Article 038 c.1999
The Casablanca Chronicles

By Dennis Manrique

CASABLANCA, MOROCCO June 19-30, 1998

I knew I was in for an adventure as soon as I boarded the plane at Metro with a group of Jehovah's Witnesses returning to Trinidad from a world conference in Detroit. The island accents and discussions that went on added to the anticipation of what was to come.
At the JFK boarding area for Air Maroc it was obvious that athletes were gathering. Many of the people showing up had that conditioned look and were wearing previous competition T-shirts. Over the next couple of weeks, I got to know and become friends with many of these people from all over the US including Alaska and Puerto Rico and came home with a completely different wardrobe because of the traditional T-shirt bartering.
The Air Morac was the "Red Eye Express" and by midmorning we cleared customs (without my luggage which I had to make do without for the next two days) and got on the tour bus provided by the Pointe Vedra tour agency. We soon had a taste of the environment. A policeman was posted by the bus to deter the guys out to hustle us. We were tired and easy targets. I actually couldn't tell if this was the Casablanca tour bus or the end of the Baker bus run going into the East Dearborn Rouge Plant past Patton on Vernor Highway - mosques, caftans and all. I also kept waiting for Dave "Abdul" Sahagian to pop out from around the bus at any moment with a towel wrapped around his head. 
They gave us an introductory tour of Casablanca, but actually they were stalling until the Hyatt Regency Hotel had our rooms ready. About half of us saw it; the other half were too exhausted to lift their heads. The tour guide stressed that this was a "modern" city and made sure to point out the McDonalds. The donkey carts told us otherwise.
The Hyatt was great. We were welcomed with the traditional mint tea and the hotel had a 20-meter pool that we could use for warm-up instead of doing the salmon run at the competition warm-up pool. After settling into some elegant rooms (the bathrooms even had some pretty classy European drinking fountains right across from the toilets!), we headed over to the pool to register and check out the competition pool. The buses provided by Pointe Vedra were pretty nice and we shared them with the Brazilian team coming from the other hotels. The buses were tall enough that they allowed you to be a spectator to the mayhem of Casablanca traffic, almost a free-for-all, where traffic signals were merely a suggestion and horns meant everything. Mopeds and "Petite Taxis" darted around the bus and under the bumpers. The times I took the taxis, I put my fate into the hands of Allah.
My roommate was Jim Edwards, a 76-year-old retired lawyer from Providence, Rhode Island. He had been on the Masters circuit for quite awhile and was a real inspiration. He took silvers in the 800 free and the 5k Open Water.
The thing I remember most of Jim was waking up and seeing him shaving down for his events and then putting on his full lycra competition suit. The man was here to swim and he was serious! In talking to him after returning to Detroit and mentioning the qualities of a woman I was dating, he let me finish and then said "Yeah, but what can she go for a hundred!"
The Moroccans we met were really nice I guess because I could mumble a few greetings of Arabic at times. With the tan I was getting, I was beginning to be mistaken for Moroccan, except one time when a shopkeeper told me and after correcting him of my origin that I looked like Charles Bronson - what a "Death Wish!"
Arriving at the pool the first day, trying to register was pure chaos. A big crowd of hot tired people shouting in all languages was pushing against a desk manned by 3 people. With no system in place, the staff would shuffle through stacks of pool passes and slowly find one at a time. There was a catch 22 routine going on as well at the counter. Something like this:
    I'd like to register. What's your swimmer ID number? I don't know. Where do I get that? It's in the program. How do I get the program? You have to register.

    Where's Ed Snelzer when you need him!

Eventually I found someone who had registered and went through his program to find my ID number. The problem was that they had not validated my entry fees so I had to wait still longer to get my ID card made up after they did.
The competition facilities had an 8-lane indoor 50-meter pool with a separate diving well with a 5- and 10-meter tower, two 3-meter boards and two 1-meter boards. Nice, but nothing like Brennan - the water was in the 70's ... except for the locker rooms. They were all concrete and downstairs. As I walked down there to change, I was overcome with a familiar odor of what I recognized immediately as Coal Tar, a solution that Picard and I had used to swab down the locker rooms as Swim Aides at Rouge to kill those pesky roaches. And sure enough I saw these huge mamas the likes of which I hadn't seen since McNairy and I used to towel pop them at the St. Clair Recreation Center meets! Between them and the flashbacks of the Baker bus I felt that life had definitely prepared me for this event. One key thing I also found out, due to local customs, was BYOTP - Bring your own toilet paper. I also got side glances since I was left-handed. Another local custom is using the right hand for eating, shaking hands and other important things. The left hand is for personal hygiene. So when we went to eat, I was given a wide berth.
Mixing with the other swimmers, past swimming sagas arose and names and places brought back many memories, such as when I was talking to a former Stanford water polo player who had swum with Murray Rose and Chuck Bittick or when Steve Clark showed up at the resident hotel pub and when I chatted with an Argentine swimmer who was a goalie on their National Water Polo Team while waiting for my next event.
I found out how connected I was with these swimmers when I asked Dan Rogacki of New England Masters if he had ever swum in Michigan. He told me he remembered being at a pool with a platform over it and having his buddy take a picture of him behind a beautiful former Olympic swimmer. Turns out that it was Brennen and the swimmer was Cindy Goyette. It was more than likely the Water Wonderland Meet.
I got a chance to have breakfast with Nancy Ridout, President of the US Swimming Masters Association. It turns out that she was originally from Toledo and swam for the Glass City YMCA, where I had swum my first out of state meet when I was eleven years old. When I told her I swam for Patton she remembered playing water polo against our girls at the nationals in Arlington, Virginia. She played for the Ann Arbor Swim Club for which Olympic diver Mickie King played goalie (actually, this was Mickie's first All-American recognition in a string of many to come in diving).
Nancy specifically remembered how dirty our girls played and especially the "drawback leg gouge" perfected by Linda Foster for whom I still thank for permanent scars gotten in one of our infamous Sunday morning coed games.
I met another swimmer from Puerto Rico, Tony Andrua. When I asked him if he knew Harry, he said "Harry Hauck, he's my coach and I played polo with his son!" I couldn't resist giving him the ultimate test, so I asked him, "Tony, what was the worse thing that that Harry could say to you?" Without batting an eye he shot back in heavily accented English, "Dawn bee a phooney!" Even through that heavy accent it was confirmed that he had passed the test. Had he rode in a car while Harry smoked a cigar? Yes, with the windows down. Harry must be getting soft in his golden years.
The heats ran fairly smooth except for some swimmers who were left off the sheets. No problem since they were put in something Dan Rogacki, New England Masters, coined "donkey heats." These were heats added to the end of the event to ensure that they swam. They also accommodated local swimmers who wanted to try a hand in world competition. This was sometimes pitiful to watch as some ringer would be seeded next to a local who hadn't swum in years, if at all. Things did settle down and became more systematic later in the meet. What a thrill to be in the presence of former world guns who now swim masters. There were a multitude of former national and world champions.
Probably my biggest thrill was to get in the water and throw the water polo ball around with the Ukrainian team. I was able to get into the goal and have them take shots on me. I had to be a little cautious since my first event was the next day and I didn't want to break anything. I had a chance to take some shots on their goalie as well. What a treat ... except for that old- timer who, with a very slow concise shot, was able to pop the upper left hand corner on me at will . I didn't feel too bad after I saw him do the same thing to his own goalie. With them, there was not a word of English spoken except once when the old-timer forgot about the change-up and wailed one in and scored. He slowly swam over to his goalie and directly in his face uttered "Eets beeen a plezhur!"
Before leaving, I had kidded about trying to find Rick's Cafe American. It turns out that the bar in the Hyatt Regency was the Casablanca Bar with Bogart motif and a piano player who would play "As Time Goes By" for hours on end. 
The World Cup soccer games were in full swing during the meet. It was a major deal and all the talk on the streets. Kids everywhere were playing, using everything from rocks to tennis shoes for makeshift goals. A group of us watched the US vs. Iran game in Rick's. Every time the US took a shot we'd jump up and cheer. The Arabs on the other side of the bar cheered the Iranian goals. It seemed a little tense with all the hype, but at the end of the game we stood and applauded the Iranian team which by their smiles seemed to be appreciated by their fans. There was a lot of excitement the night the Moroccan team won their game also. Throughout the streets of Casablanca there were cars waving flags and honking horns. 
The last event of the championships was the 5K open water swim. Held 20 miles away from Casablanca in the Atlantic Ocean - it was unbelievable. The race course was actually shortened to 4K because of choppy conditions.
Ten Moroccan musicians greeted the open water competitors on the beach with rhythmic percussion and cymbals routines. The beat intensified the mood and there was little effort to psyching up.
Two large Arabian tents with carpets and pillows on the beach and the ever present portraits of the king and his two sons. One tent was for the four or five local dignitaries and the other one was for the 250 swimmers and their gear.
The Moroccan navy assisted by anchoring two large ocean tugs out by the turn buoys to sight on. Once we swam out past the breakwater, the swells made it hard to see the buoys so the tugs really helped. The water temperature was perfect, and contrary to the US State report which rated the ocean at Casablanca unfit, I found it relatively clean (of course anything would be clean after training in the Detroit River in the early '60s!). I was a little dubious after my swim cap displayed chunks of gunk on it after the race and I didn't even want to guess what it was.
Although I entered the race as a personal vision quest and the experience of an ocean swim off the coast of Africa, just me and the elements, I soon had flashbacks of the Huntington Mile and I was off to the races. 
At the finish of the race, after you sprinted to the finish line, you were greeted by the same Moroccan musicians and waiters with silver teapots serving glasses of mint tea. Even though I was in the second wave that left five minutes after the faster swimmers I managed to get fourth place in my age group, within a minute of first place. I was more than satisfied with my first ocean swim results.
The awards banquet was a paradox of eloquence and confusion. A huge poolside Moroccan buffet was set amidst swimmers who over the last two weeks had established a strong camaraderie ... Russians and Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and Germans, Brazilians and Americans. On the other hand, the awards ceremony became a complete fiasco. Frustrations rose as delays plagued every age division. My name wasn't even included in the announcements and finally a German had to give up his award when it was later discovered that they had me in a different age-group and I had beaten him.
As the ceremony closed, everyone was saying good-byes and exchanging phone numbers and addresses as they were looking forward to the next World Championships in Munich, Germany, in the year 2000. If there was any way we could get a Patton Alumni Team together it would sure be worth the trip.
Although I mentioned most of the details, I left out the near confrontation when I accidentally boarded the Georgian Water Polo Team bus, the walks through the backstreets to the Grand Mosque at night, the Moroccan Country Western Bar, and other side lights. But that's for another time.
In any case, I will never forget this experience as long as I live.

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