The world outside my living room window was white, like the delicate frosting on a wedding cake. Pellets of ice pattered against the glass pane like the typing on a keyboard. On the street below, pure white mixed with debris and dirt, which created a substance my brother and I liked to call cookie dough. From my living room, I could hear the sound of children playing gleefully on the blanketed streets; many carried newly purchased sleds. The contrast of the colored plastic against the white background caught my eye. The noises of the city were muffled; the sirens and the honking of horns had all ceased. The world was alive, not by cacophony, but with the excitement of the first snow of the season. Within my apartment, the aroma of hot cocoa and freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies wafted in from the kitchen, mixing with the smell of wood burning in the fireplace. I remember my brothers, bundled up in layers of down and wool, eagerly clamoring to go outside. I had other things on my mind, however. My brand-new, size twenty, navy kneeskin racing suit lay untouched on the front hall bench. The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel had just flickered off.
When I think of my first swimming memory, I smell chlorine mixed with salty pretzels. My mother would bring my brother and me the same afterschool snack, a bag of pretzels, before each week's swim class at the local Y. Preparing to enter the pool, the combination of shouting coaches, splashing water, and wailing babies, all in such close proximity, was overwhelming for some children. My brother would often complain of a stomachache and sit out from the class. Not I. From the moment I entered the pool deck and jumped in, I loved the water. It was a whole new environment, with a different set of sights and sounds to explore. It was a break from the commotion of the city, a way in which I could feel alone and independent. I loved the feeling of the water on my skin, a cold and refreshing way to end a day. As I got older and the workload increased at school, I particularly enjoyed the physical, rather than mental, challenge. I could clear my mind from all of the stress of the day, and be in touch with my thoughts.
Although I wish I could have remained in the small and nurturing environment at the Y, by the time I turned ten, my intensity had surpassed the program. I switched to Asphalt Green, which marked a transition in my life, from a child who enjoyed the water to a serious competitive swimmer. You may associate swimming with an image of five-year-olds prancing around a one foot deep kiddy pool with plastic duck floaties. But let me tell you, competitive swimming is far from that. I began practicing intensely for five days each week, working on technique during private lessons, and attending competitions several times per month. Soon, I feared that I was becoming disconnected from my original love of swimming. The stress of school, the burden of homework, and, on top of that, the physical imposition of swimming, was becoming too much. I began to wonder why I was putting myself through such a rigorous program, and why did I even start swimming in the first place?
Just when I felt completely overwhelmed, I learned that I would be rewarded for my efforts. It was December, and having reached the eleven-year-old age category, I was able to qualify for my first championship meet, Condors IMX, in upstate New York. I was ecstatic; I would finally be able to reap the benefits of my hard work. All of those early morning practices, test sets, distance events, and missed social events would finally pay off. I had qualified for several events in my age group, and I felt proud to compete in such a high-level meet. I was all set to go, with a Speedo bag, a Blue Seventy kneeskin racing suit, a silicone team cap, and Speedo Vanquisher goggles. I remember the suit sitting out in the front hall for weeks before the competition, motivating me to give my best effort at practice each day.
The night before the meet, I was like a wind-up toy ready to spring. My mom woke me with hushed tones at an early hour. We needed extra time to get the kneeskin on my body. The tight fibers of the suit made it quite difficult to pull on. In fact, it took almost twenty minutes, and by the end, both my mother and I were sweating. The suit was designed to compress my body, preventing any water resistance. I was so squeezed in, it was like I was wearing my seven year old brother's suit. The suit practically took my breath away, and I wondered how I would compete when I could barely inhale. I felt as if the weight of competition was pressing on my insides. Suddenly, I noticed that the rays of sunlight that typically illuminated my desk were not coming through the shades in the usual way. I ran to the living room, where the curtains are never drawn, and I gasped with surprise. Snowflakes dotted the skyline, and buildings peeked out from piles of snow like pen marks on a blank sheet of paper. My excitement quickly turned to concern when I realized that we might not be able to travel to the meet. I checked the team website. Canceled. The snowstorm was a pin that had popped my balloon of excitement. My coach had always talked of a light at the end of the tunnel, but now there was none. I felt like each challenge leading up to the meet was a domino, building my path to the championship. The snowstorm was the marble that had instantly knocked down all of the carefully arranged dominoes. I screamed in frustration, and stormed into my parents room to tell them the news. My mother sighed as she stroked her silky blond hair.
"That is very disappointing," she lamented, "you have worked so hard." Her words echoed through my mind, like the constant throbbing of a headache. "If you continue to persevere and improve the way you have been doing, there will be many more championship meets in your future."
I sat in anguish on the olive green couch in the living room, watching children shrieking in delight as they threw snowballs at each other, their breaths visible in the frigid air. They reminded me of my seven year-old self, before I was a swimmer. I remember when finding the courage to talk to an adult was the hardest thing in the world. It was then, when I took a step back and reflected on my swimming career, like the lens of a camera zooming out, that I realized how much swimming had shaped me. I had risen above the shy, insecure seven year-old that I used to be. Swimming toughened me into a confident and poised young adult. I was no longer scared to do things that had worried me before. I would just think of the hardest challenges at swim and know that, if I could face those, I could do anything. I had learned to be a competitor in life, not to get stuck on obstacles, but to persevere. I had built a new community of support, with friends who had experienced all of the hard sets and morning practices with me. We shared a bond that would last a lifetime, often recalling with laughter our “firsts” together: the first 50 fly, the first test set, the first morning practice. After the disappointment of the morning, I realized that none of these memories were the destination; they were steps along the journey. Swimming is not just about the end result, but also about the long process that it takes to get there.
On that day, I switched the lens in my metaphorical swimming camera. Instead of thinking of every lap as another burden, I tried to focus on my improvement from week to week. I learned to value every competition along the way, not just the final meets of the season. Those are the meets to experiment with new stroke techniques and racing strategies, and, ultimately, to have fun. Also, I became more involved with the social aspects of the sport. Challenges became more tolerable when I focused on the motivation and support of my friends and teammates. Especially during stressful six-hour meets, my friends have been there to keep me going. They have become the flippers that propel me through the waves of swimming. I have also come to appreciate how swimming has shaped me physically. In a year, I have swum more miles than most people have swum in a lifetime, and that has left my physique chiseled and powerful. Both in and out of the water, I feel like a finely tuned motorboat, with all of the gears running smoothly.
The snowstorm turned out to have a silver lining after all. Later that month, a time trial was announced to make up for the championship meet. Even though I could only participate in one race, I carried my new attitude with me. I needed to make every lap count. With that in mind, I lined up for the 100 breastroke with a smile on my face. I remember the water dripping off my body, a combination of sweat from nerves and pool water from warm-ups. The racing suit repelled much of the liquid, creating small beads scattered throughout the fibers of the suit. The pulsing energy and din on the pool deck was no longer numbing, and the sound of the starting buzzer each minute almost faded into the background. I was so focused that I heard none of it. It reminded me of the snowstorm the month before, the muffled sounds and the cushioned feeling. I was ready for this. I did my usual stretches, adjusted my goggles, and jumped in the air to loosen my muscles. I got on the diving blocks. I was barely aware of the coarse material on the board that always scraped my feet. I dove in. I was finally feeling the true essence of the water like those pretzel days of the past. It was like reuniting with a long-lost relative. All of the burdens of pressure and stress had been lifted, and I felt light and agile. As I swam into the finish, I hit the wall hard. I had come full circle both physically and metaphorically. I was back at the wall, where I started, back to the reason I swim.