“Eerrrrrrr” I hear the sound of the starter go off; its ricochet throws my head first and, in a blink of an eye, l am engulfed by frigid, clear-blue water. I glide through the pool feeling like a slippery shark. My mouth tastes the chlorinated water. I start out my stroke up, while thoughts inundate my mind. Okay, I have to remember to keep the set pace, focus on my arms, don’t gallop, strong kicks, breathe, and keep the pace.... I periodically glance at my coach and try to get a sense of my speed; by now, I learned to read his body language well - calm and composed, means I am right on pace; rapidly fluttering his hand:”speed up, boy, you're too slow now!” I also use the swimmer in the lane next to me as a pacer, as I know he has a good record. Last time we raced, he beat me and I can’t let that happen again.
At the end of the pool, I see my lap counter putting in the board with number 11. I have a total of 66 laps to complete a mile, therefore, I’m one sixth done for now. I can't keep counting, I just have to stay focused on technique and breathing, keep the streamline, breath every third or fourth stroke - when I'm “fresh” in the pool, I can swim a lap with only two breaths, but I'm far from that performance now.
My mind starts wondering: I think of the time I was younger and I loved to play in the water. My older sister, Alex, started taking swimming lessons when she was five, so when I turned four, I asked my parents if I could take swimming lessons, too.
“Sure,” answered my mom and she signed me up. I went swimming on and off, because I would get ill often. When I didn’t have painful ear infections, I would try my best during the lessons. Soon after I turned six, I made it to level 4 in swimming school.
That summer my sister tried out for swim team. After she swam, the coach asked my mom: “Is the boy going to try out for swim team?”
“He’s only in level 4 swimming; he may not be able to swim a full lap,” my mom replied.
“Let’s give it a try,” the coach insisted.
“Okay,” my mom agreed. I swam the two longest laps in my life, I felt the water go up my nose and that day I almost “drowned”, but I made the team.
That was eight years ago and now, at fourteen, I am swimming the mile at the State Junior Olympic Championships. 1650 meters free style swim is one of the most dreaded, but also admired event - it is the equivalent of a half marathon, I guess, for cross-country runners.
The chlorine starts to get to my senses. I feel tired - I start "galloping" and taking a breath every two strokes, something the coach said not to do: I just can’t fine tune my body and my breathing anymore, now I swim instinctively, no more precise control of my muscles, instead my arms and my legs move automatically, as an ancestral algorithm kicks in, and I let myself floating, while my mind floats, too, in nothingness. My arms are starting to ache more and more and Isaac, the next lane swimmer, is starting to pull ahead; I can’t hold up with him, I feel I'm panicking because I'm losing ground, but at the same time I feel so exhausted that it takes tremendous will to just keep swimming. My coach is signaling: stay calm, keep going, and don’t slow the pace.
Through the blur of my tired mind and the bubbles in the water, I barely see the lap counter shaking the board with number 31. I am almost halfway through: my arms and legs feel like I am repeatedly being punched and tortured, but this is why I trained so much, so I can push through pain and fatigue, so that I can keep going until the end. I make the flip turn and then I look up in desperation and see my coach fluttering his arm desperately; it means: “you are slowing down, pick up the pace". I don’t have the body strength to speed up, as I am supposed to do. And that's when I realize that Isaac, the swimmer on the lane next to me, is a lap ahead." I must be going so slow," my brain keeps telling me, "I'm done, the race is over for me, I might as well stop swimming now". This is the second time ever I race in the one mile event: first time was a month ago, at the Regional Championships and I thought back then that I did badly, but amazingly enough, once the race ended, I realized I made a JO cut.
My mind keeps racing randomly from one thought to another: “Will I even be able to finish with a good time?” Maybe I didn’t train hard enough this season, maybe I could have been better prepared, maybe...doubts and insecurities trickle along my body. Suddenly, I shake out from this disappointment and stare at the lap counter's board: it shows lap 49; that's when I’m supposed to pick up my pace, it's the time to give out each and every drop of energy I have left in my muscle fibers, in my nerves, in my brain. At this very moment I don’t even know if I can finish the race, but through the whole feeling of exhaustion that dominates me, I push myself, against my brain's will, to pick up the pace. My arms start moving more regularly, a bit faster, the legs start kicking a bit stronger, and I am surprised my body listens to me, when my brain yells: “No!!!" I am surprised that I am still moving, but there I am, speeding up, just as I was supposed to do.
I now remember that, as a kid, I started training with the slowest group, in the bronze team, three times every week. It wasn’t easy, I had to listen to the coach and learn the strokes, even when I was tired and unable to focus. Sometimes I felt like a kitten forced into the water; one day I remember I was yelling at coach in my high pitch voice “Can’t you see I am slower than everyone, what's the point of even practicing?”
He said “Andrei, remember the difference between extraordinary and ordinary is that little extra effort that goes into making a dream come true. If you give up now, you'll never be a good swimmer; you get used to give up and you will not become good in anything; remember, pain is temporary, but the pride of winning stays with you forever.”
I shake my memories again and I am in awe when I see the board with lap 55 on it; I am only half a lap from my pacer, Isaac. There are only 250 yards left, so I'll speed up with what I have left, which isn't much, but I have to do it. I start pushing myself harder and that very moment I feel an electric shock going through all my muscles and I don't sense pain anymore. I hear the crowd cheering and the bell marking the last lap for the fastest swimmers. I imagine all that excitement and cheering is for me, and I swim with a blank mind, stroke, kick, stroke, kick, breathe, stroke, kick, stroke, breathe, kick...
I feel my heart pounding and I am able to notice that I’m just behind Isaac, slowly making the distance between us become shorter and shorter. One lap left, I'm half a body length behind. I imagine the story of my race finish, as told on the TV: “25 yards left: Andrei is fighting for his position back, he is galloping on Isaac's wave. He is literally riding on Isaac's waves and approaching him head to heel. 10 yards left, they are neck and neck, 5 yards 4 yards 3, 2, 1.”
I look up and see that I lost.
But in the back of my head I know I won, because real victory is what is deep down inside each of us, it is the triumph of our dreams over our insecurities and doubts, that, despite all the hard work, it is impossible to achieve our goal, that it would be too incredible for it to become reality.
Winning isn’t about finishing first and it isn’t about beating others. It is about overcoming your weaknesses, your muscles, your mind, your doubts, insecurities and your fears. Winning means daring to dream high and achieving your dreams with hard work and mental preparation.
Soon on kindle
A swimmer's Journey, 2012
When I was a young boy, I loved to play in the water. My older sister, Alex, started taking swimming lessons when she was 5, so when I turned 4, I asked my parents if I could take swimming...
A swimmer's mile
“Eerrrrrrr” I hear the sound of the starter go off; its ricochet throws my head first and, in a blink of an eye, l am engulfed by frigid, clear-blue water. I glide through the pool feeling like a...