It was one of those moments when I thought I was going to die. You know those—the moments when you’re sick enough or cold enough or stressed enough or embarrassed enough that you just want to curl up in a ball and fall into nothingness. They happen on occasion, and it was definitely one of those moments.
As I hit the water, every bone in my body turned to jell-o and my breath caught in my throat as if I had inhaled an inflated balloon. I didn’t think my arms could endure another stroke, my legs tolerate another kick, or my lungs suffer a second longer without air; even when I did lift my face briefly out what felt like a surging river, I could only grasp enough of a breath to just barely survive until the next one.
I thought I was going to die.
Yet I kept going. Somehow, and for some reason, my arms endured stroke after another stroke, my legs tolerated kick after the next kick, and my lungs suffered through the eternities that existed between breaths. It was the second to last event of Asheville’s 2010 Iron Man Swim Competition, and when I finally touched the wall to end my suffering, I got out of the water, back on the block, and swam the very next and final event.
And I didn’t die.
An Iron Man Meet is unique because, instead of every swimmer competing in two individual events (at most), every swimmer competes in every event. This means that I had to race my friends and, well, “frenemies” in the 100 Back, 200 IM, 50 Free, 100 Fly, 100 Free, 500 Free, 200 Free, and 100 Breast events. That’s 1,350 grueling yards.
So there I was in the 200 freestyle, somewhere around the 1,050-yard mark for the day, and my body couldn’t have hated me more. The silence was screaming into my ears, and I wanted nothing more in that moment than to give up entirely, sink to the bottom, and hide from the pain. But something kept pulling me forward. Back and forth and back and forth—it was a struggle without end. And then there was an end. Just like that I hit the wall, stopped, grasped for air, and it was all over (until the next event, of course).
All I had left was to swim the 100 breaststoke, and I hadn’t died yet.
There are countless moments when we, as swimmers, find limits to be tested, rules to be broken, boundaries to be pushed, and lines to be crossed; just when it seems unbearable to continue, the impossible becomes possible and we push ourselves through one more stroke and one more kick. That is what swimming does for all of us. It can teach us how to be competitive, how to be alone, how to be social, how to be healthy, but most importantly, it can teach us how to persist when the world appears to be telling us to quit.
I learned something new that day (more precisely, in the middle of the 200 Free) about myself as a swimmer and as an individual. I discovered that it is not just thrilling and exhilarating to test limits, break rules, push boundaries, and cross lines, but it is absolutely necessary in all aspects of life. In her book, Swim, Lynn Sherr quotes businessman and engineer Andrew Grove in a story about his childhood. He discusses a time when his high school teacher said that, “life is like a big lake. All the boys get in the water at one end and start swimming. Not all of them will swim across. But one of them, I’m sure, will” (Sherr 10). This means that in order to be successful as a swimmer and in life, in order to make it across the lake, it is imperative that we all strive to do more than is necessary and expected. If we push ourselves through one more stroke and one more kick, we are even closer to “making it.” Whatever it is.
I finished the Iron Man Meet. I swam all eight events and stepped out of the pool even stronger than when I first dove in. And I didn’t die.
Below is a link to the Asheville Citizen Times online newspaper, where you can find pictures and more information about the meet: