Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Transforming into the swimmer

If you liked my most recent post on Revisiting An Old Friend: The Pool, read the full story:

36.63 Seconds

Ready, Set, Go
The freezing water smacks my face and the chlorine engulfs my body. My feet turn into propellers and begin thrusting the water behind me. The shoulder-burning motion, rhythmic dolphin kick and hip-flowing dance push adrenaline through every muscle in my body. I focus on the clock. The ticks on the electric board are sending vibrations down my spine. I pull harder, motion faster and kick stronger. It is just me and the clock. That is all I care about.

Pool Rules
That’s all she cared about. I grew up surrounded by screaming parents, scary coaches, body-building women and Speedo-wearing males. While most five-year-old girls were playing with dolls in the park, I was poolside playing with the program. While most parents spent their money on weekend romantic getaways, my parents spent every weekend of every month for ten months eating at the closest restaurant to a YMCA.

How did they get me to attend every meet she swam in for the next four years of my life? Bribery. Every swim meet brought promises of a new teddy bear, Fisher Price doll house, Malibu Barbie and chocolate-covered almonds. The toys distracted me from the fact that I’d been sitting for seven hours on gum-infested benches in 90˚ heat, surrounded by over-caffeinated parents. That was my deal—and they kept their side. 

I didn’t miss a single swim meet between the ages of five and ten. I learned addition by watching the swimmer’s strokes race against the numbers on the electric board. I learned how to handle money each time my father bought me a bagel and hot chocolate for a treat during the night meets. I learned how to read people’s body gestures.

A disqualification brought out fear no lion, tiger or bear could breed—only an upset coach. A loss brought out tears and flexed fists. A win brought out smiles and admiration by a nearby parent.

However, as much as I hated the ten hour car rides, mom’s morning kisses at 4 am, and dad’s twenty minute pep talks, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It was her dream, their dream—which made it mine.

Fish Out of Water
Now, I am living mine. The white heavenly wall is coming into view through my black, tinted goggles. I am close. My dream is only a couple kicks and paddles away. No one could have imagined it would come down to this moment. Flexing my abs, curling my legs and pushing my head down, I flip against the wall. First lap finished. One left.

Hanging up the leotard for a bathing suit
Like a typical nine-year old, I was always running late to gymnastics practice. Mom and I always had to go through the drill of packing my gym bag with my pink leotard, purple elastics and water bottle. Next was finding Dixie, who lived for car rides—any chance to show off her golden, powder-puff locks. Her typical hang-outs included underneath Rachel’s dust-infested bed, mom’s green-decorated dresser or grandma’s ancient china-table.

Dixie made it extra hard that day; she chose the dust-infested bed. Not even the sound of mail going through the slot caused her to run out with death in her eyes, saved only for the mailman. Mom and I knew what she wanted—a treat. We gave into her command and she gave into ours; off we went for the five minute journey to the Jewish Community Center of the North Shore.

The second I exited my mom’s car, my feet carried me swiftly to the locker room. BAM! I ran into a tall, dark and pissed off swim coach.

“Excuse me, sir. I didn’t see you,” I said in the tone to suck up to adults when necessary.

“It’s fine. Wait, you are Rachel Rosen’s little sister.”

Rachel Rosen’s little sister was a name the public gave me without my parents even knowing.
“Yes sir. I’m Sylvia. Sylvia Jacqueline Rosen,” I stated with poise. I was ready to give him my whole life’s story so he wouldn’t use her name in the same sentence as mine.

“Have you ever thought about swimming, Miss Rosen?” he asked while placing his right hand on my shoulder. I looked at him with disgust. Was he crazy? I saw what torture my sister had to go through: The early morning practices, endless hours of training and strict diet that forced her to choose celery over snickers.

Nevertheless, I responded respectfully.

“No sir. I do gymnastics,” I said, lifting up my gym bag, as if he would doubt my claim.

“Well, if you are Rachel Rosen’s sister, I suggest you get into the water soon. Who knows? There might be another little fish in the Rosen household.”

He walked away while waving goodbye. I stood there, waited a minute and shifted my gym bag to my shoulder. I transformed from a gymnast to a secret agent in a blink; I followed him toward the pool area.

The moment the doors opened, a whiff of chlorine crawled up my nostrils, and the heat planted itself on my skin. The swimmers were huddled around, laughing, assistant coaches flirting with one another, the water untouched and calm.

How could this be?

“Excuse me,” a girl my age said.

I moved aside so she could get by. She was my height, built like a rock and had a pretty purple swim suit on to match her goggles. Her bathing cap read ‘Piranhas’. She joined her friends on the diving board, getting ready to show off their moves. Before they had the chance, an older woman with short, blonde hair walked out of her office and blew her whistle.

“All right, time to get into the water. You know your set so do it!”

The man I had run into joined her, and they began talking. My focus remained on the swimmers. Forty kids spread out using all six lanes of the pool. As if rehearsed, one by one they dove in and began swimming the freestyle. Five minutes of watching their toned, beautiful bodies fly through the man-made body of water, turned into two hours of studying and mastering their perfect technique that allowed them to glide, almost above the water.

My mom found me later that evening standing by the pool deck. Her face was pale, eyes bloodshot and the vein on her forehead pulsing—she knew. I had been lured in to the sport known as competitive swimming. She took my hand and drove me home. She made the call to the coach later that night.

1,314,000 Seconds
I cross the middle line signifying I am strokes away from finishing the race of my life. Four years of swimming, fifteen hours a week of training, 1,314,000 seconds of mentally preparing myself for this day and the hundreds of dollars spent on training suits, racing suits, goggles, fins, swim bags, and all the swim fees needed to mold a great swimmer. Today was the day I would pay it back.

The image of my mom’s face flashed through my mind. She and I would sit and play for hours, for three events Rachel would finish in minutes. My mother had always been my pillow on the rides back while my father and Rachel talked swim cuts. This was my mom’s race too.

I see the touch board. The girls next to me, vanishing with every stroke I take, one by one. It is me and the clock.

Breathing is no longer an option. The pain is no longer a factor. In a heart beat, my cramped palms will grasp the touchpad.

Push, kick and glide—it is over.

I take a deep breath and rip the cap and goggles off my face—judgment.

The clock reads, Lane 4: 36.63 seconds.

Tears fill my eyes and screams echo throughout the whole building. I regain what little strength I have left and pull myself out of the water. I did it. I came in first. I’ve made Districts. I just ranked myself third in the league for the 13&14 girls’ 50 yard butterfly. Most of all, I’ve accomplished my dream.

Dodging friends, coaches and fans, I search for her. There she is, waiting with my leopard print towel, ready for my victory hug—with Rachel and my dad by her side.

I squeeze my mom together with my bear hug. “Nice job, toots.” Rachel said patting my head.

If it wasn’t for her being the best and if it wasn’t for her taunting me when I couldn’t keep up, I wouldn’t be standing where I am.

“Thanks, Rachel. It must run in the family.” I rejoin my team, but turn and see them all smiling—body gestures signifying a win.


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