Live Through This

Swimming Lessons

I trained, ate, traveled, and showered with the best in the country, but I wasn’t the best; I was pretty good.

All illustrations by Sonja

I. QUITTING

Say I’m swimming with people, in the ocean, or a pool, or a lake, and one of them knows about my history as a swimmer, and remarks to the others, “Leanne’s an Olympic swimmer.” I’ll protest: “No, no, I only went as far as the Olympic trials—I didn’t go to the Olympics.” But the boast bobs up like a balloon, bright and curious to some, wistful and exposed to me.

When pressed, it is usually enough to say I went to the 1988 and 1992 Canadian Olympic trials. That nationally, I was ranked eighth once, briefly. I explain that to go to the Olympics you have to finish first or second at the trials. This is where the conversations end. After paddling around we wade into the shallows or hoist ourselves up onto the boat or the dock, and the conversation turns toward food, or gossip.

***

I don’t have vivid memories of the Olympic trials, or of winning medals; I barely remember quitting the first time, in 1989, or how I told Mitch, my coach. It would have probably been at an evening practice. On the deck, after, when the other swimmers had gone to change. I would have been standing there in my suit with my duffel bag and towel. He would have said something like “What’s up?” And then I would have said it. Said my family was moving to the countryside, said I did not want to live with another family in order to train—so, I said, I had decided to quit.

I might have done it while icing my knees. Freestylers, backstrokers, and butterflyers usually have shoulder problems, but most breaststrokers have knee problems, advised to ice regularly and take eight aspirin a day. After workouts and races, I would sit in the bleachers with a Styrofoam cup of frozen water, rolling the flat ice against the insides of my knees until they turned bright pink and lost all feeling. I’d peel the cup back from the edges so it wouldn’t squeak against the numb skin. The ice would become slick, contouring as it melted.

But I don’t remember talking to him. I do remember talking to Dawn, the assistant coach, the next morning. Mitch wasn’t on deck. We sat in two plastic folding chairs by the side of the pool, watching the team practice. Dawn told me Mitch was angry. She asked me what I was going to do. I think I said take up piano and study art, knowing she wouldn’t get it. Knowing maybe even I didn’t get it. I remember looking out at the swimmers in the lanes, heading into the hard main set, and thinking: I’ve crossed the line. I don’t have to do that anymore. I remember sitting there and feeling relieved.

Mitch once told me: “You’re going to be great.” Then Dawn told me: “Mitch doesn’t want to talk to you.”

When you’re a swimmer, coaches stand above you, over you. You look up to them, are vulnerable, naked, and wet in front of them. Coaches see you weak, they weaken you, they have your trust, you do what they say. The relationship is guardian, father, mother, boss, mentor, jailer, doctor, shrink, and teacher. My heart broke.

***

My grandfather was a bomber pilot in the Second World War. Though he lived into his late 80s, he’s frozen in my mind as the young man in a photo, wearing a flight suit and goggles, grinning next to a B-25 Mitchell. The image that comes to mind when I think of my mother is a snapshot of her, taken around 1983, sitting on her bed dressed in work clothes: silk shirt, trousers, long necklace, smiling. If I think of my dad, he’s in our dining room, clapping and singing along to “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers. The default image I have of myself is a photo: me, 10, standing next to the ladder at Cawthra Park pool in a blue bathing suit, knees clenched, trying to catch my breath.

I’ve defined myself, privately and abstractly, by my brief, intense years as an athlete, a swimmer. I practiced five or six hours a day, six days a week, eating and sleeping as much as possible in between. Weekends were spent either training or competing. I wasn’t the best; I was relatively fast. I trained, ate, traveled, and showered with the best in the country, but wasn’t the best; I was pretty good.

***

I liked how hard swimming at that level was—that I could do something difficult and unusual. Liked knowing my discipline would be recognized, respected, that I might not be able to say the right things or fit in, but I could do something well. I wanted to believe that I was talented; being fast was proof. Though I loved racing, the idea of fastest, of number one, of the Olympics, didn’t motivate me.

I still dream of practice, of races, coaches, and blurry competitors. I’m drawn to swimming pools, no matter how small or murky. When I swim now, I step into the water as though absentmindedly touching a scar. My recreational laps are phantoms of my competitive races.

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22 Comments

  • Anna F. October 17th, 2012 3:11 PM

    HECK YES CANADIAN ARTISTS.

    ok actually reading it now.

  • bugaleeto October 17th, 2012 3:34 PM

    This was SO therapeutic. Thanks Rookie. <3

  • Abby October 17th, 2012 3:46 PM

    That was… really good.

  • Maddy October 17th, 2012 4:13 PM

    So great. I was/am extremely impressed, but it makes more sense because she’s a “profesh” author. I quit fencing this year and it was a similar situation (except I wasn’t as good) because I trained with people who were 1st and 2nd in the country and won World Cups (like championships, but there’s more than 1 a year). I quit because my coach told me I couldn’t move up to the next level for only 2 days (and because I wasn’t good enough) because I’d have to travel the country and not be allowed to fence the best kids because it would be too easy for them and too humiliating for me. That hurt. But this was really beautifully written and great to read.

  • FloralFeminist October 17th, 2012 7:18 PM

    great article!

  • GlitterKitty October 17th, 2012 8:52 PM

    CANADIANS!!!! YAY!!! That was a very good article. It seems like such a big part of your identity leaves you when you leave an activity. And I swam at the Etobicoke pool once for a school swim team meet. I was on the team for only 2 years because the water was cold and I didn’t like swimming on Sunday night ( the only practice time we could get)

  • llamalina October 17th, 2012 9:25 PM

    I really love this! When I was younger, my parents wanted me to get into competitive swimming, but I refused because I’ve seen how hard some of my swimmer friends train, and I could never be like that.

    Also happy that this author is Filipino! I could tell when she said “bohol-bohol”, which means something like “tangled” in English. (:

  • Bree October 17th, 2012 10:39 PM

    This is amazing! I love your descriptions of practice, and “mentally swimming” your races–both are my reality every day, even though you were much better than I will ever be capable of being. One thing I’m curious about is why so many Rookie writers are swimmers! Specifically, I can think of you and Arabelle, though I remember coming across many more swimming stories, especially this month! Anywho, I haven’t read your book, so I don’t know what you’re up to now, but if you aren’t currently swimming, but would like to, I suggest joining a Masters team (great way to get into/stay in shape and compete, unofficial motto is “you can’t make me” (for all of the kicking haters), and, of course, it’s SWIMMING!). Best wishes!

    • Anaheed October 18th, 2012 2:21 PM

      Leanne’s not a staff writer—this is an excerpt of her book Swimming Studies (which I HIGHLY recommend; all of it is as good as what’s here, and it includes her gorgeous drawings). But our own Krista is a swimmer too!

  • justbouton October 18th, 2012 12:07 AM

    “When I swim now, I step into the water as though absentmindedly touching a scar.”

    Yes. This is how I feel when I come back to a sport (soccer, in my case).

  • SweetThangVintage October 18th, 2012 12:28 AM

    My couch drinks sooooo much diet coke.

  • Jessica W October 18th, 2012 3:38 AM

    I really relate to this (although I wasn’t that great a swimmer haha).
    I used to swim just about every day for not far off a decade. It was utterly consuming. It was all I would think about… All I could think about.
    It wasn’t just an activity. It was a culture… People, rituals, rules, so on…
    Every morning I woke up thinking “Do I need my togs? Have I got swimming today?”
    But something drove me to keep going.
    I finally stopped one day and it was SO SURREAL.
    This captures the life of a swimmer perfectly <3

    The Lovelorn

  • Mary the freak October 18th, 2012 2:12 PM

    It’s not that I am a swimmer. Or sporty anyways. But this…

    This is impossible to describe.

    This is so much art. I love this. I just love it.

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • Sooophie October 18th, 2012 2:57 PM

    Perfect. I so get you. I went trough the exact same thing (except for the high olympic level) but I just recognize everything you wrote about. It’s just perfect.

  • mdoodle13 October 18th, 2012 3:03 PM

    I’m a competitive swimmer in a slump right now. This was soooo wonderful and soooo true to my own life.

  • Isabelle97 October 18th, 2012 3:35 PM

    hey, I love how on rookie you can still enjoy reading articles even if you have never experienced anything like what’s being described. It must be because of the consistently great quality of the writing- a lot of crappy girls mags rely on the shared experience thing to cover up boring writing- like omg, I hate my elbows too, this mag is now my lifeline- but with Rookie I’ve never found this to be the case- the writing’s always relatable AND interesting :D anyways, love you guys! Loved this and I’m gonna go check out the book!

    • Cutesycreator aka Monica November 11th, 2012 10:45 AM

      I agree, Isabelle97! Rookie is rad in every way possible. <3

  • JAK October 18th, 2012 11:00 PM

    As a former swimmer, I can certainly relate to this story, it’s an all consuming sport. I joined at a young age and although I was never the best out of my friends I really enjoyed the practices and the camaraderie between my teammates and I. And I appreciated that although I was hard of hearing my coaches were able to work with me by developing hand signs and having the buzzer loud enough so I could hear it. Thus making it easy for me to get up on the block and only worry about one thing, which was to swim my best. And even though I quit freshman year, when I think back on my younger self I almost always see myself as the swimmer and modern dancer that I was! So a big thank you Leanne for this excerpt, for reminding me about how I felt, and for making me want to give swimming another try!

  • fomalhautb October 20th, 2012 4:48 AM

    It scares me that I can relate to this and that so many other people do. I always felt like I was the only one who felt this way because I hardly ever talked to anyone about this. I always felt so ashamed that I had decided to give up something I was so passionate about, all because I felt I was never good enough. And that I had wasted a large portion of my life, dedicated hours of my life to the rigorous training sessions I put myself through. It’s just so surreal??? And nostalgic, of course …

  • mollywobbles October 20th, 2012 2:37 PM

    I’m not much of a swimmer, but I am from a town near Leeds, England and I moved to Ottawa last month so that’s pretty cool :)

  • TheScreenKiller October 22nd, 2012 6:43 PM

    Ah, Toronto…
    Canadian Pride woo-hoo.

  • Cutesycreator aka Monica November 11th, 2012 10:44 AM

    This was such a powerful, beautiful, well-written piece.