When I get to my first swim practice freshman year, I’m asked to swim the length of the pool as fast as I can. Someone tells me this is called a 50. I do so, and it’s painful—my arms and legs cramp up, and I want to collapse after I’m finished. My time means nothing to me, but I know that Jessica in the next lane is faster, and I don’t like that. I decide that I’m going to improve.
Every day after school, I drag myself down to the school’s basement to swim. With “When you Believe” from the Prince of Egypt playing on repeat in my head, I get to know each mark and scratch on the bottom of the pool. Practice is a struggle, but it always leaves me feeling accomplished, and this inspires me to continue to swim.
However, this determination falters when it comes time to race. I’m nervous—not scared of losing, but worried that I’ll become too tired to finish. It’s an irrational fear, but one that I can’t seem to shake. When I get in the water, I panic, and my arms and legs freeze up. But still, I love it—or at least I tell myself that I do.
A year later, swimming is very much a part of my life. I set a host of goals for myself, including breaking a school record. Even though I still can’t beat her, Jessica and I begin a rivalry (although I’m pretty sure this competition is mostly in my head). We become friends, and I go to watch her races. I never see her at mine, but I think she watches me compete as well.
However, by the end of my sophomore season, I begin to feel slightly jaded. The natural high that I used to feel getting out of the pool each day is mostly gone, and I have to work harder to motivate myself. Sometimes, I even decide not to go to practice, busying myself with meaningless tasks at home and even resorting to rearranging the pictures on my wall. I stop trying and stop improving, but I don’t care. In the spring, I run track instead of swimming.
Two weeks into my junior year, I fall while skateboarding and fracture my collarbone. I am sent out of the pool and back to my room, about which I am secretly excited. However, I quickly get bored. After a few weeks, I want nothing more than to be swimming again. When I go to my local pool and try to swim, I feel a sharp pain in my right shoulder as I lift my arm. So I can only wait and watch as Jessica qualifies for state, silently wishing that it were me in the pool earning a place on the record board.
When November rolls around again, I feel surprisingly ready to practice. In my hiatus, I’ve unconsciously decided to dedicate myself to swimming again. I swim as fast as I can in each set, not allowing anyone to beat me. Swimming is still painful—in fact, I feel the same sense of nervousness that I did as a sophomore—but I want to swim. I work hard during each meet to stop myself from panicking, and I calm myself down in the bathroom before races. But I only see marginal progress. Even with my full effort, I frustratingly watch my times stagnate, and this causes me to once again question my commitment to the sport. I continue to try, though.
Sectionals: the final race of our senior year. I spend the 20 days before the race in a constant countdown, trying to prepare myself, not for swimming to be over, as I had before, but to win the race.
On the day of the race, I again listen to music, only this time it’s not Disney, but a quiet song by the Red Hot Chili Peppers named “Someone.” At the meet, I don’t stress. I yell and scream for my friends swimming their last races. For a while, I just sit with my friend Kevin, knowing that we won’t get to hang out much after this day. But, when race time comes, I’m ready to swim.
The race happens, and for the first time ever, I am able to just swim. I don’t think about anything, really—my mind is frozen, captive to my innate desire to win.
I don’t go to states that day. In reality, the remarkable drop in my time doesn’t even matter. When I get out of the pool and smile, it’s not because of the medal, or the cheers from my teammates, or even because of Jessica’s face as she watches me finally beat her.
There was a time when swimming could have easily worked its way out of my life. Each day that I entered the water, I struggled to keep my strokes synchronized, had difficulty holding my breath for the proper amount of time. I spent many laps convincing myself that the struggle was worth it. Four years after getting in the pool for my first practice, the work finally paid off. Nothing’s better than that.