It used to be a haven.
When I was little, I was always in the water. Eventually, I fled to the sanctity of the lanes to avoid high-school drama. Nothing like a good workout, body screaming down the pool, to take your mind off chemistry tests and French homework. There, I knew what to expect, and it was the one place I loved bringing my best every day.
If your alarm goes off every morning at 4:45 just so you can swim, you’re probably going to get better at it somehow. And I did. Not great. Just barely good enough to know I didn’t necessarily have to be done after four years of high school.
I did two uneventful years at one small university, then transferred to a slightly larger one. I had a fabulous junior year. Great friends, and for me, great times, in the pool and out. I never forgot that I was a mediocre athlete at best, but I surprised myself with what I could do when I worked hard. I had never been happier, and I was so excited for my senior year.
Until it started.
I struggled at my first meet. Disappointed but optimistic, I toweled my hair and my tears and I turned my focus forward. Next time would be better.
But it wasn’t. I was getting slower and slower, and worst of all, it hurt. I searched, but this time, I couldn’t find solace through my fogged-up goggles.
I swam and I slept. Nothing else. I hung a blanket over my window to keep the world away. I woke up disoriented, bewildered, in the dark ““ was it time for morning or afternoon practice? Had I been to class? It didn’t matter. Numbly, I put my contacts in, drew the hood of my sweatshirt over my unbrushed hair and plodded off to the pool, barely able to stand straight.
This went on until I found out I had mono, and then it still went on. Nobody would tell me to quit, and I wasn’t strong enough ““ or perhaps, some days, I was too strong ““ to tell myself.
Four days a week, we ran. Six days a week, we swam. Twice a day. I didn’t love it anymore. I didn’t love anything anymore.
Sick as a dog and barely able to walk straight, much less steer as I swam, I finished the season, and I even had a fun and fairly successful race at the conference meet. But it was never the same. By the time I felt human again, I felt like I was out of touch, and I was definitely out of time.
And then I dropped it. I never thought about swimming. I reached a point where I could be thankful for what it had done for me, and that’s where I stopped. I couldn’t let it back into my life, ever again.
Years went by. I tried running, cardio classes and even yoga ““ which I actually liked quite a bit. Tangled goggles and twisted swim caps, still smelling faintly of chlorine, were relegated to the bottom of an unused gym bag. I threw out my collection of mildewing, knotted swimsuits.
But something was out of joint. Years later, I realized what it was: I missed racing.
This was surprising. I have always been taciturn and yielding; for me, daily activities fail to ignite the fire of competition. But once I thought about the thrill, how the adrenaline used to course through my veins, I couldn’t stop. I knew how much I had loved it, how much it had once meant. But I wasn’t just afraid of swimming ““ I was afraid of trying. Setting off to reconquer the peak of where I had once been was foolish, and I knew it. What could there be to gain?
Still, it tugged at me.
So I did what came naturally, and I pictured the pool. Even in a quiet room, I heard the humming of the beast at 5:55 a.m. on a winter morning, all the pipes and machines purring and grinding together to chlorinate the thousands of gallons of liquid like clockwork. It was quietly alive, pulsing and shimmering, before it finally gave way to one brave swimmer (never me) at the stroke of 6.
Then there was nothing but the easy, rhythmic slop of the water in the gutters, intensifying in the next five minutes as 20 more people dove in, and arms became windmills and feet became motors and lane lines bobbed with the energy and within moments it was as though the place had never been empty.
My heart once beat to those sounds, and given a half a chance, I know it could again. Over 15 years, combined with the sweat of a thousand practices and the dull roar of a hundred teammates ““ friends ““ screaming from the side of dozens of pools, half a chance was all I ever really needed.
After four years, I reneged on my pledge to stay dry. I start Masters swimming this week. We’ll see how it goes.