It’s 6 a.m., and it looks as though there’s been a shooting on the basketball court at Arden Hills Resort and Spa—17 bodies litter the floor in poses that would suggest they were making snow angels. But instead of screams of terror, the room is filled with the sounds of panting. Each of the 17 chests quickly rises up and down, and the floor is shiny with sweat.
These collapsed teenagers make up the Nationals Group of the Arden Hills swim team, which is ranked in the top two percent of all swim teams in the United States. Among them is junior Claire Pinson, who started swimming when she was 2 years old under the instruction of Olympic swimmer Debbie Meyer.
But it wasn’t until Pinson was 6 that she gave up the other sports she was competing in, soccer and tennis, to focus solely on swimming. “By that time I had been on a competitive swim team for two years,” she said. “My swim coach told my parents that I had incredible potential. I was willing to give up my other sports in order to solely concentrate on swimming.”
Pinson’s training has been especially intense since she joined the Nationals Group three years ago. Her schedule now consists of two-hour morning practices on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, 45-minute morning strength training sessions on Tuesday and Thursday, and two-hour after-school trainings every weekday in addition to weekend swim meets.
She isn’t the only one with a high-intensity swimming schedule, though. Her mother, Barbara Pinson, drives her to practices (including those that start at 5 a.m.), attends most of her swim meets, helps her register for competitions, referees some of the meets, and chaperones team trips.
Nonetheless, Barbara and Claire’s dad, Steven Pinson, don’t get involved in the technical aspects of Claire’s swimming or the goal-setting process.
“We honor the coach-parent relationship,” said Barbara Pinson, who is certified as a National Official for swim meets. “My job is to help her believe in herself. Swimming is so psychological—if you believe you can achieve a goal, you are more likely to achieve it.”
But back to how Arden Hills’s nationally ranked swimmers found themselves breathless on the basketball court during one of those Wednesday morning practices.
It all started at 4:20 that morning for Pinson when she was awoken by her mother’s knock on the door. From there, Pinson got her backpack and swim bag ready and changed into workout clothes (Cross-Fit always comes before laps at morning practice).
Biology textbook? Check. Swimsuit and goggles? Check. Shampoo and school clothes? Check.
After this, Pinson eats her first breakfast, a bowl of ChexMix with milk and a banana, loads the trunk with her bags, and sits in the car as her mother pulls out of the garage and starts on the 15-minute trek to the club.
In the car, conversation inevitably turns to swimming. Both Pinson and her mother are confident that today’s practice will be grueling. The team had their last meet on Sunday, and it’s now Wednesday, meaning that “taper” (or the period of lessened training intensity before a meet) is officially over. This comes as mixed news to Pinson: on the one hand, she got to shave her legs for the first time in a month (swimmers don’t shave their legs before a meet for technical and superstitious reasons), but, on the other hand, she’s back on her high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet.
After lamenting her predicament for a minute more, Pinson’s exhaustion—she stayed up until 11 studying for a biology test the night before—becomes overwhelming, and she curls up into a ball against the car door, closing her eyes for a few minutes’ rest.
Nonetheless, the (lack of) 5 a.m. traffic is against Claire, and the SUV is soon pulling into line behind the other swimmers’ cars waiting to be let in through the side gate at Arden Hills, or, as Claire’s mother calls it, the “V.I.P. entrance.” Soon, though, the line starts moving, and the team’s coach, Brian Nabeta, can be seen with his flashlight holding the gate open.
From there, Pinson and her teammates enter the dark club and walk to the basketball court. Despite the early hour, the group is loud with chatter, greeting friends and catching up on the latest gossip.
But as soon as they’re on the court, the atmosphere becomes suddenly serious. They walk as a group to the whiteboard at the other end of the court and read the day’s workout: a rotational circuit made up of burpees (a mix between push-ups, squats and jumping jacks), wall balls (a combination of squatting and throwing medicine balls against the wall), and “double unders” (or just really fast jump roping). Even though the lights are still off, they begin running laps across the court to warm up.
Once the group is working through the circuit, Nabeta begins to stalk the floor, inspecting his swimmers’ form and chiding anyone who complains.
“I can’t believe it’s just the first round!” moans Pinson after her first set of wall balls. “Get used to it,” replies Nabeta, whom Pinson refers to as a “teddy bear.”
Nevertheless, Pinson is lucky compared to the girl doing wall balls at the end of the line. “Sydney!” cries Nabeta, stretching out his arms to show his dissatisfaction. “Do you hover when you go to the bathroom?”
Sydney looks at the ground, trying to catch her breath. “No.”
“Then why are you hovering now?” exclaims Nabeta, who doesn’t wait for a response. Instead he goes into the small equipment room off the court, grabs another medicine ball, and plops it down behind Sydney, who is told to use it as a marker for how low her squats should go. Nabeta observes for a minute, fingers stroking his goatee in contemplation.
After nearly 30 minutes, Pinson is almost finished with her final exercise: burpees. Her face is red, and wisps of blond hair fall around her face. She claps her hands and exhales before doing the last two reps. “C’mon, push hard!” yells Nabeta in the last couple of minutes. “Go, go, go!”
When the clock runs out, everyone crashes on the floor. Nabeta laughs and smiles. “And you thought this was going to be easy, didn’t you?” he asks while grabbing medicine balls to take into the equipment room. “We should take a picture of this!” As he lifts a ball above his head, the sleeve of his T-shirt moves to reveal the edge of an elaborate tattoo.
Eventually, Pinson and her teammates peel themselves off the floor and wobble over to their swim bags. After a short trip to the changing rooms, they one by one jump into the outdoor pool with a splash to begin the four warm-up laps given by Nabeta.
As each swimmer jumps in, Nabeta repeats the directions, sometimes putting in an additional personalized comment. (“Look at this! You’re the first one out here—what happened?!”) Once everyone’s finished the warm-up laps, Nabeta gives new instructions. After each new direction, Nabeta starts the swimmers with, “Ready . . . go!”
The swimmers appear to be essentially on their own for this part of the practice. Nabeta stands near the edge of the pool, talking about the Olympics with another coach and sipping his coffee. Intermittently, the sound of splashing will be interrupted by one of Nabeta’s commands (“Hannah! Breaststroke, not freestyle!”) or instructions (“Claire, it’s a breaststroke pull. You’ve got to undulate!”) or a complaint from the pool (“I didn’t sign up for this!”).
After about an hour, the team gathers near the edge of the pool—practice is finally over, and it’s time to get ready for school.
However, many stay behind to socialize. What with the overwhelming number of practices on top of school work, many of the swimmers, including Pinson, don’t have time outside of school to get together with friends.
“My social life is the time I spend with my swim team,” Pinson said. “My teammates and I are basically a family because we see each other all the time—during our best and ugliest moments.”
After finishing her conversation, Pinson climbs out of the pool and heads to the changing room to get ready for school. The sun is beginning to rise above the horizon of trees and flowers surrounding the pool, giving the scene a hazy glow. Nabeta waits by the pool, sipping his coffee and waving goodbye to the team as they leave.
Pinson’s next stop before school is Jamba Juice, where she will pick up her second breakfast: a smoothie and a bowl of oatmeal with whey protein. After that, she’s dropped off at school, where she promptly claims an armchair in the library as her bed for the next five minutes.
But even with all the lost sleep, Pinson, whose long-term goals include Division I swimming in college and qualifying for the 2016 Olympic Trials, still says she couldn’t imagine quitting swim, or even cutting down on practices.
“(My coaches) tell me that there is always someone out there who is working harder and swimming faster than I am,” she said. “If I don’t train as hard as I can and commit myself fully, I won’t ever reach my goals.
“(And) our teammates have promised to support each other, so if I’m not at morning practice and there to push my teammates and cheer them on, then I feel like I’m letting my team down.”
For Pinson, swimming is a lifestyle, a way of defining herself. It’s taught her how to be dedicated, given her the chance to go to the Olympic Training Center and swim with Olympian swimmers, made her a part of the swim “family” and trained her to work hard to achieve her goals.
“I can absolutely guarantee you that I would not be the same Claire I am today if I hadn’t swum,” Pinson said.
Well, one thing’s for sure: she would definitely get a lot more sleep if she didn’t swim.