Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Last Race I Swam

Ah, the things that remind us of summers past. The smell of jasmine blossoms and chlorine, the sound of kids laughing. The rattle of acute bronchitis.

I sit here amidst tissues and chicken soup, hacking up a lung and remembering. When I was a kid, without fail, I would come down with bronchitis every August. Right at the end of swim season. Right during all the big important swim meets. I’d been a swimmer as long as I could remember. I’ve always been much more graceful at swimming that at, say, walking. Mom had been a lake life guard and synchro swimmer as had her mom before her. We were water people. Mom started me on the team when I was five.

In my thirteen-year tenure on the Flatirons Country Club Gators, I had a respectable career. Nothing spectacular. I wasn’t the one they talked about in the same breath as ‘Olympic grooming.’ That was my friend and rival, Julie. Julie swam like her mother had shagged a salmon. The summer in question, we were gawky teens and unfortunately for her, she looked like her mother had shagged a salmon. I wasn’t the top fish but at least I was cute and on a city level, I could kick some swimmer ass to be sure.

It was one of those transition years when I was at the top of my age category. A nice growth spurt had given me a great reach advantage. The next year, I’d be at the bottom of the crème de la crème: the 15-18s. This year - as a big 14 in the 13-14s - was my year to shine. As an angry goth teen, it was my year to bitch. The first of many such years, actually. I hated everything and everyone and swimming was my only normal kid outlet. Much as I secretly liked being part of something, swimming was good too because your head was underwater and you didn’t have to talk to anyone.

In the preliminary meets that summer, I’d qualified in everything I swam. I was the anchor on both our Freestyle and Medley Relay teams. I could swim those races in my sleep. I was more proud of my qualification for the 200 Individual Medley, a crucible event for me I’d never had the stamina for as a smaller swimmer. And proudest yet of my 100 Breast Stroke. We had a new coach that year and she’d brought in the newest Olympic techniques for breast stroke. She’d worked with me all summer and mine was one of the best races in the city. Maybe the best, we were about to find out when all thirteen teams in the league met at Finals.

And then, with annoying Swiss watch precision, my bronchitis hit. I slept sitting up in an attempt to keep my lungs clear. I rested and subjected myself to all manner of home cures. Looking back, I can’t tell you why actual medicine never seems to have entered the picture but in any case, the day of the Finals Meet loomed and I had a hamster wheel lodged in my chest.

“No really, listen!” I’d tell friends. Then I’d inhale rapidly and you could actually hear the ‘tick tick tick’ as though a rodent were running around in my lungs. Fun with mucus. That was about the only fun of it though as I watched my hard-won dreams of pool stardom slip from my grasp.

The Finals arrived and though the hamster wheel was firmly in place, I felt physically better. Maybe I could swim. On limited strength though, the question was: what event? My relay teams couldn’t compete without me since there were only four of us 13-14s. No back-up swimmers. But my chances at personal glory were here now.

In fact, I’d never swim breaststroke again after that year. The next year I joined my high school rowing team and subsequently blew my knees out. They’d never again be capable of the strenuous frog kick essential for Breaststroke. But I didn’t know that at the time. I was determined to be a City Champ for once in my life.

The meet started as they do with the Medley Relay. As usual, our team flew and we took first. Having shown a glimmer of the Breaststroke to come, I crawled back to the team tent hacked away, waiting for my glory races, conserving energy. My coach came to me and we assessed the rest of the day. I didn’t have the strength to swim all three races. Something had to give. I wasn’t highly ranked for the 200 IM so we canned that. That left the 100 Breast and personal glory or the Free Relay which my team wouldn’t be able to enter without me. Crap. I was a self-centered, shoe-gazer teen dressed all in black when not at the pool. Don’t face me with a choice between being helpful and being out for me!

The mothers of the 8-and-Unders have always been super annoying. They don’t yet get that this is a lifestyle for us; swimming. Not just a day care as it often is for them at this first stage. Many of us harbored dreams of Olympic gold and we saw such ignorant parental interferences were outrageous. The following year they would manage to rally together and fire the best coach we’d ever had because he didn’t coddle their kids with enough play time. ‘Excuse me? We’re here to swim, lady,’ we teens raged.

One of these busy body moms marched over to the tent and stood looming with her hands on her hips. No doubt to spur me on to glory - tell me I could swim both races and do wonderfully - how much her little daughter looked up to me and so forth.

“I think it is so selfish of you to be here, spreading your germs on everyone. You should just go home.”

It was one of those moments where everything gets slow and clear. Were I then the woman I am now I would have simply raised myself up to full height and flogged her with her Talbot’s pearls. Instead I stared at her from my sleeping bag and growled.

“Lady, I’m here so your kid can be on a winning team. You should be thanking me.”

Score one for petulant teenagers!

And just like that, I’d made the point to myself. I called my coach over and told her to scratch me from the Breaststroke. I was there for my team and I would swim the relay.

I’d like to say we swept the race and my sacrifice was for good of all of us. Honestly, I can’t remember. I think we came in fourth. But the fact that we’d placed gave our team enough over-all points to place us above our closest rival team at the end of the meet. More importantly, I’d managed to leak a tiny pink light of humanity through my teen-bitch shell. It would be years before I could look back on my goth-wear and laugh. Years before I wouldn’t face my dad with a “I’m serious! Stop laughing at my clothes! You never understand anything about me. Everything sucks and then you die, don’t you get it? Daaaaaaaaaaaaaaad!”

Ah teens. Can’t wait to have my own. I’m sure my parents can’t wait to visit that revenge upon me too. One thing’s for sure, they’ll be swimmers. I hope they wear black, stand up to adults, and occasionally do something for the team.

The funny thing I’d later learn about that summer is that no one remembers the small sacrifices. Good or bad. I’m sure no one but me remembers I gave up what would prove to be my only chance at City Gold for the good of the team. Just like no one remembers whether you took your vacation or worked like a dog. So it all comes down to doing the right thing even though you’ll be the only one who’ll care. Do the thing you’ll feel good about later. Give back. Take that extra vacation. Sitting here coughing away, I’m proud I swam that relay. And I’m the only one who knows. Me and my lung hamster wheel.



Blogger Sarah said...

I'm so glad my mom didn't shag a salmon! Great post!

2:06 PM  

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