the ups-and-downs and sides-to-sides of the little things that make up life
Take your mark, get set, beep!
The clear blue water envelops my body as I leap in and begin to kick my legs with all my might. My head and arms pop up to the surface as I inhale deeply, quickly shooting them back in, kicking my legs and pulling my arms through the water faster than I thought my body could go. I reach the wall, curl myself into a ball, flip my legs out of the water and squarely hit the black plus sign with force as I turn and head back in the same direction that I came. My speed increases and my body shoots through the water like an arrow. I feel the water separate as I pass and I feel the little bubbles move down my thighs as I push it out of my way and dart forward.
I am at one; I am in love.
I kick even harder, glide and flip again, continuing to pick up speed like a snowball tumbling downhill. I can hear the crowd yelling and I know my teammates will be leaning over the ledge ready to shout “pick it up” and “kick!” I know that their arms are above their heads and their legs are performing kicking motions, for I too have stood and cheered until I no longer have a voice and my legs are as tired as if I had just swum the race with them. I know all this without a doubt but I cannot physically see it and it is only a fleeting thought in my head as I push myself to go faster and concentrate on pulling my body through the water.
“Harder, harder. Faster, faster. Stroke, stroke stroke,” is the only mantra that flies through my mind, my strokes keeping time with the rhythm of the refrain and with each word, my stroke actually becoming harder and faster.
As I flip for the final time, I know the end is within my grasp. Unbelievably, I pick up my speed, moving faster than a torpedo spinning through the ocean. Splashes of water fly high into the air from my potent kicks and my arms complete their rotations even quicker than before. I see the wall and I take one long, final stroke and a powerful kick as I stretch out my body further than it has ever been stretched before, touching the yellow pad and stopping the clock to finish the race. I come up gasping for air, hug the girl in the next lane and look up at the scoreboard to see my time.
It is a sport where it doesn’t matter whether you come in first or last; the only thing that matters is the clock and the time it has stopped at for you. Did you do your personal best? Did the race feel good and were you strong? That’s all that ever counts. And, if you achieved those things, then everyone is ecstatic for you. Winning the race comes second to how each individual person does. You race the clock, not the person next to you; she is only there to pace you and push you further than you have ever gone before.
It’s the morning after, the alarm goes off, and on autopilot, I roll out of bed, grab my car keys and head out the door. There’s no need to brush my teeth, wash my face or change out of my PJs. Breakfast isn’t even an issue because 5:30 is a little too early for eating. I arrive at the parking lot, open my trunk and take out the worn, faded-blue gym bag that has a constant place there. I walk the short, but seemingly long walk, up the stairs, through the turn stalls and into the girls’ locker room. In a habitual, quick, dance-like motion, I strip, pulling on my bathing suit and grabbing my cap and goggles in the process. As I pull my cap over my hair and set my goggles in place, I push open the locker room door with my butt. “Look alive, seniors!” my coach yells as 20 bleary-eyed girls and guys stumble out of the locker rooms and pull their goggles over their sleep-encrusted eyes. As the warm-up is yelled out, I prepare to dive into the water, knowing that no matter how warm the water is today; the icy chill will still strike my entire body. I brace myself for what is to come, and take a running leap into the white-blue water.
My mind and body dance against each other. They fight each other, because no normal high school student should be getting up to work out before the sun is up. They fight each other because both are tired and want a rest, but know that it is impossible. They fight each other because while my mind knows I can go faster, my body screams that it cannot be pushed anymore; it has reached its breaking point.
As practice ends, we drag ourselves out of the water, shower, change and eat as we all head off to school. Our hair is wet and by 9:00 we are all ready for a nap, since unlike the other students we were up before the sun had risen. As classes end, we swimmers meet in the parking lot and carpool back to the country club, ready to begin practice all over again. This time, when we pull ourselves out of the pool, we all change into gym shorts, sports bras and running shoes in order to run to the gym to lift weights and cross-train. Exhausted, we eat dinner, attempt to do homework and crash into our beds, asleep even before our heads hit the pillows. Yet, all of us are ready to begin the day again at the crack of dawn.
It sounds tedious and hard. Burnout comes easily, and non-swimmers constantly ask “why?” But, for some reason, there is an intense love. There is a love for the smell of chlorine, and for waking up in the dark to jump into freezing cold water, even during the summer months when you’re supposed to be sleeping in. There is a love for traveling for six hours packed like sardines in a van with 20 people and their luggage. There is a love for deck changes when there are no locker rooms available or when you were so nervous before a race that you forgot to put your swimsuit on under your warm-up clothes. And then there are the friends that you make, the ones that see you half naked for four hours every day. The ones that look at the same black lines on the bottom of the pool and have the same smell of chlorine in their hair and the same bleary eyed smile that you get from waking up at 5:30 in the morning to do something that you love.
As I enter college, my mind and body thank me for taking a break from swimming to try a new and different sport. My shoulders no longer scream in pain, I can sleep past a sunrise and no swimming times, regulations and thoughts of how I can improve float in the forefront of my mind. Still, I feel as if I need to be on some sort of athletic team, not just for the physical reasons, but also the mental ones. I thought crew would be fun and could generate the same feelings that swimming did. The feelings that come with even the swimmers you have just met; the shared smile and immediate bond because you both know what morning practice feels like and how hard you work. How fast you are doesn’t matter to the other swimmer, whether you’re in lane one or six during practice never even comes up. When two people who are swimmers meet for the first time, their whole demeanor changes, and the other is instantly accepted; it is a bond stronger than that of a sorority sisters’. Besides, when I saw people rowing out on the lake, it looked enjoyable and I knew that I wouldn’t be venturing too far away from my love of water.
Unfortunately, as crew practices continue, the feelings that I thought would come never do. The race courses never have quite the same layout, whereas in swimming every pool has black lines on the floor and the flags overhead are always 15 feet away from the wall. I’m not used to all the equipment that you rely on before you can even begin practicing. There are nuts, bolts and oarlocks to be screwed in and shoes in the bottom of the boat that are about three sizes too big for my tiny feet. It’s as if you’re not the one doing the rowing, but instead the equipment is doing it for you. I never quite feel a sense of belonging, just the feeling of someone always standing on the outside looking in. As the months wear on, my whole being aches to be forced to get up early to swim. It’s strange how the things I miss the most are what I could not wait to get rid of when I took a break from competitive swimming. My body misses the icy chill that shocks every bone and muscle with that initial dive in. My hair misses the feeling of chlorine in it and my nose is unaccustomed to not being assaulted by the aroma of it. My shoulders miss the ice packs that were worn after practices like badges of honor and they miss the Alieve that was taken in an attempt to make it through the next practice without feeling yesterday’s pain. I miss having to check that I have taken all my jewelry off and the fact that cold weather means nothing, rainy days don’t matter and holidays mean two practices instead of one. My back misses the permanent X that is etched into it from the sun and my suit’s straps. I miss seemingly spending an entire day in a bathing suit and always having a wet head. And most of all, I miss the locker room and poolside banter that only comes to people who have spent half of their waking moments with just you; no clothes or makeup to hide your flaws.
I think one of the reasons that you can fall so deeply in love with this sport and devote so much of your time to it is because swimming is a sport that involves just you. There is no equipment to be blamed for a slow day and there are no clothes or shoes or uniforms to hide behind. For the only excuse that can be made is, you were the slacker and you did not push yourself to the extreme today. It wasn’t anybody or anything’s fault but your own.
I thought that joining any team sport could give me those same feelings, but I was mistaken. For me, there is only one true passion. I know now that even though I may burn out, desire to try something new or lose my way, I will always find my way home to a house that contains straight black lines on the floor and a clear-blue roof.