My mother says she threw me in the water at the local YMCA pool when I was a baby because “that’s the way people learn how to swim.” It sounds more dramatic than it was: I mean, I was like three, more a toddler than a baby, and gently placed in the water, not thrown, and my swimming instructor, Carla, was standing right in front of me, ready to scoop me up if I went under. But my mother swears it was like something out of a movie: “We threw you in and you just took off, like a little fish,” she says. “You were a born swimmer.”
I don’t know what it means to be “a born swimmer.” My biology teacher, Mrs. Sadler, will tell you that we’re all born swimmers, traced back to the primordial sea, which I like to imagine as a big bowl of the creepiest soup ever made, with odd-looking creatures just floating about in a murky, evolutionary broth. She’s very romantic about the whole thing. She describes evolution like a mermaid fairy tale—vertabrates moving from fins to legs, storming the beaches on their new limbs, looking for adventure. I’m not sure I would have made the same decision, had I been a prehistoric fish. The water is the only place where I feel safe, the only place where my body seems to work effortlessly, the only place where I can block out my thoughts and just focus on staying afloat, on staying alive. Sometimes I think I was meant to remain in the water, like I was meant to be an Empress of the Ocean, swirling around in the depths forever while the land-dwellers plod on without me.
I started breaking records when I was six. My parents, knowing that I swam everywhere I could, including the bathtub, signed me up for the city recreational league and sat back, somewhat stunned, as I won races by half-a-lap or more. I distinctly remember my coach telling me that I was “Olympics material” before I’d even learned to properly tie my shoes. “You have something special,” she said. “If you stick with it, you could be a champion someday.”
What is a champion, anyway? Someone who wins trophies? Someone who gets their name in the paper once in a while? I think about that a lot. My entire life has been centered on winning races. I’ve been swimming for roughly 10 years now, and I’ve spent 99 percent of that time drenched in chlorine, practicing and practicing, getting better at something I was supposedly born to do. I can’t remember the last time my eyes weren’t burning, or when my skin didn’t smell like toxic waste even after several showers. There have been weeks where I’ve gone to school red-eyed and wild haired, exhausted from pushing myself to beat my own records.
Most of the time, I’m OK with all this. I love the water. I need the water. I was made to kick and pull my way through it at frightening speeds. I am the evolutionary mermaid my biology teacher gets all dreamy-eyed about. This is my life, because this is what I’m good at, I guess. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself for the last decade or so. Whenever I get kind of burned out and bored by the whole thing and think about quitting, someone inevitably corners me to lecture me on “my gift” and “my potential” and how important it is that I keep going. But I don’t swim for them. I honestly don’t know who I swim for anymore.
It used to be for my parents, who come to every meet and scream their lungs out, even though they know full well that I can’t hear them while I’m underwater. I loved bringing home ribbons and trophies, loved hearing them brag about my race times, loved imagining giving a dramatic speech at the Summer Olympics, thanking them for their support and sacrifices while glamorously wiping away tears on the gold medal podium. For a while I think I swam for myself, starting somewhere in middle school, when I focused on winning as a way to think about anything but being 13 and awkward. And of course, I swam for my coach, Sandra, whose eyes betrayed her own disappointments whenever she talked to me about my “potential” and “possibilities.” One of my teammates once told me that Sandra qualified for the Junior Olympics at 12 but messed up her shoulder at 14 (torn rotator cuff) and had to stop. Supposedly that’s why she pushes us so hard—because she wants us to do the things she wasn’t able to do. Now I think I just swim because I don’t know what else to do. This is what I was born for, right?
I think about being slow, about having no one expecting anything from me at all, of finishing last and getting pity claps from polite parents. The water would still feel as good, and my body would still feel at home in the weird placidity of it all, but I wouldn’t have to think about seconds on the clock, or the word “potential,” or somehow being better than all the other kids who think they were born to be swimmers, too. People are good at taking the beauty out of things. The closer I get to the Olympics, the more I wonder how much all of this has been worth it. I love to swim, and I love winning—I’d be lying if I said otherwise—but like all loves, it’s beautiful and temporary. Some day my “career” as a professional fish will be over. I know it.
Last weekend, Allison—my training partner, best friend, and, I have to admit it, biggest rival—surprised everyone (including me) by beating me in the 200 ’fly by like .4 seconds. “No way,” she said, floating away from the wall to look up glowing red numbers displaying our times. “It has to be fluke.”
She looked at me in disbelief, but I saw a confidence in her eyes that hadn’t been there before, one that only comes with experience, and with knowing you can beat someone you once thought of as unbeatable. I looked at her and saw a tower of strength and suddenly felt weak and vulnerable. No matter how fast I go, someone will always be faster.
A few years ago, losing to Allison would have devastated me. I would have cried, thrown my goggles, wondered if my life was completely over. But I wasn’t unstoppable—there was proof!—and I was actually kind of relieved. I was born to be in the water, yes. But maybe I was just meant to drift around, instead of shooting through it faster than anyone else.
I also don’t know who I am without the water. So I spend hours and hours—before and after school, and on weekends, of course—moving up and down and through it, flipping at the walls, letting my feet slam the tiles as I push off and hold my breath, trying to beat the scariest opponent—time—with every stroke and kick. I say no to anything that keeps me away from my goal—at least I think it’s my goal?—to become the person everyone thinks I’m supposed to be: the winner. No big deal, no pressure: just trying to be the best swimmer on Earth.
I know this life doesn’t last forever: At swim camp, I’ve met Olympians who’ve burned out before they even finished high school. I know I won’t be 50 years old and training as hard—if anything, I’ll probably end up like Sandra, a former hopeful trying—through hours and hours of intense coaching—to instill hope in others. The one thing that keeps me moving when I want to give it all up is the idea that after all of this is over—whether I win medals or flame out or whatever—the water will still be there for me, calm and waiting, a sea of my own in which I can immerse my entire self and dream of a world where nobody ever has to set foot on land. ♦