True Winter

April 28, 2010
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It was cold. I cursed the fact that I was armed for the weather with merely a breezy swimsuit, cap, and goggles. The millions of goose bumps populating each and every inch of my skin were crystal clear testimonies of the weather, and as I tried to take in deep breaths of wintery air to calm my heightened nerves, shaky wisps of fog drifted from my purple lips with every exhale. In a futile attempt to find solace in any shred of warmth, I furtively rubbed my hands over my shivering bumpy arms. Coach Sue hollered for us to step up onto the starting blocks, and my wobbly legs carried me up the slippery steps in what seemed to be a dream-like daze. With one leg positioned before the other, I balanced myself precariously on the white slanted starting blocks and gazed out over the eerily tranquil surface of the JCC pool waters through the foggy lens of my goggles, waiting for the sound of Sue’s shrill voice commanding us swimmers to get into starting position. It came, as faithful as it was, and in a routine-like trance, I gingerly bent over to reach for the edge of the starting block with pasty blue, trembling fingers. As I stared down over my fingers and toes grasping the edge of the starting block, all I could see were the hardly noticeable ripples on the surface of the water, and all I could smell was the scent of chlorine wafting aimlessly around the pool, permeated by the rank stench of my own fear: fear of the water, fear of the adrenaline, fear of what the next few hours could bring. In a random moment of sudden paranoia, I straightened up to tighten my goggle straps and pull my latex cap down snugly over my ears; the last thing I needed today was to start off practice with my cap and goggles drifting to the pool floor.

It took an eternity for Sue to find her whistle and jab it into her mouth, but as soon as the shriek of her whistle cut through the air, we were off. Before I could fully assess the signal, my body had reflexively launched itself off the blocks. Seven years on the team had given my body a mind of its own. There was that paranormal moment where it seemed that I was drifting through the air at snail’s pace, hand in hand with my reflection in the water, followed by the deafening splash as we all simultaneously broke through the water’s surface. It was a shocking plunge that knocked the air clean out of my lungs, but there was no time to simply float and recuperate. Before my feet had even fully submerged beneath the water, I had started dolphin kicking, straining for the surface once more for the first stroke of freestyle. I had the warm up set ingrained in my mind: 50 meters freestyle, 25 meters butterfly, 75 meters freestyle, 50 meters backstroke, 100 meters freestyle…etc. But while my body immediately switched to autopilot mode and simply went through the motions, my mind was detached and meandering through a wilderness of stress miles away. It was the middle of December, and in two months there would be first semester finals. Piano competitions, tests, and theory tests were just around the corner, and I had virtually no time to prepare for them. Despite the many times I’d plainly laid out my busy schedule to my piano teacher, she continued to remain critical of my shirking of the daily hours of practice that should be devoted to the abominable instrument. The same could be said for my French horn teacher, who was recently beginning to turn a cold shoulder towards me because of the gaping moratorium in my horn studies. My Chinese school final was the following Sunday, and I had a book project on “The Lord of the Flies” due in a matter of days after that. My bedtimes were slowly inching their way further into the black of night, verging on an ungodly hour in the morning. And for some unfathomable reason, my parents were engaging themselves in an increasing number of fights between themselves, my brother, and me. They were solely convinced that the every one of my pleas to skip swim practice for the sake of finishing my homework before midnight was an excuse to be the lazy, couch-potatoing girl they only knew me for. Each day, I was forced back to the pool with angry threats of spankings. And on top of it all, it was eternally and ubiquitously cold. The water was cold. The world was too.

By the next day, I’d sent a distressed email to Sue, explaining my stressful predicament and tearfully stating that I was quitting the team. In my heart, I knew that I was chicken for quitting over an email riddled with what my parents would have considered to be trivial excuses, and by the time I had received a reply, my imagination had convinced me that Sue would come barging into my house brandishing her whistle, ready to drag me back to the starting block. Surprisingly enough, her reply was more of an expression of reassurance than one of disappointment, ending with a dynamic “No one can make you swim without your consent.” That sounded oddly familiar to Eleanor Roosevelt’s timeless adage: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Years later, I still find myself questioning whether quitting the team was truly the wisest choice to make. Perhaps I should have held on just for a little longer; summer may have brought with it new reliefs. Undeniably, the notion that quitting is brash and naïve has been drilled repeatedly into our heads. Yet I cannot help but wonder whether in this case, quitting was the one thing I needed to save myself from whatever disaster I may have encountered had I chosen not to quit. I suppose I’ll never know. But what I do know is that since then, I have learned to tighten my grip on whatever it is I know to be truly valuable, maybe as an insatiable need to make up for whatever I could have gained then. I have gained a more urgent drive to never quit, to never let go, and to keep holding on, because I realize now that summer will never fail to come around.

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