The faster and older girls are in the middle of the pool and I’m on the edge with my best friend. We are far behind the others, and we sometimes cheat and cut our laps in half. I’m not particularly fast, but this is the year we do more than freestyle. We have to strokes, something we’ve learned about for months, but have never been able to do in competition before. Now, not everyone gets to swim everything, it’s just gotten competitive. And I am by no means a favorite or front-runner for those 2 coveted points spots in each event. We start practicing. Coach Debbie hovers over us, standing on the side of the pool her oversize white tee-shirt dripping in sweat, her whistle hanging on the ripples around her neck. She’s got short grey hair, and isn’t what I would call an attractive woman. You can tell she was never pretty, reflected mainly in her grumpy demeanor and hatred of all the children, as she could never have any of her own. She whistles and signals us over to start doing stroke drills.
First up: butterfly. It is clear from the get go that I have no natural talent for the stroke. I try to keep my feet together, try to lift my arms over my head, but I just look like I’m drowning. I just can’t master the rhythm of the movement that looks so pretty and athletic when the other girls do it. Maybe it was a lack of arm strength, maybe a lack of General coordination, but butterfly was way out of my wheelhouse. We stop and I’m panting. Again I finish last. Behind all the 9-10s, and the 7-8s leaving me mortified. I flop back to the wall watching everyone’s eyes stare at me. The coach did not even bother to wait for me before beginning to talk about the next set. I don’t remove my goggles like I normally would because I’m holding back my tears of embarrassment and shame, but I suck it up and start listening.
She’s talking now about backstroke. I think that it sounds doable. I know freestyle and after all it’s just that backwards. We start the set. I don’t drown like I did before, but this time I just can’t stay in a straight line. I bump between both lane lines, and (to their annoyance) hit my fellow swimmers as well. I’m looking up at the sunny sky and think how good it is that my mom thought to buy the goggles with sunglasses built in. I pass the green and blue Ashbourough Alligators flag that I watched the team favorite Blair hang that morning. I remember watching enviously as she laughed and joked with the older girls while she was doing it. I suspected they liked her because she was “good”. She was fast. She was my age, but so much better. Skill was not the only reason for her popularity. It was her over involved swim mom, who sucked up to the cool kids and the coaches. Blair had status, she was important, which meant she got to hang the flags and put in the lane lines. While I’m reflecting on this, I forget where I’m going and I smack my head right in to the wall. At this point I decide I am done with back. I swim back to the other wall as inconspicuously as possible, which is hard because I really cannot go in a straight line. I make it to the wall and wait awkwardly with Debbie watching for the others to return, but at least I’m not last this time.
She assigns the next drill, the last new stroke to try out: breaststroke. We go over the basics. The legs are supposed to kick the water like a frog does in the pattern up out together; we all repeat that, Up. Out. Together. The arms work like ice cream scoops. Then they come in close to the chest and then you thrust them out like you are praying. I’m listening really hard, hanging on to each and every word I really don’t want to be embarrassed again. As I’m trying out the arms and legs separately and I find that the movements are coming fairly naturally to me. Then it’s time to begin the set. Debbie blows the whistle and the fastest in my lane is off. Whistle next fastest. Whistle next fastest. Then it’s my turn. I push off from the wall I do the underwater cycle we learned about and come up and start my strokes. I’m gliding, I’m fast, and I’m a natural. I quickly overtake all of the people in my lane, and when I look around I realize I am keeping pace with the fastest 9-10 girl. My competitive nature takes over for the first time. I want to win I want to beat her. I push myself. My calves ache from being squeezed together, but I’m determined and I reach the wall first. I’m so elated and surprised with myself. I know that the coach would have to be an idiot not to put me in a points spot. I am strong. I am powerful. I am fast. I am finally a “good swimmer”.