My Comfort Zone

November 15, 2007
Eight years of my life had prepared me for this moment. Eight years of grueling practices and spending two or three hours at a pool everyday. Those years sped through my mind as I boarded the plane for South Africa.

An awkward sensation was in my stomach; a mixture of nerves and waking up at two in the morning. My slightly sweaty hands were shaking as I clumsily stepped on the plane. My arm throbbed from recently having a yellow fever shot given to me by a foreign doctor in the airport of Brazil. I was fifteen and on my way to the World Paralympic Swimming Championships in Durban.

While walking into the pool a gust of chlorinated air rushed in my face and strands of hair flew in my eyes. The bright lights hanging from the ceiling made the crystal blue water sparkle like diamonds. Flags from every country hung majestically from the rafters. As I looked at all of this, letting it sink in, all my fears went away and I was in my comfort zone.

As the team bus loaded for the pool on day one of the meet, anxiety was palpable. The pressure of making the elite team was in everyone’s eyes. To make the elite team you had to place at least third in an event. We were all hopeful that this would happen to us, but our bodies lacked the necessary energy. We had been living on white rice, boiled chicken, and steamed vegetables for the past week and no one had been sleeping much due to morning practices. I dragged myself off the bus and slowly made my way into the pool area. I only had one race that day and was determined to make it to finals and place at least third. The event was the 100 backstroke. I held the record for it in North America and what I wanted more than anything was to break the world record in it.

Warming-up was crazy. Hundreds of swimmers from all over the world were in one pool. Communication was futile and occasionally you would get kicked in the stomach or face. Despite my stressful surroundings I could not stop smiling in the water. The reality of being at the World Championship meet hit me and I was ready to swim.

Right before the race the swimmers of the upcoming event lined up in a small room constructed of black curtains. It was supposed to help the swimmers concentrate on their race and block out all of the noise and camera crews. Most people became more nervous due to the intimidation factor. They put us in a line and led us to our lanes. I put my goggles on and stepped toward the block. The whistle blew and I jumped in. My heart was pounding and I had not even started my race. Then the other whistle blew and the race begun.

It was all a little blurry after that. I desperately threw my arms through the water, trying to remember all of the techniques I had learned, but at the same time just trying to get to the wall. I saw the flags and knew the wall was coming, so I did a flip-turn. Pain suddenly sprang into my legs as I pushed off the wall. I kept telling myself that I was almost done, but in the back of my mind I knew that I was only half way there.

During the second lap my entire body became numb and all that I heard was the noise makers the Germans kept waving in the air and my heartbeat. Seeing the second set of flags was one of the most amazing things in the world to me. I slammed my arm into the wall and squinted to see my time and place on the board. I had gotten third and a best time. All the pain that I was feeling did not matter anymore.

The bad part was that that was only prelims and I had to come back again and swim it that night. None of that mattered because I was confident that I could get third and make the team. I went through the same drill as prelims, warm-ups and then the little black room. I was even more tired than in the morning, but I was ready.

This time I was numb by the time I got to the first wall. My heart rate was out of control and I was gasping for breath. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life. I saw the flags and once again slammed my arm into the wall. I looked up at the board and searched for my name, place, and time. Fourth, I had gotten fourth. I did not know how to react at first, so I just walked slowly into the warm-down pool. I tried to relax and process what had just happened. The race ran through my mind again and again. I kept seeing things I messed up on or could have done better at. I pulled myself out of the pool and people instantly ran up to me, trying to comfort me. They all kept telling me I was so close. I had been three one-hundredths of a second away from getting third. All my friends kept telling me that I would get third on my next race and that I had done my best.

After thinking it over, I realized I did not care. I had gotten fourth in the World Championships! I was lucky to even be at the meet and I was sulking over getting fourth? It was then I decided to forget about the race and concentrate on my other races, which was probably the smartest thing I had done the entire meet. I ended up getting third in all of my other races and I made the elite team.

That swim meet was filled with inadequate food, sleep-deprivation, and gut-wrenching races. But I would not change one thing about it. I became more thankful for everything because of that meet and I would not trade it for the world.

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