Growing up, I felt some pressure to be athletic. My older siblings all played sports. My sister, Patty, was– is, even now– an amazing runner. Softball, track, wrestling, tennis– my siblings covered a gamut of sports between them and I always felt like I should participate, too. I remember going on a bike ride one time with Patty and when I made it to the top of the hill without getting off and walking, she said, “you’re going to be one hell of an athlete.”
I wasn’t. I’m not.
Up through middle school, I played softball and basketball and ran some cross country races, but nothing stuck. I would stand in the outfield, hoping no one hit the ball toward me. I would jog across the basketball court, never imagining I’d ever make a basket. I would run along a marked out course, waiting and waiting until I could see the finish line, until the race was finally over. There was none of the excitement and adrenaline that so many people feel from those sports. I did enjoy playing sports, but more because it was something to do, and less because I actually enjoyed sports.
But I do love to swim.
I joined the swim team in high school, and although I wasn’t fast, I was precise. I had perfect form, and could switch from freestyle to breaststroke to backstroke depending on what the team needed.
I remember so vividly the time our coach asked two swimmers to demonstrate the perfect flip-turn to the rest of the team: Hannah, the best swimmer on the team despite her being a freshman, and me. The rest of team got out of the water and congregated around the deep end to watch Hannah and I swim a half-length of the pool, flip-turn at the end, and head back away from them. It worked out well since she was so much faster than me: they could watch her do her perfect flip-turn and then have plenty of time to shift their gaze to my lane as I came up a good ten seconds behind her to flip and turn in the water and shoot off in the opposite direction.
During races, each team would have three swimmers in the water for each event, in alternating lanes. In general, swimmers were arranged so that the fastest swimmers were toward the center of the pool, with the slower swimmers in the outside lanes. I was almost always in the outside lane. I almost always came in four, fifth, or sixth in any given event… except one time.
Swimming the 100-yard breaststroke (four lengths of the pool), all three swimmers from my team, including me in the outside lane, took the lead around the 50-yard mark. I had never heard such cheering and shouting. If you know the breaststroke, you know that with every stroke your head comes up for a breath and then sinks back below the surface for a long glide. Up and down, up and down, I bobbed, and as I turned for the last 25 yards– the last length to go, from shallow end to deep end– there was my entire team, lined up on the side of the pool beside my lane, cheering me on every time my head came above the water. I didn’t know what was happening, but I swam as fast as I could, and that day I came in third and we swept the event for our team.
I wasn’t an athlete, but I was part of that team. I wasn’t fast, but I finished every race I started, including the 500-yard endurance event that was one of my favorites. I just wanted to swim. I didn’t need to be great, I didn’t need to compare myself to my siblings who were remembered for six-minute miles, being the top of their weight class, or throwing a ball from right field straight to home plate. But I’m glad I was part of the swim team. I’m glad I experienced a third place win while the whole team cheered. I’m glad I went to practice every day, even when I really didn’t want to. I’m glad that when I get in the water now, I can still do a perfect flip-turn, not because it proves anything, but because I can, and it reminds me of something I loved then and still love now.
Despite the pressure from my family, I always knew I wasn’t going to be an athlete. It wasn’t in the cards, and that’s okay. I try to remind myself of that now when we start a new workout routine, or I sign up to run a 5K (obviously suffering from momentary insanity). It’s going to be hard, and I’m not going to feel great about it, but I can do it. I won’t finish first or blow anyone out of the water with my athleticism, but there are other rewards, like people cheering me on and the feeling of accomplishing something, and that’s good enough for me.