Stroke, Kick, and Breathe This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

     Warm, humid air fills the room. Laughter, shouting, and someone’s boom box playing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” block out other sounds. The air tastes and smells of chlorine. Reflected light dances on the walls and ceiling. The tension in the air could dull a knife.

Nausea. I can feel a light lunch of celery and peanut butter churning in my stomach. It’s only your nerves. I look around, trying to distract myself. Trying to think of anything but what’s ahead, not that thinking about how many people are watching is a help.

Spectators fill the stands. They are separated into blocks of color: blue and orange, purple and white, green and yellow, and most comforting, gold and black. I see my mom wave from the crowd. I give her a nervous smile and then look down. The water is glassy and perfectly clear. I quickly look away so it doesn’t remind me of what’s to come. Twenty-five meters away, directly across from me, are my teammates, my friends. They are laughing and yelling encouraging comments at me, mocking my competitors. I wish they wouldn’t. It doesn’t help. My coach grins and gives me a thumbs-up. After I wave he turns to quiet the others. The race is about to start.

Total silence falls, scaring me a little. I look down at my feet; my toenails are painted purple. My hands seem to shake of their own accord. I take a last look at my competition and then I’m jerked back to reality.

“Ladies, you may step up,” the official says through his microphone. I take a deep breath and step onto the block. You’re okay, you’re okay, you’re okay, I tell myself, but I’m not convinced. “Take your mark,” says the booming voice.

Shakily, I take another deep breath and bend down to grasp the edge. I will my muscles not to tense, to stay loose.

Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move, don’t want to get disqualified, don’t get DQed, don’t ...

An eternity of seconds pass, and then a flash of light. Muscles tense. Warm air rushes past. Cold water touches fingertips, arms, head, stomach, legs, toes. Enveloping. Comforting. Familiar. No sound reaches me. I can’t hear, or smell, or taste. I feel the bite of my new goggles around my eyes. I see the geometric pattern of the pool bottom. Strangely, both are soothing.

The water is cool and relaxing. It washes the tension from my body. Was I nervous? I can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except now. The race. Twenty laps. Five hundred meters. A song is stuck in my head. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t really care, but I’m grateful for it. It’s a good speed. Its speed is my speed.

A distant thought skims my consciousness, like a leaf settling on the water’s surface: I pushed off before the horn sounded. That was fast. I don’t understand it, don’t know what it means. What I do understand, what I do know, is rhythm. Stroke, kick, and breathe. The song, my pacer, plays in my head. I see the wall. I flip and swim the other way. One lap down, 19 to go. Stroke, kick, and breathe.

It’s the same, over and over again. I love it. Over and over, I take my strokes, kick to keep myself horizontal, breathe every three strokes, make my flip turn, and count down the laps. Fifteen. Ten. Seven. Five.

Four laps left, one hundred meters, pick it up, girl, finish strong, you can do this. Stroke, kick, and breathe. Three laps, seventy-five meters. Faster!

My vision blurs and my muscles burn with the effort to swim those last laps as fast as I can. It’s not good enough. I need to go faster, I tell myself over and over, but I’m not quite as fast as I need to be. I see my neighbor pull ahead and want to cry. Maybe I am crying, but underwater I can’t tell. I have one lap left. I know there’s no way to regain my place. I know she’ll be at least one body length ahead. I know I need to give it my all despite that.

My fingers reach out to take one last painful stroke, but touch the wall instead. I’m finished. Relief floods my body. I look up to see my teammates’ smiling faces, telling me how great I did, telling me this was my best race yet. My coach waves to get my attention and then points at the time board, grinning.

7:04. I stare at the time in disbelief, thinking there must be a mistake. If that’s right, that means I dropped 13 seconds. I probably would have stared at that clock forever with my mouth hanging open if not for my companions. They laugh at my disbelieving face and grab my arms to pull me out. As the last of the water rolls away from my skin, I feel a pang of regret. I love the water. I miss it when I’m not there, but that regret doesn’t last. Swim practice happens again tomorrow.

As I look up at the clock again, I feel content. I may not have beaten everyone in my heat, and I definitely didn’t beat everyone in my race, but I improved. That’s all I could ask for.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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This article has 3 comments. Post your own now!

AnInkling said...
Sept. 18, 2013 at 12:13 pm
I swim myself, and I found this article completely relatable. I especially loved the parts which talked about the comfort and familiarity of the water. You captured this swimmer in your piece!
Molly F. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
May 1, 2009 at 9:26 pm
I totally feel the same way. I don't think I have gone to a meet without geting nervous. I am so happy to know someone else is just like me:)
Fashionista said...
Aug. 7, 2008 at 9:43 pm
i loved this story. it's truly inspirational and detailed. for the past couple days i've been thinking about trying out for the swim team at my new school. even though i can't swim, i still want to try out. and this story has motivated me even more, thanks.
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