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Laughter and joking taunts float on chlorinated air, audible even over the resounding splashes of water as competitors propel themselves off the blocks. The bullpen overflows with the confidence of the club swimmers. They saunter past in their wildly patterned racing suits, the straps of which barely contain their hulking shoulders, broad backs, and bulging triceps. How many hours do they work out a week? Probably at least twice as much as me.
I cannot stop shivering. Trembles race up and down my spine even as I swing my arms to increase blood flow. My teeth chatter and my insufficient shoulders quiver, my pallid legs barely support my quivering torso.
The chlorine-spattered concrete is slick and slimy against my toes, which inadvertently curl in disgust. That ooze is surely splatters from the starts, right? Not the vomit of nervous swimmers like me? I bounce on the balls of my feet while other swimmers float around me in a haze. Without my glasses, the other girls are featureless and nearly limbless, yet intimidating despite their blurred appearance.
Oh God. Is that – oh, no. It’s Brenda Cha, member of the national record-setting relay, owner of top ten times in the U.S. And she’s—no! She’s in my heat! What were the race organizers thinking? Are they deranged? Our times are almost ten seconds apart! And she’s so—so intimidating! Even giggling, chatting with her friends, graciously accepting high fives or words of encouragement, she looms dangerously at the edges of my vision. Holy crap. I’m doomed. She’s going to blow me out of the water. When she finishes her 100 free, she’ll be able to catch a few winks before I limp into the wall. Is she really fourteen? She could easily be dominating in the fifteen and over category. Maybe her coach entered her in the wrong race. I shiver harder and avert my gaze.
My coach says to swim my own race, not to worry about anybody else. But—I check my lane for the thousandth time— still lane eight. That placement means I have the slowest seed time in my race, so theoretically I shouldn’t care about winning, just a personal record. Still. These girls – no, the monsters I’m racing, get serious, they qualify for Sectionals, if not Nationals. I’ve never even been to State. For now, they are content to embarrass lower-caliber club swimmers. I’ll probably receive applause for finishing.
The whistle shrieks, and the heat ahead of me arrows into the water. An enormous splash from the graceless swimmer in my lane douses me thoroughly. I cringe at the freezing water and adjust my goggles again. OK. Remember what that swimming magazine said, Hayley. Only focus on your own race. Just – swim. Don’t even worry about it.
But that was an advice from an Olympian! In the finals of the 100 free at the Olympics, no swimmer is going to be finishing five, ten seconds behind the rest of the field. This race is important! My brain shouts. The time I swim will determine whether I will spend the car ride home plastered with smiles or battling tears. I have to swim well—I have to hit the flip turns—farther out than in practice—execute perfect under water, three strokes out then breathe, and most importantly, increase my turnover rate. If only I had done extra workouts, more dry land training, anything to prepare for the onslaught I now face.
I hate swim meets, but not because of the physical exertion. The mental toll they exact is much more exhausting. My thoughts tumble over each other like fish in the net, jumping forwards, backwards, sideways, anywhere but the present. I am tired, so tired, of being the inexperienced, knock-kneed novice who fixes her cap every thirty seconds and stares wide-eyed at the elite. See? I can’t even think about my race, can’t concentrate on any emotion but my nerves stretched tighter than the strings on a violin.
Then the racers have sprinted to the wall and lie slumped at the pool’s edge, gasping and panting with blooming red cheeks. Some smile halfheartedly, but others rip off their caps, fighting tears. Which will I be? My heart stutters against my chest and my breath butterflies in my throat. I can feel myself growing gray hairs.
My goggles press securely around my eyes, and the world is suddenly bathed in shadow. The ridges on the slippery block dig into my slimy feet. I stare at the interminable stretch of water in front of me, at the harsh blue and white lane lines, the brutal swoop of scarlet flags. Am I really about to swim? This can’t be happening, I don’t want this, too soon!
“Swimmers, take your marks!” As I bend down to lightly grasp the edge of the block, I catch the tense form of the LOSC swimmer next to me. Her starting position is flawless and her face is a mask of sheer determination. My legs are awkward and tight, waiting for the sound of the whistle. I don’t want to do this.
The whistle launches me into the air, and I am flying. Was that a good dive? Did I pike correctly in the middle? The water engulfs me and already I am dolphin-kicking, breaking out, stealing those first few crucial strokes. My arms swing around as fast as I can make them go—take the ball and throw it at your sister, the catch we learned three years ago—no! Stop thinking! I grit my teeth and fling myself into the wall, a perfect flip turn, and I am in streamline again, churning the water, already a body length behind the girl next to me. I have to catch her!
Even before I am halfway through the race, I am panting with exertion. I hate this event. I really do. Last place at the touch pad, I have to keep going, force my arms to move and my legs to kick even faster. Burning in my thighs—so weak. People’s screams are muffled under the water, and all I can see is brightness. The guide line at the bottom of the pool sears my vision, almost at the end. I pull, flip, and stumble on the wall. Too close! My push off is awkward, but I have only a 25 left. Swim! Go! Go! Such agony streaking through my body, halfway there, move! Almost done, almost done, hurry, hurry, faster! Don’t be embarrassed again! Past the flags, hurtling into the wall, glide and touch. I don’t even want to see my time, sure that the devilish red numbers will spell out my despair. Last place, I know without looking. How horribly embarrassing.
I lean limply on the edge of the pool, my heart rate already crawling back to normal. Were my under waters strong enough? My glide – was it too exaggerated? By how much did the other girls destroy me?
Fatigue trickles through my body. A strange exhaustion, the kind that cannot attack me due to any race. This dull ache stems directly from my inability to stop thinking.