A personal write-up by Christopher Preston, capturing the magic of the day...
GLLAM 2014. There’s a ring about it reminiscent of London 2012, same venue eighteen months on. It’s Saturday the 29th March and the Gay & Lesbian London Aquatic Meet is happening at the Aquatic Centre in the ex Olympic Park and I’m swimming.
I’m normally a bit nervous before a race meeting and have been studying the start sheets working out who is in my heats, their times and age group and how fast I have to swim to win medals. All this, plus the sense of occasion, swimming in the same pool as all those heroic swimmers has me walking around the house in a demented state. Fortunately my best mate Ros from Hastings has come up to cheer me on, so I have to be a bit sane.
We get to the park entrance too early and sit in glorious sunshine outside The Cow Pub, waiting for family member Geraldine. She is also going to cheer for Out to Swim. In 2012 it was complicated, going through security and ticket checks then crossing endless bridges to get to the pool. This time it’s easy. Just walk a short distance from the pub to the pool. The transformation is impressive. The huge wings which accommodated hundreds of seats have gone, replaced by elegant windows east and west revealing a fabulous piece of architecture. The roof curves like a manta ray on the outside, while the ceiling inside resembles the belly of a whale. First sight of the empty pool is breath-taking. The blue water looks so inviting and calming, as if it has just appeared on earth from nowhere, an immaculate conception. Everyone is in a high state of excitement and we greet team mates and friends and coaches, all whirling around in a daze. There’s a host of Out to Swim members in bright blue GLLAM tee shirts fluttering decoratively around preparing to be volunteers. For various reasons they are not swimming today but making sure the event runs smoothly.
Time to concentrate however and after settling my friends in the spectator gallery I have to find the changing rooms and get organised. I’m planning to nip up and join them in between races and so leave them with my printed out start sheets. I’m off to warm up as the 200 metres freestyle is the first event and I’m in heat 3. The pool has been divided in two with a boom reducing it to 25 metres. Somehow it looks short, but that’s because it’s 10 lanes wide. The remainder of the pool is available for warm ups and swim downs during the event. The water is delicious, not chlorine clogged or over-heated and my first 6 lengths, which are normally a struggle, go smoothly so that 300 m are soon over. Better do some backstroke – all the fast guys from club lanes 1 & 2 are getting in this lane. Well, they will just have to wait. Team mate Lucille recommends a few HVO’s so that’s next on the agenda – starting off fast for 10 M then relaxing. By now lanes zero and 1 are designated for sprinting, so it’s time to get the measure of the starting blocks. They have that little raised ledge which gives me a nice little push from the back leg – lovely.
I’m now aware of how many people are actually here. Poolside is buzzing and the spectator stand looking down on our 25 metres of pool is crowded. There are swimmers from all over the world: Barcelona, Brussels, Switzerland, Canada and Australia. Northern Wave has come down from Manchester to join in and London clubs, Spencer, Y Swim and Otter are here in force. Maidenhead has sent some particularly fast older swimmers to give us a run for our money and the georgeous youngsters from University (LUST) are fast and decorative.
Jean (Stephen’s Mum) is doing the announcements again and now with a fantastic PA system, can be heard in her full glory. We prepare to welcome the officials but there’s a glitch as the traditional ‘Chariots of Fire’ music is briefly interrupted by a pool announcement. The specially trained volunteer time keepers process in as do the lane judges – including Coach Hillary – there to make sure our turns are legal. Today they are working double time as they each have to watch two lanes.
Heat one of the 200 m freestyle is called, but only two swimmers turn up. Heat two is better attended and we have to be patient as new competitors are unfamiliar with protocol – what the various whistles mean and waiting in the pool while the next heat starts. It’s a learning curve and that’s what today is all about. By the time we get to my heat, comprised of older, seasoned competitors, the pace picks up accelerating with each heat as the swimmers get (in the main) younger and faster. Everyone complains about the 200m freestyle and yet we’ve entered. A few wise ones have dropped out as it is a punishing distance. Not long enough to be settled into, it’s a sort of long sprint. I’m determined not to go out too fast, but to make things more interesting I’ve got Peppe doing butterfly in the next lane. His entered time is only slightly faster than mine, so I let him go ahead to avoid being splashed, then attempt to catch him up on the last length. I almost do it, but not quite. Now, my normal routine would be to do a swim down then go up to watch other races, but everything is happening so fast that there’s no time to go up to the stand and besides the heat sheet which I printed off some days ago has changed and I’ve not noticed there’s an update. Some people, who shall remain nameless, miss their races, so there’s a scramble to look at Head coach, Michelle’s up to date copy. Michelle and Coach Martin are on poolside watching everyone swim as is Steve, who also coaches for Otter. I’m doing the Individual Medley (one length of each stroke) which I haven’t swum since I was nineteen. I’ve been doing some work on butterfly and my nemesis, breaststroke. In the end it goes quite well but this might be for the last time.
Interspersed are 25m races for the learners and ducklings. Lessons Coach, Vicky has done amazing work teaching people to swim and passing them on to the development lanes. This is their chance to get experience of racing and we all cheer them on enthusiastically. Prizes can be collected once the age group results go up on the wall and Oonagh and team are sitting behind a window, crunching numbers and doing things with a computer.
Jean continues to announce, ranging around with a radio microphone telling us who is swimming in which lane and managing to interpolate impromptu interviews with competitors from all the clubs and volunteers. Distance Coach Alex, who negotiated the deal here at the Centre is looking cool and glam, seemingly imperturbable in all the excitement
There’s a break of ten minutes between sessions – only enough time to swim-down after a relay (which hurt) before diving back into the fray for three more races and a medley relay. I’ve elected to do Backstroke (number one stroke) but all the others are younger and faster – time for cramp to set in. No wonder as it’s been seven races in three and a half hours.
It’s off to the crowded & noisy Cow pub for a beer. I take a last look at the pool which, now deserted, has returned to tranquillity as if none of this had ever happened. But we know it did and our bodies are telling us it did.