April 4, 2017
I’ve always envied those who find peace and grace when they swim laps. My relationship with the pool has been more warlike.
I was a sprinter in my heyday, and a good one. My sole reason for swimming was to finish before anyone else. Fast-twitch muscles and razor-sharp focus propelled me into a scholarship to swim for the University of South Florida, 17 All-American titles, a national championship and a qualifying time for the 1988 Olympic trials.
When a rotator cuff tear and shoulder surgery ended my swimming career after my graduation from college, I felt like Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid when she became a land creature: uncomfortable and uneasy. Still, I managed to redirect all my adrenaline-seeking energy into other pursuits. I spent the next three decades working as a freelance writer for newspapers from Abu Dhabi to Seoul, and as a swim coach for collegiate teams from Vermont to Virginia, with short volunteer stints with the Singapore National Team and a women’s club program in the Middle East. I got married, had a child.
I was crossing a lot of oceans during those years, but I mostly stayed out of the water. When people asked me why I didn’t swim anymore, I generally lashed out: I never swam to relax.
Until this year, my 50th, when I started swimming again. I had to be at the pool anyway for my 12-year-old son’s practice with his YMCA team in Vermont, so, I told myself, why not make the most of my time?
I started slow, a speed heretofore unknown to me. My strokes, once renowned for their length and leverage, were weak and inefficient. Even more bothersome to me was that a handful of other middle-aged women were passing me in the lap lanes.
I was a long way from the athlete who had dominated the sport in Florida back in the mid-80s. How long would it take until I got her back? The answer wasn’t going to be 23.69 seconds, which had been my best time in the 50-yard freestyle. I lived and died by the clock in those days, every minute of my life relentlessly timed, including trips to the grocery store and breaks for sex.
After two months of swimming twice a week with the masters program at the YMCA, I was able to complete 3,000 yards in an hourlong workout. I was surprised by how good it felt to smell chlorine on my skin and to see goggle marks around my eyes. But could I race?
There was only one way to find out. I signed up to compete in a masters swim meet — choosing the shortest distance, 25 meters, in my best event, the freestyle. Essentially, I’d be swimming one length of the pool for the title of fastest 50- to 54-year-old woman in Vermont.
And suddenly I was 18 years old again — on a pool deck, in a skintight Speedo, with a heat sheet in my hand. I hastily scanned the stapled papers for my seeding in the race and laughed mightily at what I discovered. I had inadvertently entered 38 seconds — a rather conservative time for a race of 50 meters, which was twice the distance I’d actually be swimming. As a result, I was seeded all by my lonesome in the first heat.
“Talk about nothing to lose,” I told my son, who’d come to watch me race.
When race officials announced that participants could change their seed times before the meet got underway, I ran to the desk waving my pen to slash the error. “I entered the time for a 50,” I said. “My 25 free is probably around 18 seconds.” The revised heat sheet put me in a middle group, with actual people to beat in the one-length dash.
When the time came to race, I took my spot on the starting block. I steadied myself as I bent over to grab the front, making every effort not to jump the gun — quite unlike my former lightning-fast reflexed self who readily teetered on the brink of disqualification for a chance to be the first swimmer in the water. Yet, I still had every intention of being first to arrive at the other end of the pool.
Diving in, I felt the water rush over my chest, then push my swimsuit down to expose my left breast. But instead of freaking out, which is what I certainly would have done in my college years, I actually laughed underwater. My battle with the water persists, I told myself, just in a new form.
I devoted my first awkward stroke to pulling my suit back up as the swimmers around me pulled ahead. I tried to find a rhythm in the water, even though it felt more like sand slipping through my hands. I’d planned not to take a breath for the entire length, but wound up taking three.
Before I knew it, the race was over. My timer said I’d clocked in at 15.39 seconds — my speed as a 10-year-old girl. I broke into a big grin anyway. It turned out I’d reached the wall first in my heat, even after my awkward start. My performance, I later learned, even ended up breaking the meet record for the race in my age group, ranking me in the top five in the country for masters swimming.
Even more remarkably, I felt as if I’d finally reached a truce between my sport and myself. I was back where I belonged — at home in the water, content with the fight.