Visiting my brother and his family in Toronto, I use the washroom and see, draped over the side of the bathtub, a gray towel, the words Etobicoke Swim Club and a moiréd maple leaf emblazoned across it in fading burgundy. I dry my hands and go downstairs.
“I know what I want for Christmas from you,” I tell Derek.
“What? It’s February.”
“My ESC towel. You never even swam for them!”
“It needs washing.”
My sister-in-law overhears us. “I think I delivered Emmett on that towel.”
By the time I join the Etobicoke Pepsi Swim Club in the fall of 1988, Derek has quit swimming. I swim well at the second 1988 Olympic trials, finishing 11th and 13th in my best events, and my coach suggests I change clubs. It used to be called the Etobicoke Swim Club, or ESC, but after a few swimmers made it to the podium at the Seoul Olympics, it has attracted a corporate sponsor. Mitch, the new head coach, was recruited from the University of Florida. He is an Olympian, has coached Olympians. Mitch looks like Dennis Quaid, wears a dark leather bomber jacket with a sheepskin collar, and drinks can after can of Diet Coke during morning practices.
The Etobicoke Olympium swimming pool feels cathedral. The hulky proportions of a 50-meter indoor pool inspire hushed humility, the concrete diving tower like an altar (with occasional plummeting cruciforms). Mitch plays Rod Stewart over the synchronized swimmers’ underwater sound system, drowning out whatever music we have in our own heads (Nula, Erasure; Claude, U2; Marcel, R.E.M.; me, the Cure).
The transition from my smaller team to Etobicoke Pepsi is steep. Stricter rules, longer, more difficult practices, and tougher, more serious swimmers. I practiced in the faster lanes with my old team, but here I’m in the slowest. I dread swimming in lane eight, where a dark window of mirrored glass stretches along the pool wall, seven feet below the surface. It’s like swimming past the mouth of a cave. I worry that someone’s there, watching, and feel a jolt of panic if I catch any sort of reflection in the window. Being one of the slower practice swimmers is crushing, and the cross-training—miles of running through the suburbs and along the service roads surrounding the pool, endless steps up the side of a man-made hill—is lonely. Not a great runner, I can’t keep up, and I jog desperately, miserably, a half-hour or more behind everyone else, tears welling, sides cramping. I look down as I run, watching the jerky progress of patchy-crabgrass curbs while the indifferent gray noise of normal life whizzes above along the sweeping Etobicoke overpasses.
Despite my misery, I get dramatically faster in the first few months. The graduation to higher national rankings, the intensity of Mitch’s coaching, and inclusion on an elite team gave me a feeling of security, pride, and purpose, a feeling slightly deflated by having to borrow, for big meets, a sample set of the expensive team uniform. It is too big, so I roll the track bottoms and jacket sleeves up. I’m careful with the sample: I fold it neatly, take it off to eat, knowing I have to return it when we get home.
The Olympium pool is bisected by a white bulkhead during the 25-meter short-course season, but for long-course training we roll it slowly across the pool to the deep end at the top of morning practice. Three of four boys bend over each end, a mini Iwo Jima tableau in dry double-layered trunks, making sure the motion is even and the bulkhead doesn’t jam diagonally across the width. One girl per lane sits atop, guiding the loosened lane ropes over the bulkhead as it moves slowly along. The ropes are retightened with a heavy winch, which will often slip into the water and sink to the bottom. I’m grateful for this prep, a reprieve before the sentence of practice.
The interior of the Olympium hums in the morning, the aural scale amplified by the density of the chlorinated air over the water’s surface. Mid-practice we do lungbusters, 50 meters underwater. We push off at one end and glide, then kick soundlessly through the blue. At the far end we release the air in our lungs, and our bubbles rush up in a muffled crash. As our heads break the surface, the pool echoes with our breathing. The whole process is overseen by the silent sweep of the pace clock swallowing time, rest, and seconds of air before we inhale and slip under again.
On the phone one night I ask my brother if he was bothered when I swam faster than he did.
“You were as fast as me when I quit and you swam at Etobicoke Pepsi after, so it was natural you’d be faster. It didn’t bother me. It made sense. You were better at it, way more into it.” He pauses. “I was proud of you. I practiced a couple of times with your group, but the guys were dicks. The stoners I swam with were cooler. They listened to the best music.”
We talk for a bit about Rhys and Christian, two brothers in the Intermediate Age Group who had stratospherically better taste than we did in clothes and music.
“It was easy for me to quit,” Derek reasons. “My last race was the 100 free at a provincial meet. I swam a best time but my shoulders hurt so much I couldn’t lift myself out of the pool.” He laughs. “I think I disqualified our relay team at that meet too.”
The weight room is in the basement of the Etobicoke Olympium athletic complex. It’s a small room, with cinder-block walls painted a glossy pale yellow. From the pocked panels of the dropped ceiling, fluorescent light bears down bluish-white and cold. The door suctions shut over gray industrial carpet. The women’s team does weight training three nights a week in addition to resistance tubing and running, and we record our progress in messy columns of numbers and capitalized titles—LATS, DIPS, DELTS, CURLS, SQUATS, PRESS—our photocopied chart pages growing smudgy and dog-eared over the course of a month. The room has a specific smell: of steel weights, grease, dried sweat, old carpet, and vinyl padded benches. It is a salty, ferrous odor, strongest during hamstring pulls, when my face is mashed into the sparkly blue bench.
One night, we are listening to a mixtape as we go through the circuit. When “In the Air Tonight” begins, somebody switches off the light. Everyone stops, the squeaking and clanking gently cease. Nobody speaks. We sit quietly in the dark, listening to the song. All I can see are the tiny red lights glowing on the tape deck and the motionless shapes of the other girls in the room.
This was around the time Miriam’s father died. One afternoon she didn’t come to practice. Mitch sat us all down on the deck afterward and told us that her father had been killed in an accident. She didn’t attend any practices for a week. When she came back her face looked tired and her skin was pale. Sometimes she started crying in the water, holding on to the side of the pool. Her friends didn’t leave her by herself. I was still new, not close to anyone on the team, but Miriam was kind to me. We swam the same event and I was slightly faster, which now left me with an uneasy feeling.
Miriam is in the weight room that night. I see her nearby, hugging her knees to her chest. Nothing is said once the song ends, but the mood is low. Somebody turns the lights back on, and we quickly finish up, shower, change, and leave. I wonder if that song meant something to Miriam. My mother picks me up.
“Yeah.” I keep my eyes closed on the drive home.