The first time I competed in swimming was the Spring of my Sophomore year of high school, and as my wife and I return to the pool in hope to get back into shape, I am reminded of how particularly inverse my experience now is from those early days. Back then my body had seemingly limitless energy, but my brain didn’t know technique or what I was capable of. These days my brain well-remembers racing through the water, and how to perform each stroke, but my body has long fallen out of practice and can’t keep up with what my brain feels is a “reasonable” pace.
My coach determined that I was best-suited for long-distance freestyle (500 yard) and butterfly stroke (100 yard). I dabbled in breast stroke and shorter sprints, but really those two endurance races became my bread and butter when it came to training and competition. Butterfly is well-known as a grueling race, the stroke taking a lot out of the body and requiring a great deal of coordination to move effectively through the water. Several days ago I did a single lap (25 yard) of butterfly after nearly fifteen years of not having done so, and boy did I feel it in my shoulders, lungs, torso, and calves. To me butterfly remains a symbol of human mechanics in action, with strength, endurance, and technique all contributing to a beautiful race.
My first race, the 100 yard butterfly, remains a very clear memory as I look back at my time in high school. Not the nervousness I felt up on the blocks, nor the exhilaration I felt diving into the water, but instead a particular moment which happened about three-quarters through. As I completed 25 yards, then 50, I felt my arms grow leaden, my breath labored, and my shoulders tight with exertion – in my excitement I had come off the blocks too hard, too fast, and I couldn’t maintain my pace. I tried to slow down, but that just made the race take longer, each stroke sapping more and more energy.
Eventually, around the 70 yard mark, my body had enough. I started treading water, knowing I was disqualified for breaking stroke, hoping to just catch my breath. I heard my teammates, my coach, and my father continue to cheer me on, almost urgently. Knowing that I had to do my best, for their sake if not my own, I took a deep breath and began swimming anew, my form terrible but recognizable as butterfly. One last kick-flip at the end of the lane and I was 25 yards from finishing.
As I pulled myself bodily out of the pool, I heard the lane timers recording my final swim time. I was confused – hadn’t I been disqualified? As it turns out, during the moment of my physical breakdown, the referee was busy disqualifying someone else in another lane, and with his attention fully on the other swimmer, he hadn’t seen any of my treading water. By the time he looked back up, I was swimming again, even if feebly, competently enough to finish the race.
And so, contrary to what “should” have happened, I finished my first Junior Varsity swimming race without disqualification, high-fives all around from my team. My father and coach had noticed that the referee wasn’t looking my way when I faltered, and so were insistent that I keep trying, keep going. It was out of a desire to not let them down that I started swimming again, instead of giving up in that moment.
Though I continued to swim butterfly and long-distance freestyle for the rest of my high school career, I was never one of the fastest on the team, never set any records or made it to the state meet on the merits of my races (I did manage to go, and score points for my school, for springboard diving during my senior year, but that’s a different story). That said though, I still remember my first race and what it meant to me that so many people believed I could keep going, even when my body had reached its limit.
Recently digging through old papers, I found a copy of the final results from the last swim meet of my Senior year, and seeing many of the names (and lightning-fast times) made me smile. I may scan in those papers some time soon and attach them to this post; it’s a neat memento to have, and I’m glad my father saved a copy for me.