The sky is smooth as a sea-polished stone, split through the middle by a frail thorn of sunlight. The scent of chlorine clouds the air as flecks of water nestle into my tangle-wet hair. Voices are cheering, laughing, talking; they skitter around me in a song that sounds rough and raw to my ears still hazy with sleep. The sounds I hear seem happy, and I am bewildered by the fact that no one else is as nervous as me. A thought I do not want to hear surprises me, like crunching a bone in a bite of food. Could it be that there is not as much to fear as I think?
“Claire, you should go line up.” My sister’s cheeks are flushed like the rosy skin of an apple, her eyes glow summer green. The simple words she says make nervousness sing inside me, sad as a broken bird.
“I know. Thanks, Char.” I sweep up my swim cap and goggles and head towards the jagged line of swimmers waiting for their races. The cold wind of anxiety stirs inside me; I know by the time of my race it will have swelled into a storm. Will I do well? The unbidden question sails in with the breeze. Yes, I insist. No. A ghostly voice slinks into my head and quells my stab at confidence with a swipe of its thin fingers. I have trained, I have prepared, I have practiced, but I will not succeed. Will I? I force my mind to return to a positive outlook, however feeble the attempt may be. You can do it. You have practiced every day this week, and last week, and every week. You know the technique. You have committed. You can do it. I can’t make myself believe it. As soon as I think the empty words, they fade away like a footprint in the sand.
“So, Claire, you remember the tip I gave you, right?” Charlotte’s back.
“Yes; keep my head tucked,” I recite dully.
“Good,” She says with an approving nod. “Don’t forget to give me the cap so I can use it when you’re done. I’ll be at the other end cheering for you. Look for me when you flip.” Her lips press a kiss against my cheek, and then she’s gone.
Her attempt to relax me has somehow backfired. Feeling more anxious than ever, I take deep breaths. The air is cold and scalds my throat like a lie best left untold.
Just when I think I might have a panic attack, the voice of my coach slingshots my ears.
“Charlotte!” Coach Jessica calls.
I know I’m fighting a losing battle by correcting her, but I mumble, “Claire,” anyway.
She doesn’t even notice. “So, are you ready for your race?” I shrug noncommittally, but she responds as enthusiastically as ever. “Great! I know how exhausting butterfly can be, so I want you to focus on rhythmic power the first lap, and on the second lap just go all out. Remember to extend your arms and move your hips."
I twist the rubber straps of my goggles in my hands; the elastic snaps against my skin but I barely feel it. I nod blandly to Coach Jessica, but she has already turned her attention to a worthier—more social—candidate, so I turn away from her. Pulling on my swim cap, I snap my goggles over it, tightening them until black clouds smoke my vision and my eyes feel like buttons on an outgrown shirt.
All too soon, the announcer’s voice blares over the sound system, wooly with static. “Event seventeen, girls eleven-twelve fifty-yard butterfly.”
It’s my turn.
“Swimmers, step up.”
I climb onto the block, careful not to fall on the slick surface.
“Take your marks.”
The buzzer sounds and I dive.
As soon as my hands pierce the water’s glassy surface, all the fear biting the back of my throat goes down like lemonade. My body scissors into the water, but as soon as I dive I am kicking, rippling along in an underwater streamline. Then my hands find air and I start stroking to the beat of my own heart. My feet flick like the tail of a mermaid, I propel from my hips and lurch out of the water to breathe, high enough that my chin still touches my chest. Fast, fast, fast, I tell myself, skimming across the pool like a water beetle. I reach the end of the pool and catch a glimpse of Charlotte before I take a turn stroke and push off again.
Now my arms are tiring, but I force myself to keep up my pace. My feet hammer the water and my arms keep swinging, but I push myself to go even faster. I gulp air as often as I dare, but my lungs still feel empty. All at once I realize why I was so worried: because I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I can’t do it.
My hands touch the wall.
And that’s when I realize how irrational I’ve been. All this worrying, all this panicking, and for what? For no reason, no reason at all. I climb out of the pool, feeling bright with realization, and ask the timer for my results.
“First place, thirty-five eighteen, honors.”
Honors! Proud to have earned a top time, I smile at the numbers on the page. 35.18. “Thank you,” I mumble automatically, and walk away in search of my family and a towel, my thoughts blurred by the bright light of success. I find them with my eyes and hurry over.
“Way to go, Clairey! First place!” My father hugs me into a towel.
Charlotte, however, waves this pronouncement away. “What was your time? Did you get honors?” She asks impatiently, snatching the swim cap.
“Yeah, thirty-five eighteen,” I say with a grin.
“Good for you, Clairey! I knew you were worrying too much! And I hope you know it too now,” She adds, seriousness seeping into her tone.
“I do,” I murmur, a little sheepish.
“I have to go line up. Great, great job!” We hug, and then she runs off.
As I turn back to the mass of bright towels and pop-up tents that crowd the grass, I feel myself finally begin to relax. My towel soaks up leftover adrenalin, my mouth stretches with a smile, my being swirls with contentment. I feel as if the water has cleansed me; I am refreshed and carefree. I can finally breathe after a long swim underwater.