It’s the last event of the meet. Everyone is tired, hungry and either sore from swimming or sore from sitting on hard bleachers for four hours. And yet, there is a sense of anticipation. It’s a close meet – so close that this last event will decide it. The excitement mounts as the boys climb onto the blocks. Everyone turns to watch the pool, holding their breath. “Take your mark…*beep*! They dive in, and the cheering starts. It grows as the backstrokers finish and the breaststrokers take off; by the time the butterfly leg has entered the water, the noise is deafening.
I was a swimmer for six years, through junior high and high school. I loved it. And I miss it like crazy. Sure, there were days when the thought of doing lap after lap of butterfly was especially unappealing. There were days when my hair froze coming out of the pool into the bitter night air and I wondered if it was just going to break off. There were days when my times were terrible and I felt discouraged and frustrated; days when I just couldn’t do a proper dive to save my life. There were Saturdays when I just wanted to sleep in for once. There was also the day I broke my nose in a head-on collision (and people say that swimming is a non-contact sport…). But that comes with the territory. That’s part of being in a sport, and this sport in particular. (Except the broken nose part. That was my own special flourish).
Swimming was, by far, the highlight of high school for me. As difficult as practice was, I loved being in the water. Want to make me happy? Put me near water. Ocean, lake, pool, whatever. It’s my favorite place to be. But beyond that, I knew that every turn I did, every (awful, painful, I-want-to-die) Texas 50, every dive, was making me a better swimmer. I know now that I could have pushed myself way more than I did, but whenever I determined to swim my heart out, I felt good at the end of practice. Tired, yes. Sore, yes. But I knew I was making progress, pushing physical (and mental) limits. I knew I was accomplishing something, proving to myself that it was within my power to reach my goals.
The thing that I loved most about swimming, though, was not the swimming itself. It was the team. I was in a recreational league, so my siblings and I were able to compete on the same team despite our different ages. That in and of itself was incredible. The fact that we were able to practice and compete alongside each other, watch each other improve and know exactly what the other person was feeling when they swam a 100 butterfly, because we had all “been-there, done-that,” it was so special. When my siblings tore it up in the pool (and they tore it up a lot), I felt prouder than when I reached my own goals. I knew what strokes they were best at. I knew their times. They knew mine. Swimming was something we did as a family, not something one of the family members did. But when were at practice or a meet, it wasn’t just my biological siblings that were family. The whole team came together as a unit. It was a very welcoming and supportive group of people, who cheered for each other and looked out for each other and supported each other. Even if we didn’t see each other outside of swim, the minute we set foot on the pool deck, we were a team. The camaraderie was incredible and a huge blessing, and it was nowhere more apparent than at the meets.
Meets were always noisy and chaotic. Fitting hundreds of people in two or three rows of bleachers? Forget it. There were never enough seats; there was never enough space on deck. It was parents who were trapped in their seats, desperate for a breath of fresh air, but who stuck it out to watch their kids swim. It was coaches who were somehow managing to keep track of 50 tiny children, pay attention to each swimmer’s race and give last-minute encouragement and advice all at the same time. It was parent volunteers with their stopwatches and DQ sheets, showing a level of commitment that I admire to this day. It was swimmers who were hot in a sweatshirt and cold without one, who needed help putting on their swim caps even if they had been swimming forever and who adjusted their goggles 80 thousand times before they hit the blocks. It was nerves and excitement and some of the most fun that I’ve ever had. It was best times and fast races and loud cheering. It was hours of waiting for two minutes or one minute or thirty seconds of swim time, but those thirty seconds were 100 percent worth the wait. It was a team congratulating the person who came in first and the person who came in sixth, because what mattered was that they had swam their hardest and tried their best. I wouldn’t trade those Saturdays (no matter how early I had to get up) or those Tuesdays (no matter how late I went to bed) for anything in the world. Swim meets are, to this day, some of my fondest memories.
Everyone is on their feet, screaming at the top of their lungs “Go! Go! Kick! Kick!” I’ve never heard cheering this loud (and I’ve been to dozens of swim meets by now). I’m yelling right alongside everyone else, and I know I’m going to be hoarse later. I don’t even care. It’s the final leg of the freestyle, and impossibly, the noise only gets louder. People are actually roaring as the boys near the wall for the last time. The first swimmer finishes; there is one final cheer, clapping and congratulations, and then it is over. We didn’t win, but it doesn’t matter. We can leave knowing that we gave it our best, not just our best swimming, but our best sportsmanship. We came as a team, we cheered as a team and we finished as a team.