Valentine’s Weekend in Amsterdam – swimming

Valentine Swimming Tournament 2014

This gay event meets alternate years in Amsterdam and Vienna.  This year five of us from Out to Swim have signed up to go to Amsterdam.  We’re each allowed to enter three events plus relays and it’s fallen to me to organise these but first there’s the challenge of getting there. 

            I’m told to leave work early so I can get to Heathrow on time. This means that cycling home, I avoid the torrential deluge predicted and which arrives on cue as I leave the house for the tube.  I pause to collect an umbrella on the way out.  The Underground runs smoothly, what could possibly go wrong as my flight is scheduled to leave before the worst of the wind hits London.  We’re delayed, and delayed until two hours later the gate is announced.  There’s more waiting as there are queues of planes waiting to take off as those landing in cross winds are having difficulty.  We wait in the plane for permission to start the engines.  This flight from Amsterdam was delayed because the catering van damaged the plane, which had to be replaced.  Eventually we’re moving and now that the landings have been diverted, we can take off.  It’s hairy on the way up and I fear it’s going to be like this all the way.  Things calm down and it’s not raining n Amsterdam.

The Season Star Hotel has only one advantage – its three minutes walk from Central Station.  Even for a three star place, it’s very basic and over-priced.  At least it’s got clean sheets and towels.  Its non smoking, but you can tell that was not always the case and there is a faint whiff of historical smoke, probably coming from the pre-ban carpet. I’m very late checking in but the room has been kept.  I was here only last November so landmarks are still familiar.  I make my way to the Dam area a few streets away and splash out on a rib eye steak.  There are English couples everywhere here on a Valentine’s weekend trip.  In the Restaurant the waiter keeps saying ‘No worries’, antipodean style to everyone.  To the couple opposite he suggests that just for this weekend, they could have sex on the table and he wouldn’t mind.  The woman behind keeps asking her bloke what he would like to do tomorrow.  He’s unenthustically replying ‘I don’t mind’.  He says they’ve been on the go all day and he’d like to go back to the hotel.  That reminds me that I have been up since six and am too knackered to go on to a gay bar, so it’s back to the dreary room to sleep.

There’s a morning to be filled in after stoking up with breakfast carbs.  I set out for a wander, but it’s suddenly cold and time to take shelter in a coffee/deli place.  There are the other sorts of Coffee Shops selling dope, but this might not be so clever just before an afternoon of races.  I’ve got to get the number 9 tram to Pretorius Straat, but it’s too early.  I get out at Oostpark and as I’ve got thirty minutes to fill, take a brisk walk around.  It’s barren and soggy, so they’ve had lots of rain here as well.  A Chinese man is leading a small group of five in exercises.  They are doing squats, bending at the knee with feet flat on the ground.  The only woman in the group doesn’t bend very far and also looks incredibly bored.  I get back on the number 9 tram and it takes ages to find my day pass which could be in any of six pockets and is eventually found in the middle of my passport. Some time later, I ask how far to Pratorius Straat. It’s back the other way – we passed it while I was looking for my ticket.

The pool - setting up the lanes
The pool – setting up the lanes

The pool at Sport Fondsenbad Oost is lovely, but looks very short after the 50 metre pool at Crawley two weeks ago.  The place is suddenly crowded with men looking for the changing rooms and then queuing up for lockers.  There’s an ATM like machine which, on payment of 20cents allocates you a locker and you put in a pin number.  A very nice local woman helps me, but in the end it’s easier to change the logging in machine to English.  The seating is already filling up but I mange to find a small space for out team.  Quite soon they begin to arrive: Terry (with partner John), Martin & David and then David F.  I spot Bill from Northern Wave – Manchester (he’s wearing a Warrington t-shirt).  He’s seventy and is pissed off that none of the others from his club have signed up.  He’s the only one in his age-group and claims to be the oldest at the meet. (There turns out to be someone in the 75+ group)  I console Bill with the fact that it’s all gold for him today, but he’s more interested in his times.

The warm-up is a very crowded affair as there are only six lanes and 2-300 people.  There’s just time to get the measure of the pool for turns and try a couple of dives of the starter blocks.  First up it’s the 4 x 50m medley relay and were presenting a combined age of 200+.  I’ve got to start because backstroke is my number 1 stroke but the other backstrokers look younger and turn out to be faster.  David F is following me with breaststroke and requests that I give him a clean finish.  He makes up the ground and Terry, who swims butterfly, holds the place.  David D, swimming freestyle last is spectacular and wins the heat to give us a silver medal for the age group, a great start.  Fifty metres breaststroke is next and David F is magnificent.  The rest of us do 50M freestyle.  I’m usually in heat 3 at meets, but today it’s heat 9, which means that there a loads of guys slower than me. People have just come to participate and have fun – OTS members take note.  The team say my race went well, especially the second length where I apparently overtook the front swimmer to win the heat by a touch to win the heat and my age group.  Next it’s David F, in the last and fastest heat of the Individual Medley (IM) – wow, he’s swimming with guys 20 years younger.  He’s also doing 50m fly next.   I spot 70 year old Bill in heat 4 of the fly doing well.  Martin and Terry are also doing 50 fly and then we go into the 4x50m freestyle relay.  It’s all go, go, go.  I swim second this time and we come in two seconds under my estimated time. We’re second in the 200+ age group – more silver medals!

Our team: David D, David F, Martin, Terry, Chris
Our team: David D, David F, Martin, Terry, Chris

Time for a break.  Upstream Amsterdam have organised this most magnificently.  There is free food and drink for all and interestingly all the announcements are in English.  This is not just for our benefit as English is the language of communication and commerce between the Europeans.  This event really does feel like a community.  Some of the team meet up with old friends – some of whom swam with OTS and have moved to live/work in other countries. The Europeans are disappointed that so few of us have come from the UK, so OTS swimmers, you were missed.  There are also very few women competing, so loads of medal opportunities for OTS here.

During the break, Upstream Amsterdam give us a dazzling display of synchronised swimming, a routine especially choreographed for Valentine’s weekend and two years in rehearsal.  There’s a team of 12 men and women doing fantastic formations.  Early on the scull into a heart shape and then form a row boat.  There’s a pas de deux with male and female swimmer in a nod to Heterosexuality (we can all be inclusive).  Unfortunately I just remember my phone has a camera too late and they are putting the lane ropes back.

Session two begins with the 200m freestyle and Bill from Northern Wave is looking good in heat 2 with 45+ swimmers.  Our David D is in the last heat and does a strong finish to win gold.  My 100m Backstroke goes well with a respectable time, but as I’m the only one in my age group, there’s no one to beat.  The 100m free is the last official race and for some reason I’ve put in a slow time and the woman in the next lane is faster on paper.  Once in the pool, she doesn’t seem to be ahead and I think I come third, enough to get silver in my age group.  The final event is a fun 10 person relay 25m each.  The five of us, according to the programme have been joined with two other clubs, one possibly Spanish.  We’re in heat one with the Copenhagen Mermates and another combination team.  There’s no sign of the other five swimmers, so we will have to swim two lengths each.  David F & David D go to the other end.  Something stops me from following and no one is sure about the maths.  In the end it’s fine and no one has to run down the other end except that I end up swimming last.  Fortunately the others have put us in the lead – enough for us to win the heat.  In the end we came in 5th out of 14 teams.

This is what the medals look like
This is what the medals look like

We’ve had a fabulous afternoon swimming and we’ve all won medals, so in addition to the 8 silver medals for the relays, we snatched 5 Gold, 2 silver and 1 bronze.  Not bad for a small team of 5.  Now we’re all rushing back to change for the dinner and the number 9 tram is packed.  I try to check in for my return flight using an available wifi spot on my phone. It’s not going well and I can’t find my room key in any of my pockets.  Thinking I’ve left it in the room, I ask the hotel man to open up.  It’s not there and eventually I find it in the lobby where I was checking in.  It’s only a 3 minute walk to the St Olaf’s chapel inside the Barbiron Palace Hotel, just opposite the Central station.  This huge space, now a ballroom, is in the old palace.  It’s amazing and buzzy with heart shaped balloons hung on the pillars.  We buy tokens for our drinks and food is brought out by waiters, starting with a glass of hot fish soup.  Each dish is meticulously presented: A small tray with salad and pate, a paper cone of Mediterranean vegetables, chunks of roast potatoes and salad, soft brown seeded bread with a dip, then a box of noodles with chopsticks and finally pudding is ice-cream and crumble.  It’s always a worry with this way of serving food, but in the end we all get enough to eat and all the while the music is varied and fantastic.  As the evening wears on, we’re all dancing in between the entertainment.  First up is one of the guys form the club in a huge red afro wig and a black fitting gown covered in sequins.  He sings a good medley supported by two acolytes similarly attired.

Bowie tribute
Bowie tribute

Later there’s an amazing Bowie Tribute trio who sing and dance amazingly.  We all think they would go down well in London.  I haven’t danced like this for 20 years, Phillip & I didn’t dance and I can’t remember why.  There’s lots of fun going on and a couple of chaps in their late 50’s are getting quite romantic.  Suddenly I‘ve had enough to drink, I’ve run out of blue tokens and my boots hurt.  Time to sleep, once again giving up on the idea of a nightcap in a gay bar.

It’s a slow start to Sunday morning – hotel breakfast, pack, check-out and sit in the lobby, blogging.  Then for a change of scene, coffee at Blooms and more blogging.  The waitresses what to know if I’m writing a book.  Now it is brunch time back at the Barbiron Palace Hotel for a sit-down self service meal.  I’ve somehow lost my ticket but it’s OK, they believe me.  Salads, scrambled eggs & bacon, potato cake, fresh fruit, cold meats croissants and bread are available.  It’s a highly recommended weekend.  Next year it’s Vienna.

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