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.

III. NIGHT KITCHEN

February 1987. At the 4:25 alarm my routine is this: From the bed, reach for the two damp swimsuits drying on the bedroom doorknob, take off my pajamas, and pull the suits on halfway. Under the covers, pull on track pants, three T-shirts, a sweatshirt, two pairs of socks, which have been piled at the foot of my bed the night before. Once dressed, switch on my bedside lamp.

The hour between 4 and 5 AM is dreadful, especially in the dead of Canadian winter. Knowing I have to get into a chilly, overchlorinated pool and endure two hours of unrelenting muscle pain makes it worse. The hour is redeemed by the quiet, the bluish-blackness out the window, less menacing than midnight dark. I ride, next to my mother, through our suburban streets, bundled into a team parka, listening to the tires squeak over the packed snow.

Sometimes on those mornings, waiting for my mother to come downstairs, I make something I call a “muffin-in-a-mug”: Quaker instant bran muffin mix, half a cup of milk, stirred, nuked for two minutes, and then eaten with a spoon. It will be half bready, half raw, but sweet and warm. I bring it along in the car if we are running late, spooning the stuff into my mouth with mittens on, as I watch the icy streetscapes swoosh past.

This was my ritual: I put the batter-filled mug in the microwave and set the time to 1:11:00, the time I want to swim the SC 100m breaststroke in 1987. Then I cover my eyes with one hand, finger on the start panel, imagining my starting block and the pool: a vast table of water, still and clear. I see the dirty grout between the small white tiles. The lane ropes pulled taut along the surface. I can hear teammates in the stand and families in the gallery. A long, sharp whistle calls us onto the blocks. The quiet is sudden. My hands reach to touch the front of the sandpapery block, between my toes.

I push Start on the microwave. Breathe, dive. In the kitchen, in my track pants, there are eight or nine strokes the first length, a two-handed touch, and silence again at the turn. I hear a faucet upstairs turn on, then off. In my mind I am ahead, no one in my periphery. My legs start to tire. I lay a hand on the countertop at 50 meters, knees and chest hurting. When I breathe I see the officials dressed in white at the end of the lanes, legs apart and hands behind their backs, looking grimly down to the pool. Halfway down the pool on my final length I hear sharp beeping and open my eyes—the microwave is flashing 00:00:00. Too slow by about five seconds.

Other times I prepare my mug, set the microwave to 1:11:00, and sit at the kitchen table with a glass of milk. I don’t look at the timer. I look outside at the dark wooden deck and icy trees. I look at my knees in my gray track pants, I pick some lint off, I think about how I like my track pants to be either gray or, gun-to-head, navy blue. My mind wanders but maintains a loose grip on the seconds. When I sense the time is close I shut my eyes and imagine the last five or six strokes to the wall. I finish—imagine slamming my arms dramatically into the yellow touchpads—and look up at the microwave. Sometimes this works, but most of the time I’m too early. I watch the last numbers count down to 00:00:00, the light inside the oven clicks off, and the long beep indicates the time is up.

***

February 1991. I take my mountain bike out into the snow for a ride and, halfway down a steep hill, resolve to bicycle to my best friend Chris’s house 25 kilometers away. The winter afternoon quickly blackens, and I am about three kilometers south when it starts to blizzard. I’m afraid of strangers who might stop to help me, so when I hear a car approach I hide behind a bank of plowed snow on the shoulder. I’ve been gone two hours. One car slows as I am ducking behind a frozen drift. I poke my head over the top. It is my father. I roll my bike out and over the bank, and he puts it in the back of his Suzuki Sidekick. I get in. We drive back silently. A few weeks later he asks if I think I might like to see a psychiatrist.

I haven’t been swimming for two years, and am due at McGill University in the fall. During these years, I ping-pong between my age and my swimming age—the number that coaches, teammates, competitors, and I unconsciously and automatically consider in relation to Olympic years, to puberty, to age-group rankings, to height, weight, strength, and development. After quitting in 1989, I voraciously try to catch up on the rituals of being suburban 16, 17, filling my head with steep French literature and new music, notebooks with bad poetry, gut with crushes, sketchbooks with agonies of dragons, raccoons, and smudgy Gothic calligraphy. Chris and I write out an urgent vow—something about making the best comics and stories in the world—that we place in a peanut butter jar and bury on a slope beneath a boulder.

But after the long bus rides home from high school, I retreat to the basement in my shorts, loop a pair of surgical tubes around an iron pillar, set my stopwatch, and do an hour of resistance-band training. I listen to the thrum and squeak of the rubber and iron in the windowless room, sweating into the mustard-swirl carpet. I continue dry-land workouts like an automaton, simulating swimming in a basement on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment. I yank on the tubes hoping they might give me a clue—tell me what I’m doing—willing my swimming age to remember what it is capable of.

When I graduate from high school in May, my step-aunt Pamela, a glamorous, single career woman with no children, invites me and my friend Jane to stay with her for the summer, in a town outside Leeds, England.

From Pam’s house, Jane and I take trains to the beach at Southampton; the National Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford; the Brontë house in Haworth. We punt in Cambridge, stay in youth hostels. I start to long for larger experiences I have no idea how to acquire. At one hostel, in Brighton, I hear a young woman’s voice beneath my window singing “Off to Dublin in the Green,” heartbreakingly, drunkenly, and I have a feeling that things will be—as the song sounds—complicated, mostly sad, and mostly beautiful.

When the singing stops, I keep listening at the window from my bunk bed:

“Oy, Tracy, get me top off, it’s all I got to wear tomorrow!”

“Surely you’re joking.”

“Nuh, I mean it, git it off! Do us a favor.”

We stay with Jane’s cousins in Birmingham, and she transforms: her Brummie accent emerges, her neckline scoops, her posture becomes defiant. She borrows their tight jeans, jerseys, and hair spray. I watch her, wearing a wool fisherman’s sweater and vintage pajama bottoms, then go back to underlining my rancid paperbacks. At a campground in Ayr we part ways, planning to meet at Pam’s in a week. I go to Edinburgh and Glasgow, eat spoonfuls of peanut butter on park benches. Jane returns to Birmingham, goes to clubs, and does a lot of drugs. Later, back on Pam’s high, flowery-sheeted bed, Jane whispers that she slept with her cousin’s friend. We shriek for a while; then I lie beside her in the dark as she snores softly.

Jane flies back to Canada the next day, and I stay on another few weeks with Pam. While she works, I sketch in her garden or take the bus into Leeds to walk around. It’s different without Jane. We rifled through the charity shops, drank barley water in pubs, giddily went to see a band called the Pooh Sticks. I walk to the university pool and watch the City of Leeds swim team practice. The coach, Terry Denison, coached breaststrokers Adrian Moorehouse and Suki Brownsdon—names I know from the international rankings. I lean over the railing from the stands and listen to Denison give his swimmers sets.

From the window of the bus back to Pam’s, I see a dark-haired man exit a door and turn a corner. He is wearing Adidas track pants, clean white sneakers, and a battered leather motorcycle jacket zipped snugly up to his chin. I decide I want to swim again, and I want to know where to get clothes like that.

Over fish fingers, Pam and I talk about my taking up swimming again. I decide to defer McGill, train for next year, and live with my brother in downtown Toronto.

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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.