Pain burns eternal in 'different’ race

Rachel Mummey/The Herald
Southridge’s Sydney Barrett is the defending sectional champion in the 500-yard freestyle, a race that requires different wiring for those brave enough to power through 20 lengths of the pool. Heritage Hills coach Phil Bradley said 500 swimmers have to be “both smart and stupid” to effectively pace themselves while simultaneously pushing themselves to limits that most swimmers don’t.

Herald Sports Writer

When it comes to the 500-yard freestyle, Cole Erny is as experienced as they come at the high school level.

Yet even the Jasper senior and defending sectional champion, who sweated through his first 500 race at age 11, can’t dodge the pain. When Erny takes a week off from practice to rest, the pain shoots through his body the next time he’s toiling through a 9,000-yard training session. And even when practice becomes tolerable, the throbbing sting returns at each competition.


Erny wouldn’t want it any other way.

The distance swimmer. A rare breed. One that must mentally fend off the inevitable pain signals while simultaneously accepting them. Embracing them.

“They’re a whole different category altogether. A completely different physiology and usually … a different mindset,” Southridge coach Dick Taylor said. “They deal with pain differently.”

In high school swimming, the 500 free rests at the fringe of aerobic exercise, constantly flirting with anaerobic exertion — a harsher muscular strain that comes before rhythmic breathing can even be established. Within the 20 lengths, you might settle into a pattern, but it won’t be a casual Sunday morning tread.

“Someone that’s going to swim distance, they’ve got to be both smart and stupid, especially if you’re going to swim it well,” Heritage Hills coach Phil Bradley said. “You’ve got to be smart enough to know how to do it and control yourself, and you’ve also got to be stupid enough to push yourself further than what most people are going to do.”

Sydney Barrett has been there, done that.


When doctors diagnosed the Southridge senior with degeneration of the spine early in her high school career, they suggested the defending 500 free sectional champion stick to a “normal” training schedule.

Define normal…

“The doctor said, ”˜Oh, you’ll be able to do normal things.’ But normal to him is like 1,000 yards,” Barrett recalled. “When I went back, I told him, ”˜I haven’t been able to practice normally.’ He asked, ”˜Well what’s your normal?’ I was like, ”˜We do like 5,000 to 6,000 a day. … That’s normal for me.’”

If you walk into a swim practice, a distance swimmer might often be mistaken for a kid who either showed up late for practice, mouthed off to the coach or pushed that coach into the pool.

The swimmer is usually isolated, churning out inflated distances in a lane by him or herself. Yet that’s the only way.

“In distance events, you have to put in that time,” Erny said. “There’s no way you can be competitive without training, training and more training.”

For any newcomer — or any veteran unaccustomed to the daily demands — those first few practices can be grueling. And the pain isn’t left at the pool.


Sophomore Sara Burns remembers her shoulder and leg muscles burning as she walked from class to class at Heritage Hills last season. Finally, respite came in the classroom.

“You just breathe a sigh of relief whenever you sit down,” said Burns, who finished sixth at sectional as a freshman in February.

Eventually, swimmers find ways to cope. Their muscles and lungs become acclimated to the demands. They veer their thoughts away from the sting and toward things more satisfying.

Barrett can’t listen to music between races at meets because she’ll “just go off into space” once she’s racing. During practice, on the other hand, without a teammate at the end of the pool bobbing a lap counter in the water to let her know her progress, she does permit some internal tunes, which prompts the occasional pondering: “What lap am I on?”

During the race, however, the mental game becomes all the more critical.

Swimmers and coaches agree it’s essential for swimmers to stay within themselves during the 500. If they worry about the paddlers to their left and right, the fuel tank may become depleted before the race is complete.

Northeast Dubois junior Caleb Scherzinger recalls last year’s sectional, when he churned side by side with a faster swimmer. By the final 100 yards, he felt gassed.

It’s almost best to have tunnel vision, Bradley said. Once focused on that 2 1⁄2-meter-wide channel, it becomes an internal affair.

With distance comes time to think. With time to think comes recognition of pain. A swimmer’s job is to fend off those invading thoughts.

Scherzinger lets his brain wander. He starts singing to himself. Anything. “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Or, “if I’m halfway there, it’s ”˜Livin’ On A Prayer,’” he said. He’ll even resort to thoughts of homework that’s due the next day.

“It’s really random, it’s really weird,” Scherzinger said.

Taylor remembers going through all of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 during some practices when he competed at Wisconsin-La Crosse, and even envisioning the tip of the record player needle fitting into the grooves of each disc. He equates the distance events to taking a road trip, “but (swimming is) probably a little more painful than driving. So you’re probably concentrating on the cello section a little more than somebody who’s driving.”

Erny, meanwhile, employs a minimalist approach. He tries to void his mind of any thought at all.

“The best thing is to not have anything (in your head). You want to be completely out of it. You want to basically feel nothing,” Erny said. “Just not thinking, because that’s when fatigue starts setting in.”

The race is “like a stress ball rolling around in my head until the last five laps,” Burns said. “Then it’s just about getting done and that’s all you think about.”

Barrett describes the bodily sensation at the race’s conclusion as a delightful medley of pain and numbness. Likewise for Erny.

“That last lap, you are so focused on just getting to the wall that you’re going all out, you don’t feel anything sometimes,” Erny said. “But if you do feel it, it’s just incredible pain. And you really don’t care.”

Contact Joe Jasinski at

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