The Mexican water around me was so clear that all I could see was the colorful fish and the bright coral, whose tips extended above the water. I swam towards the bottom, where long strips of green seaweed concealed the white sand. I extended my fingers wide in the water, as if to catch the paradise itself in my hands. My body had transformed into a sea creature itself; my hands were raisins, the sun had highlighted my hair, and my legs stung from the powerful sea salt. I craved all of this, and nothing could seem more perfect. That is when I felt it. A stinging sensation flowed all the way from my toes to my stomach. I hunched over, filling my snorkel with sea salt that ran all the way down my throat. I thrashed underwater, sending the huge, beautiful fish that had once surrounded me away. I extended my fingers in the water once again, but this time it was not to enjoy myself; it was to try to save myself from drowning in the middle of the ocean. It felt like years before I reached the ship, but once I did, I could finally make out six stings in my foot. They were a blue, lurid color that I could see extend all the way through my big toe, almost poking out of the other side. A sea urchin had stung me in the water. The natives to the country advised me not to pull them out, as there are barbs attached to each stinger. It would take long, agonizing months for the stings to finally fall out. I felt the tears sting my already-salty face, as I realized how this would affect my upcoming cross country season.
Two weeks later, I forced my Nike sneakers onto my swollen foot. The shoes had once been my favorite pair, but now their dark color matched my mood, and I no longer cared for them. I put on a bright tank top to try to lighten my spirits, but nothing I did seemed to assuage my heartache. I limped downstairs to find my watch.
“You ready to go?” My mom appeared from behind the counter, a huge smile on her face.
“No,” I said, fastening my watch to my wrist. I could not even bring myself to look at it. I had received my watch four years ago, and since then it had been with me for all the thousands of miles that I had ran. “I suck at running. I do not even know why I ever decided to do it. I mean, cross country had once been what defined me the most. But now, I realize that the team never needed me. I am their invisible runner; I am just that JV runner in the back.”
“If you talk like that, you will be. Come on, let’s go.” My mom led me into the car.
Soon, I arrived at the gym. The treadmill seemed to scream at me from the corner, but I could not put pressure on my foot yet, so I headed straight for the elliptical. Wanting to get the workout over with, I turned on the television and started moving. After two minutes of this, I was breathing so hard that the people next to me were starting to stare. Not even controlling my frustration, I grabbed my keys and stormed out the door, not even caring that it had slammed behind me. I pulled out my phone and dialed my mom’s number to ask her to come pick me up.
“Mom, I cannot run. I will never be able to do this. I am not doing cross country.” I hung up the phone before she could reply and sat down hard on the pavement.
Two agonizing months later, the feeling that ran through my entire body as I crossed the finish line during the first cross country meet of the season was a strong surge of disappointment. The crowd that normally gathered at the final stretch to cheer on the other runners and I was nowhere in sight.
“Good job, keep moving through the chute!” said one of the volunteers.
I started to feel nauseous after pushing myself so hard during the race. I made my way back to the team tent, seeing my teammates congratulating each other on their top-ten finishes. I felt the tears sting my cheeks. I felt like I did not belong on the team. My self-esteem had gone from high to the lowest that it could be in twenty minutes.
“Great job!” I congratulated one of my teammates, knowing that I could not tear down other people because of my sourness.
“Thanks! You did great too! Keep on working hard. At least you can run again!”
Her kindness confused me. I never thought that anyone cared about me on the team, because I was so slow. As I walked away, I stared at my feet, and this time, the black color of my sneakers stood out as a symbol of boldness and determination.
Before I knew it, the next cross country meet had arrived. As I stood at the start line, my mind was a roller coaster of nervous thoughts. But before I knew it, I heard the sound of the gun rip through the air, and I was off. I saw a big pack of people in front of me, but I did not care. I knew that it was only another race against myself.
As I powered up a hill, I thought about all the times that I had put myself down that summer. It had only been four months, but I had allowed my self-esteem to go down more than it ever had in the fifteen years that I had been alive. If I had not put myself down so much, I might have been at the fastest of my abilities already, even this early in the season. As I crossed the finish line, I glanced at the clock, and it was a full minute ahead of what I had run at the last meet. Maybe, the sea urchin stings were my awakening, and in a way, it was good for me to get stung.