politburo that there is a measurement issue with Michael Phelps’s famous pool. “Consequently, all results from that meet had to be deleted from the USMS top ten listing,” the email says. Jim’s first thought: good practical joke, whoever it is who has sent this email! He can think of no shortage of suspect practical jokers based on the hundreds if not thousands of people he has bragged and trash talked and ear-bent ad nauseam about his accomplishment. But it is, alas, no joke, at least not a funny joke, at least not to Jim. It turns out that the NBAC pool director, despite earlier and multiple assurances both to Skip Thompson and USMS officials alike, did not have a pool measurement on file. The Maryland TT and sanctions coordinator ended up sending an engineer out to measure the pool after the official Top 10 results were published–and months after the pool is drained for winter. Emptied of water and potentially squeezed on the outside by frigid dirt, the pool measures short. Depending on which version you believe, in fact, some of the lanes are anywhere from 1″ to 3″ to 5″ short. The NBAC pool director subsequently hires his own engineer, and after much delay and shilly shallying, he emails Jim on January 16th, a full month and one week after the Top 10 listings were published: “After measuring all ten competition lanes, the engineers were unable to certify the pool because two of the lanes miss the measurement by 2/ 1000ths of an inch…We will attempt a re-measurement when the pool is filled (in April) to see if there is any expansion to the walls from hydrodynamic pressure.”

At this point, Jim does the mathematics for the worst case scenario: i.e., the NBAC guy is a pathological liar who is totally making up the 2/1000ths of an inch noncompliance, and the engineer that USMS hired is actually telling the truth, i.e., Jim raced in a pool that was a full 5 inches too short. Moreover, Jim stipulates for sake of worst case scenario-izing that filling the pool with water next spring will not expand the walls outward, lengthening each lane by so much as a millimeter. If all this were, in fact, irrefutably true, it would mean that Jim’s 100 LCM freestyle was, in fact, 100 meters minus 10 inches (i.e. two lengths of a pool short by 5″ each way). To calculate the percentage of the total 100 LCM he actually swam, divide these 10 inches he allegedly didn’t swim by the total number of inches in 100 meters (100 m = 110 yards = 330 feet = 3960 inches). In other words, 10/3960 = .00252525, or .25%, too short a swim. Thus, in the worst case scenario, Jim unintentionally cheated by failing to swim 100 LCM freestyle, swimming instead only 99.75 meters freestyle.


If grade school ratios still hold, the time “correction” would go something like this—a time of 1:01.43 (or 61.43 seconds) is to 99.75 meters as a time of “X” is to 100 meters.  Thus X = 61.43/99.75, or 61.58 (i.e., 1:01.58).  Bottom line: even if Jim did swim in a pool that was the full 10 inches short, his Full Monty 100 LCM time would have been 1:01.58, (i.e. .15 seconds slower that what he was credited.)  This still beats Greg’s now All American “winning” time by 1.08 seconds. Even factoring in a significant hand-timing advantage (though remember, USMS considers hand-timing completely kosher so technically there is no need to do this), it is hard to believe Jim didn’t post the fastest 100 LCM free in his rotting US age group this summer. USMS, to its credit, at least reinstated his 1:02.68 back spasm time from Spire Institute, so he is officially No. 2 (and frankly, feeling a lot like No. 2 these days.) He hopes that jotting this screed/explanatory history down will be sufficient to purge all biliousness from his system, and that he will not need to restore peace of mind by rummaging through ancient pill vials for Mellaril and Haldol now well four decades beyond their expiration date.

Final note: in the first and only USMS convention Jim ever attended, the muckety mucks in the top ranks made a big deal about that year’s convention theme: We do it all for the swimmer. Over the next several days, Jim came to conclude that very little, in fact, is done for the swimmers, especially when the interests of the swimmers collide with the interests of different LMSC fiefdoms and whatever sense of power accrues to those who control these. On the other hand, Jim remains truly grateful to masters swimming in general, and USMS in specific, for promoting this grand sport that has helped his life and the lives of so many people. He also knows full well that for every petty, rule-mongering, bureaucratic-minded, aquatic Levitican in the organizational hierarchy, there are no doubt dozens of selfless volunteers who genuinely want to do the right thing. Jim doesn’t even particularly fault USMS’s decision to have ironclad rules that are, in fact, significantly more stringent that both USA-S and FINA. But what he still finds a bit unconscionable is the selective application of these rules. Not everyone lives in California where LCM and SCM or even sanctioned SCY meets are ubiquitous and easy to attend. Nor are all aging swimmers affluent enough to fly to large national meets, spend days at expensive hotels, and take time away from the work. If any meet is USMS sanctioned, and there is nothing on the meet info sheet indicating that any of the rules or certifications of pool length, etc. are suspect, why is that swimmers who pay the entry fees and take the time to travel and compete the only ones that are punished when “mistakes are made”? Why can’t, just occasionally, the rule mongerers pay instead?

If USMS wants to have its fastidious rules, fine—but it is a two-way street. Those who make the rules also have an obligation to refuse to recognize or sanction a meet until all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed, otherwise it’s just not fair to those who sign up. One wonders if it’s even legal. Is there not some kind warrantee implied by a sanction number? If not, then there should be. And USMS should strongly consider reimbursing everyone who swam at the NBAC “last chance” LCM meet for, at the very least, their entry fees, and probably their travel expenses as well. Jim doesn’t mean to seem mean-spirited, but perhaps if someone at the organization level has to suffer a bit of financial pain for raising then dashing his hopes, and for making any swimmer-in-good-faith the victim of bureaucratic decisions made out of expediency, perhaps there might be more incentive to do, if not all, at least some of it for the swimmer.

So, how many more of the 2000 rules can Jim possibly run afoul of? Stay tuned!