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“Take your marks!” my fingers started to turn white as I gripped the block. Thousands of thoughts had been pushed aside as I strained to hear one word. “Go!” Suddenly I was flying but as soon as I landed in the water nothing mattered except me and the finish. Only one thought flew through my mind, “Don’t lose, don’t lose!” Losing would bring me back to the beginning when all I wanted was to stay out of the water.
I used to dread going, I hated going. The water was always too cold, and I was usually last. Slow. A loser. Swimming was something I was forced to do. The worst part of my week.
Starting in first grade made me ecstatic; I thought that it would be all fun and games like playing Marco Polo or doing hand stands. And it was for about the first year, when I was on the non-competitive team, we would fool around playing sharks and minnows the whole time. Everything changed when I moved up to competitive the next year.
I was shocked when I saw all the work that the competitive kids were doing. Looking back it wasn’t that much, 50 yards here or there but mostly we swam 25yards which is just one length of the pool. During my second grade year of swimming I didn’t work very hard but I ended up doing well because I was good at sprinting when most of the other kids couldn’t.
I was full of myself thinking that I was so good and that everyone else was slower than me. But all of those previous notions were about to change, moving up an age group was the hardest for me. I went from being the head honcho to the slowest one in the lane. In the previous two years I had been winning everything and didn’t know how to work hard. I expected to win but all the other kids had learned how to practice and work hard so they were able to win while I always finished last. Swimming into the finish full force only to realize everyone else was done, broke my heart.
I wanted to quit, begged my mom to let me quit but she would always say, “Give it another chance.” I found that phrase stupid because how many chances should you give something. She was making it sound like we had to try a billion times before deciding if we liked it or not and boy am I glad she did. My 6th grade year was swimming was the worst one I had ever had. By that time I was on one of the slowest on the team and I still had not learned how to work hard. The coaches were a main reason why I wasn’t improving they would yell at me and say, “Come on Julia we all know that you’re better than that!” The thing was though that they didn’t know. They didn’t know anything. All they cared about was trying to keep everyone in line. It didn’t seem to matter to them that I had horrible form and couldn’t do a good flip turn. Helping the swimmers wasn’t their top priority which seemed a little strange because coaches are supposed to help you. The whole season went on like that and after failing at the championships I made the decision to not go back next year. I wasn’t getting any better, so I decided to spare the team the extra failure.
My mom kept trying to persuade me otherwise the whole summer, but I was a lost cause I had given up all hope, until swim season started again and I wasn’t going. It felt like a part of me was taken away. For 6 years I was on that team and that’s something that you can’t just take away. But I wanted to stay strong. I had quit so I didn’t want to go back on that decision.
The night that changed me was as ordinary as an evening could be, my mom and her friend had just finished teaching their CCD class and we were all sitting in my kitchen. For a couple of days I had been toying with the idea to go back but I needed that extra push.
“Julia, why aren’t you swimming anymore?”
“I just don’t feel like it’s the thing for me, but you know I do feel this like emptiness whenever swimming starts each night. I feel like I’m missing something great. I just don’t understand it though because I hated it last year.”
“Well you’ve been swimming for so long that it’s normal to feel like this, your whole routine has been messed up. But maybe you should try going back, just for one day; see how it is maybe when you see what you’ve been missing you might change your mind.”
“I don’t know, maybe, but I’m just nervous that I’ll suck again, I don’t want to look stupid this year.”
“As long as you actually try this year, you won’t look stupid. Trust me. I’m a mom I know these things.”
That was it- that little push, just what I needed. It might have seemed meaningless but what she said changed my mind just like that. So I went back with full force. I didn’t let anyone or anything distract me. I would do what the coaches said without a word, and slowly I built my way up. One spot at I time until I had made first in my line and first in some races. When we went to championships that year my defining moment had come.
“Don’t lose, don’t lose!” I didn’t want to go back to all those failures and losses of my past, this time I was going to win. My hands cut through the water in clean smooth strokes, my legs and feet kicked hard, soon they were numb, but it didn’t matter how much it hurt; I was not going to lose. I reached the first wall, flipped and with all of my might pushed off towards the next wall, the finish. In this last stretch I hardly breathed at all. The only thing that mattered was hitting that wall. Half way there, a quarter, and then crash. I was done. My head whipped instinctively towards the time board mounted on the wall and then I saw it my time and then my place 6th. No, this wasn’t happening, I had failed myself; I got out of the water and nothing mattered except getting back to my seat. 6th .Oh my God no this wasn’t happening to me. My coaches were all congratulating me, why I had lost. And then I realized it, I had swum with the fastest people in the fastest heat which meant I was 6th over all, I placed. I might not have done perfect in my heat but there were like 35 kids in all which meant that I was at the top of those 35. Checking the score sheet confirmed what hoped for. Yes I had done it. I won a medal.
Many think you need to just keep trying until you get to the top, but I think that you need to lose something and really miss it until you fully appreciate the fact that working hard brings you to the top. Now in my eighth year of swimming, I am still on top but I will never forget the road that got me there.