US Masters Swimming

Mountain View Masters

Rebirth and Inspiration in the Big Easy
(Southern Masters Short Course Meters Championships, December, 2007)

by Chris Campbell

In August of 2005, like countless others, I spent a lot of time watching the coverage of Hurricane Katrina on TV.  Live storm coverage had proven to be a ratings bonanza the year before, and every media outlet that could put a reporter in rain gear on the beach as the storms rolled in, did.  After rumbling across Florida as a relatively unremarkable Category 1 hurricane, Katrina slid into the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and rapidly grew to fearsome proportions and ferocious intensity.  And it stopped being entertainment.  Now a legendary Category 5 storm, perhaps the most powerful in history, it began a heart-stopping drive towards the Gulf Coast, with its crosshairs lining up on New Orleans.

We all know what happened after that.  Although the storm turned to the east at the last moment, sparing the Crescent City a direct hit, it hammered places like Slidell, Louisiana and Bay St. Louis, Mississippi with implacable fury, literally bulldozing them.  The waterfront in Biloxi was shoved inland, families rode out the storm aboard the Battleship USS Alabama in Mobile Bay, and the effects of the storm were felt as far away as Pensacola, Florida.   In New Orleans, canal levees failed in six places, inundating nearly three quarters of the City.

And yet, with all of our technology, with all of our insight and resources, it seemed that everyone at every level was unprepared for the aftermath. The stories of suffering at the Superdome will stay with me for the rest of my life.  A few days after the storm, a swimming friend of mine with the Air Force’s 129th Rescue Squadron was finally dispatched with a detachment from his Unit to assist in the rescue efforts, using boats and helicopters to pluck people from rooftops.  By the end of their week in New Orleans, they had rescued nearly 2,000 people.  But that many had perished along the Gulf Coast during the storm and the debacle that followed.

And less than a month later, it happened again.  Another Cat 5 monster, this one named Rita, churned its baleful way towards an already battered Gulf Coast.  While similar in size and power to Katrina, Rita will never achieve the same notoriety as her older earlier sister.  The whims of nature brought the storm ashore to the west, near Sabine Pass in Texas, a less densely populated area, and people quickly evacuated, mindful of Katrina’s fury.  But Rita’s punch still was felt in New Orleans, as the Lower 9th Ward was flooded a second time as the storm surge overwhelmed the levees again.

The hand wringing and finger pointing that accompanies such horror stories goes on for months, and it shifts the focus away from the human tragedy.  Katrina and Rita stories drifted off the front pages and worked their way to the back of the papers, and eventually, they were no longer deemed newsworthy at all.  Everything’s fine.  End of story.

Or so I thought.

In August of 2007, I was swimming at the USMS Long Course Nationals at The Woodlands, just north of Houston.  Working as an On-Deck Coach, I found myself chatting with Bill Cleveland, a coach with Red River Masters in Shreveport, Louisiana.  One of my goals as a Masters swimmer is to compete in a Masters meet in every state before I call it a life.  Despite the reputation of Houston in August, I couldn’t pass up the chance to check Texas off of my list, and when Bill found that out, he suggested that I come down for the Southern Masters Short Course Meters Championships in December.  They were to be held at Tulane University in New Orleans, the first Masters meet on the Gulf Coast since Katrina.  Well, how could I pass that up?  I’d never been to New Orleans, and I’d get to check Louisiana off my list as well.  But after a few seconds, it hit me.  It had been two years since Katrina.  Bill told me that the meet, when held in New Orleans, was usually hosted by the University of New Orleans, but that their facility had yet to reopen.  Two years.  And like Pacific Masters, my LMSC, Southern Masters had a long history of competing outside of their region as individual teams.  However, in the wake of Katrina, so many programs were disrupted, and so many swimmers were displaced far and wide, all of the teams were consolidated into a single LMSC team, much like New England Masters.  At The Woodlands, two years later, their efforts were rewarded with a Top Ten Team Finish.  Planning a trip, spending a few tourist dollars and swimming in their meet seemed like a nice way to show support, so I marked it on my calendar.

Fast forward four months to early December.  My boss had quit his job, and I’d inherited a large portion of it.  My job stress level was through the roof.  I was exhausted, and I’d been battling the flu off and on since the beginning of October.  I’d mailed my entries for the SMS Championships already, but I hadn’t committed to the trip yet.  I was going to skip it.  I was just too worn out. 

Then something happened.  Normally, our coaching staff gives awards at our Holiday Party, but this year, we tried something different.  This time, we let our swimmers give their own awards to each other.  Inspiration seemed to be the theme, with the best quote being “If a 61 year old woman can do it, then so can I!”  When I got up to say a few words and set the tone for 2008, I grabbed INSPIRATION as our focus for the coming year—Draw inspiration from those around you, and, with your actions, inspire those around you in return. 

Great words, but I still wasn’t going on that trip.

When I got home late that evening, there were dishes to be washed before bed, so, being a foodie, I turned on Food Network to see what was on while I was scrubbing away.  It was Robert Irvine, in Dinner Impossible, a crazy show where they drop him into a situation where he has to cook for hundreds of people in less than ten hours, without any idea of what he has to work with.  This week, he was cooking for a thousand volunteers from HandsOnGulfCoast.org in Biloxi, Mississippi.  He was feeding volunteers who are rebuilding homes along the Gulf Coast, devastated by the storm.  The highlight of the show was when he handed house keys to a woman, allowing her to move back into her home for the first time in two and a half years.  That just stopped me cold.  This woman had been unable to return home for TWO AND A HALF YEARS?  And she was by no means a unique case.  At that moment, a voice in my head said, “Son, You need some inspiration.”  There was no passing up that trip now.  I told my coworkers that I was taking a couple of days off, and on Thursday, I jumped on a plane and headed for New Orleans.

I made a conscious choice not to be ghoulish.  The thought of enjoying a post-Katrina tour of the area just didn’t sit well with me.  However, there was no escaping the little things.  I sensed something amiss immediately.  It was 6:15 on a Thursday night, and I was alone walking through the concourse at Louis Armstrong International Airport, just outside New Orleans.  It might have been 3 AM at a tiny landing strip in Alaska. The place was a ghost town.  MapQuest is a funny thing.  If you specify “shortest distance,” it will take you through neighborhoods, just to save a quarter mile.  On my way from the airport to my hotel in the Garden District, I passed deserted buildings and boarded up houses.  And then I saw my first X.  Spray painted on the fronts of houses in the days after Katrina by search and rescue teams looking for victims, they remain, hideous occult symbols used to conjure the darkest magic.  My heart sank as I realized that in August 2005, this had been someone’s home, and two and a half years later, no one had come back.  Over the weekend, I saw a lot more Xs.

On Friday, I had some time to kill, so I took the just reopened St. Charles Avenue Streetcar Line to the French Quarter.  As I strolled along the empty streets at lunchtime on Friday, I was struck by the number of places still boarded up, and virtually every restaurant had a Help Wanted sign in the window.  There was billboard along Canal Street that read “With the New Orleans restaurant industry, there is NO reason for unemployment.”  Wondering about that, I had lunch, stopped into St. Louis Cathedral to light a candle, and then headed off to Tulane to help with the Friday evening 1500s.

Tulane University has a magnificent indoor 50 meter pool, and I was greeted by a big banner that read “Tulane Women’s Swimming—2005 Conference USA Champions.”  The next morning, when I showed up to swim, there was a women’s team in the water.  But as I looked more closely, I saw that they were UNO swimmers.  Where were the Tulane swimmers?  The Men’s team was a casualty of Title IX, but the Women’s team was discontinued after Katrina.  I was also told that Tulane had severely cut back several academic departments as well, as a result of the financial burdens caused by the storm.  Neighboring Newcombe College, a small but prestigious Women’s liberal arts college, no longer exists as a stand-alone institution.  When I asked about the restaurant industry, I found out that over a third of the population of the City, some 170,000, had been forced to leave, and many will never be able to return.  The financial hardship is too much for them to bear, whether it’s through the lack of flood insurance, or the lack of funding and distribution of disaster relief money.  Whatever the reason, a great portion of those who left formed the backbone of the City’s restaurant industry.  The manifestation of this is the wait for service in many restaurants.  It’s not that there aren’t tables available.  There just isn’t enough staff to serve you right away. 

To the casual observer who avoids the devastated areas, the Gulf Coast may seem back to normal.  But if you look more closely, you see the holes in the fabric.  The little things that we take for granted, those are the missing pieces.  If anyone tells you that the Gulf Coast is fine, they’re wrong.  Healing it is a work in progress, and a true and lasting recovery may take a generation.

In the middle of all of this, Southern Masters Swimming held their 2007 Short Course Meters Championship, the first Masters’ meet on the Gulf Coast since Katrina.  With 123 swimmers from ten states competing, it was the largest meet they’d had in years.  While perhaps small in comparison to the meets of LMSCs like Pacific and New England, it proved to be a well-sized, well paced and spirited meet, and I had a wonderful time.  Through my travels, I’ve learned that Masters Swimmers are the same everywhere, and the common experiences shared by those in the pools over the years have resulted in a close-knit community.  That is the strength of Masters Swimming around the world.  It builds bridges between people, both individually and collectively.  All swimmers are family.  This meet was no exception.  I found out that the woman I was swimming next to in the 800 Free, Courtnay Murakowski, was a college teammate of one of my brothers 25 years ago.  Of course, she had to beat me by 5 seconds for me to make that connection.  And it turns out that Bill Cleveland’s sister, USMS Long Distance Chair Marcia Cleveland, was also a teammate of my brother all those years ago.  For as large as Masters Swimming is in this country, I’m always amazed at how small the world is.

As I wandered around the French Quarter after the meet, I learned that there is no real zoning in New Orleans, so the wealthy and the poor nestle in amongst each other.  And given the hit or miss nature of the recovery effort, it’s easy to see where the money is.  But thanks to groups like HandsOnGulfCoast, Habitat for Humanity and countless church groups and other volunteers, signs of hope are popping up like seedlings after a forest fire.  A river town and port city in every sense, New Orleans will always have rough edges, but it is also blessed with a fierce and independent spirit, a will to survive, come hell or, ironically enough, high water.  These are people who will not just survive, they’ll  thrive.  And that commands respect.  It certainly earned mine.  In the Spring of 2008, the UNO pool is scheduled to reopen, and Southern Masters Swimming is considering holding their Short Course Meters Championship Meet in New Orleans once again.  I hope they do.  I’ll be there, hopefully with some of my teammates and others, supporting our family and friends.  After all, who could pass up an inspiration like that?

Chris Campbell is a coach with Mountain View Masters in the San Francisco Bay Area.  He likes going to swim meets in all sorts of places, so don’t be surprised if he walks out on deck at yours one of these days.