Reviving an Olympic Dream, 25 Years Later

Daily Dose of Laps: Hodding Carter is training for a long-shot bid at qualifying for the Olympics. i i

Daily Dose of Laps: Hodding Carter is training for a long-shot bid at qualifying for the Beijing Olympics. Lisa Lattes/Algonquin Books hide caption

itoggle caption Lisa Lattes/Algonquin Books
Daily Dose of Laps: Hodding Carter is training for a long-shot bid at qualifying for the Olympics.

Daily Dose of Laps: Hodding Carter is training for a long-shot bid at qualifying for the Beijing Olympics.

Lisa Lattes/Algonquin Books
Carter lives in Maine with his wife and four children, ages 5-12.

Carter lives in Maine with his wife and four children, ages 5 to 12. Lisa Lattes/Algonquin Books hide caption

itoggle caption Lisa Lattes/Algonquin Books

As an NCAA All-American swimmer, Hodding Carter narrowly missed qualifying for the 1984 Olympic trials when he was a college senior. Now 45, Carter has revived his dreams of Olympic glory. He's training in earnest for a long-shot bid at qualifying for the Beijing Olympics.

Steve Inskeep talks with Carter about his quest, which he chronicles in a new book, Off the Deep End. His training is rigorous — but his life as a father of four children can be pretty demanding, too.

Carter is the son of Hodding Carter III, who served as assistant secretary of state in the administration of Jimmy Carter (no relation).

In the book, Carter recalls talking with his father about his plan to dedicate the first four years of his post-collegiate life to an attempt at making the U.S. team for the 1988 Olympics.

The elder Carter wasn't pleased with the idea. "It's time for you to grow up," he told his son.

As Carter writes in his book, "I'd had only one real summer job my entire spoiled life, and my time had finally come to do something other than swim."

Excerpt: 'Off the Deep End' by Hodding Carter

Chapter One

Scooping up Biohazards

I wake up with a lurch. Something hard and pointy has just jabbed me in the ribs. I'm on the very edge of my gargantuan, California king–sized bed. One tiny roll farther to my right and I'll hit the floor, not a good thing given that my right arm is not only numb but completely dead. Evidently, I've been lying on my side long enough not only to put it to sleep but also to squash whatever nerve tells it to function.

Understandably, I try rolling to my left, but there's this immovable creature there, the same thing that's poked me awake. It's my son, Angus. I crane my neck to get a view and see, of course, he's not awake, so I have to be extra quiet and tricky. It's hard getting out of bed with just one arm (I'm used to two) while also slipping a pillow along Angus's body so he'll think I'm still there. Just as I get everything in place and am about to walk away, Angus's entire body goes rigid and his knee goes crashing off to his right, directly into my wife's rear end. I'm guessing it's the same move that woke me just a minute earlier, but on Lisa, it has no effect. She lets out a fairly quiet, breath-holding snort and remains asleep. For about the two thousandth time, I wish I could sleep as soundly as she.

It's a quiet, peaceful, unusually warm fall morning for Maine's central coast. The sky is white-blue behind Mount Megunticook's silhouette. I take a few seconds to enjoy the moment, but only a few, because in a very short while, depending on who wakes up first and how, the place is going to be utter chaos.

I'm hoping to drink my creatine, do all of the ab work on my exercise ball, and write up that day's workout before Angus or any of the three girls wake up.

I'm stirring the creatine with a tall glass of fresh cider when I hear Helen scream, "I hate you, Anabel. Do you hear me? I'm never going to loan you anything again."

"Whap!" I can hear the slap from downstairs, in the kitchen. "Dad. Dad! Anabel hit me! I'm going to tell Dad, Anabel." A few minutes of banging around and a slammed door follow, and the next thing I know, Helen comes running by me, holding a pair of 7 jeans—a brand I know only because my sister bought each of our girls a pair and, ever since, they've wanted more but can't have them because they cost one hundred dollars a pair. She's going fast, probably quicker than anything I've ever seen her do when she's supposed to, like on the soccer field. A second later, Eliza comes running by, leaping past me while vainly attempting to pull Helen's hair. She misses by fractions of an inch.

"Give me back my jeans, you jerk!" Eliza demands. "Don't put your dirty hands on them. Who knows where they've been!"

"Good morning, Eliza," I try. She's caught Helen by now and is proceeding to pummel her.

"Eliza, please don't hit. Use your words." Lisa and I have been saying this to Eliza and her identical twin sister, Anabel, for nine years at least, ever since they were around two years old. It didn't work then and it doesn't work now. I try getting between them, and Eliza jerks her body, and one of her chisel-like elbows bruises my arm. "Eliza, don't get physical just because you're mad."

"I'm not doing anything, Dad. Leave me alone," she screams, grabs her jeans, and runs full tilt to the other end of the house, where Lisa and Angus are sleeping.

"Girls. Quiet!" I stage whisper.

"Dad, can you help me study my science. We have our final exam this morning," Anabel says as she saunters into the kitchen, her face as sullen as a freckly face can be.

"Didn't I ask you if you have any homework last night?" another adult asks Anabel. The voice is crackly and hoarse and it's Lisa's. She's emerged from our room, forefinger to her lips, but it does no good.

"Aaaaugh!" Helen screams. "I hate my sisters. I'm never going to loan them anything again."

"I can't believe you girls won't loan her a pair of pants," I say aloud, trying to send my voice out in a way so that A and E hear it but Angus doesn't.

"Dad! Dad! Where are you, Dad?" Angus calls from our bedroom. He throws the door open and comes running toward the kitchen. He's been a little fixated with me the past few months and gets a tad desperate whenever he can't find me in the morning.

"Good morning, Angy. I love you," Lisa says. He smiles but makes a beeline for me, and then crashes into my thigh, perhaps accidentally rubbing green snot all over it.

"Mom, can't you quiz me?" Anabel says. "I'm going to fail."

"I gotta go," I say and start to grab my book bag. "I need to swim before my first lesson. I've got to lift today, too."

"What do you mean, go? You're joking, right" Lisa says, but I can tell from her voice that she knows I'm not joking and that she doesn't think it is funny either way. "I have court this morning at 8:30. Remember?"

"I know, I know," I say quickly. I really do remember. I just had forgotten for a few minutes, that's all. I set my bag back down. It's not a big deal. I can get my workout in after I'm done with the first lesson. "Sorry, sweetie. I love you."

"I love you, too," she replies, pushing her thick dark hair out of her face. She might be about to kiss me but the moment is lost a second later, as Angus falls off the counter while trying to reach the chin-up bar I've installed in the mudroom doorway.

—-

I don't end up getting that workout in after the first swim lesson because this is a Monday and my first lesson is followed by a second lesson, which is followed by a third.

"Hodding. What's that floating behind your back?" Casey asks. I don't immediately look behind me because I think I know what she sees, and that means trouble. Instead I sneak a quick glance at Casey. She's a five-year Y employee, head lifeguard, and my immediate charge. Seeing that I'm the assistant aquatics director and she's just the head lifeguard, I shouldn't have a sudden, overwhelming sense of guilt and fear. But I do. She has this intimidating way about her. It's not because of her height, although I'm sure she's six feet, and when she's smiling, she has the sweetest, most innocent-kid face imaginable. It's just that there's this other side to her that makes me and all the lifeguards want to make her happy. She frowns; we quake. It's that simple. The funniest thing about it is that she has no idea. She's twenty and afraid of all of us.

She's smiling. Good, maybe she has the same idea I have. This is the third lesson. As soon as it is over, I can get in my workout. I'm using one e-mailed out by my swimming guru, Mike Schmidt, and it looks like a doozy. It's got lots of kicking and a test set. I'm not sure I can handle filling and refilling my body with lactic acid this morning. I still have to do payroll.

I look behind me to see how on earth she could have seen it, to see how far it's gone, when I see cute, pudgy little Rosey, floating away—no noodle, no floaties, nothing. Is Rosey what Casey was talking about?

"Rosey, get back here this instant," I try, throwing in a hearty laugh just in case I've sounded too rough. Too late. She starts to wail.

Now how am I going to do this? The thing I am worried Casey might see is not Rosey but instead floating feces, what we call in the business a "biohazard." It's leaked out of the suit of a girl who is over four. The fact that she's four is why it's leaked out in the first place. If she were only three and eleven-twelfths, all would still be okay because she would be wearing a plastic pull-up. We require all children under four to wear such swimming attire, but, of course, even older kids can make mistakes. I've seen seemingly normal grown-ups release a biohazard or two so I'm in no way upset with this little girl. It's just that if Casey or anybody else who knows what they're doing sees it, then there goes my workout for the day. The state code that covers public swimming areas mandates that such organic matter, along with other bodily fluids including but not limited to vomit and blood, be removed from the pool and that the pool then be "shocked," whereby the attendant raises the level of chlorine in the pool from the usual two parts per million to twenty (a concentration potent enough to bleach hair and deadly to all microbial life forms). The pool must stay at this lethal level for at least twelve hours. In other words, the pool gets closed and Hodding doesn't get to train.

Desperation doesn't come close to what I'm feeling, and I'm just about to scoop the Baby Ruth bar–size poop up with my hand and stuff it under my Speedo as I lunge toward Rosey, who appears to be turning onto her stomach—a place she is very, very uncomfortable with—when a sudden, unexpected wave of responsibility rolls over me. Or maybe it's just revulsion. Either way, instead of tucking away the biohazard as I catch Rosey's leg and stop her from rolling, I blow my whistle three times and yell, "Clear the pool!" loud enough not only to get the attention of everyone whose head is above water in the main pool but also to alert people over in the therapy pool more than one hundred feet away.

Casey looks at me, her brow broken with worry, and then just as quickly, she's scanning the pool, looking for the body.

"It's just a poop," I tell her quickly and then point to it as it swirls past my hip. I hand Rosey to one of the Y staffers in charge of the nursery kids and hop out. Casey looks disgusted and gets out right behind me. While she goes over and stops the swimmers and reassures some of the elderly people who've been startled awake by my whistle and scream, I scoop up the offender in a net, shaking my head at how such a lowly thing could wield so much power.

I don't have enough time to begin the shocking treatment, so I leave it for Casey, which is definitely a good thing for the pool. Last time I messed with the chemicals, a twelve-hour shutdown turned into a thirty-six-hour one. I'd used measurements meant for the main pool in the therapy pool, which holds about a quarter of the volume.

I need to run to my next class, but since that would be breaking pool rule number two—no running—(number one is no swimming without a lifeguard; tellingly, as far as the modern pool-supervising culture goes, most of our rules are phrased in the negative), I employ the stride of an Olympic walker, a technique I feel I've gotten pretty good at in the seven months I've been working at the Y. Along the way, Grace hands me a bag. She and her mom have made me a loaf of banana bread. The card reads: "I am thankful you teach me. Love, Grace."

A group of women mostly over sixty in all shapes and sizes gathers near the water slide. A couple smile at me as I approach, while the rest listen earnestly to the woman with dyed-auburn hair.

"She said she was only going to have the one knee done but the doctor told her she'd be wasting her time if she didn't just go ahead and replace both of them. I don't think she'll be . . ."

"Hi, ladies!" I exclaim, forcing an unnaturally wide grin to cross my face. I've been told that I don't smile enough when I'm running my Liquid Toning class, which is an intermediate-level water aerobics class. "Let's get going."

I never in my life imagined that I would teach a water aerobics class. In truth, I had always considered them a joke, even more ridiculous than land-based aerobics. But not only have I grown better at teaching it—at least according to the ladies, who let me know every single thing I do wrong—but I actually enjoy it. In fact, and this is difficult to admit, it's one of my favorite classes in the week. I've been teaching the same group since I started the job in April 2007. I know about Anne's back and Lyme disease, Caroline's tricky shoulder and enviable trip through the Panama Canal, Gloria's upcoming knee operation. (Names have been changed to protect me.) They've seen me go from the guy who counted like a metronome to the guy who . . . well, I still count like a metronome but I've improved in other areas. I couldn't remember the difference between the rocking-horse move and the frog leaps to save my life and I'd leave out five exercises one week and pretend that I was doing it on purpose so I could add new stuff. Only problem was, I didn't come up with anything new that day.

The class takes forty-five minutes. First we walk back and forth across the fifteen-yard-wide, eighty-seven-degree pool. I yell out the different moves—anything from "ice skating" to "ballerina toes"—and worry that I'm developing a lisp. I know it's not fair, but it just seems like the kind of class a more effeminate man might enjoy teaching. So what does it mean about me? I have to remember not to wear my Speedo next class but instead my long surfer shorts. Much cooler.

Next we do our stretches. I stand in the shallow end and they stand in the deeper water facing me. Everything is loud and bubbly until we get to the hip-rotating exercise. I hold my hands on my hips and gyrate in a pretty suggestive manner. They all grow quiet, not just this time but every time.

"What? What am I doing?" I ask.

"It's Jason," Alaina says. "We liked the way he did it." And there I am, thinking they were quiet because I'm so sexy. Maybe I don't like the class so much after all. Jason was my predecessor—the twenty-one-year-old love of everybody's life who tricked me into thinking this job would be easy and would give me plenty of time to train for the Olympics.

After stretching, it's time for the aerobic part of the class. We jog, jump, stride, rotate our arms, push Styrofoam dumbbells in all sorts of maneuvers above and below the water while jogging—all in an effort to get their hearts doing better than one hundred beats per minute. We're supposed to do some abdominal exercises with a floating noodle and then squeeze in one more round of stretching before I send them on their way but when I'm teaching, it never happens. Today, our time is up even before we finish with the dumbbells. I'm about to add one more exercise when Glenda walks into the pool.

Glenda is here for her arthritis class and is taller and stronger than I am. She's scowling, and even though she no longer thinks I'm the lamest employee in the lot, I decide not to push it.

"Hi, Glenda," I say.

"How's the path to Beijing going?" she asks. "I want to go with you, if you make it."

"You got it," I say, and I mean it, if there's a way to do it. Maybe it's the constant assault on my senses by the overwhelming heat and noxious chlorine smell or maybe it's just from shared time at the Y but I really like these ladies. I'll take them all with me, if I make it there.

Hour after hour my day goes on like this. I squeeze in an extra-hard session on the weights. Usually I swim for one and a half hours as well but the biohazards put an end to that. No matter, I'll do extra yardage tomorrow. Guards call in claiming that they haven't been able to find anyone to cover their shift, which just so happens to be in less than an hour. One girl actually calls thirty minutes before her shift to tell me she's quitting.

"It just hasn't worked out," she explains. "I've got too much school work right now and I really believe I have to put my priorities there." I tell her it's okay and hang up. Then I pump my fist in celebration. Her retirement means one less headache. She has never shown up to work her shift. Not once. My boss, Jen, the aquatics director, hasn't returned from maternity leave yet so handling these things falls in my lap and I worry for the umpteenth time how distraught she's going to be when she returns. I'm a horrible supervisor.

Even though the main pool is closed, people keep trickling in all evening long. I was supposed to leave at 5:30 but the night supervisor has called in sick. Casey and I flipped a coin. I lost.

Tyler, the new guard, and I go through the ritual of closing the pool. We collect water samples, drop in the re-agents, and write down the chlorine and pH levels. We hose down the entire deck because the upper gutters have a water trap so shallow that the water will evaporate out of it in twenty-four hours, leaving the pool area smelling like a sewer. I send Tyler home and then I lock the locker room doors so nobody can slip in and drown while the pool is closed, turn off the lights, and head for home. It's eight p.m.

On the way out, Peter, a new kid on the swim team I'm coaching, stops me, but at first, he doesn't say anything.

"Yes, Peter," I try to prompt him. "You stopped me."

"Coach," he says, swinging his head from side to side, looking me in the eye and then not, his chlorine-bleached bangs almost obscuring his view. "Is it true you're going to the Olympics? That's awesome. Really awesome."

Now it's my turn not to look him in the eyes. I smile and look down at the ground. "We'll see, Peter. We'll see," I almost stammer. "But I'm definitely trying."

Books Featured In This Story

Off the Deep End

The Probably Insane Idea That I Could Swim My Way Through a Midlife Crisis—and Qualify for the Olympics

by W. Hodding Carter

Hardcover, 209 pages | purchase

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Title
Off the Deep End
Subtitle
The Probably Insane Idea That I Could Swim My Way Through a Midlife Crisis--and Qualify for the Olympics
Author
W. Hodding Carter

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