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A Swimmer at Heart
If I had to choose between going to an amusement park or a water park, I would choose the water park. I was this way growing up. Roller coasters are fun, rides are fun, but nothing can beat the feel of water.
I’ve always been attracted to swimming pools. When I rode in the car with my mom, I would notice them out of the corner of my eye. First I would see the blue, then I would look, then I would see the shape, the people, and the fun that filled it. I would instantly want to be there, maybe feel a bit envious for the people who already were. Then my imagination would picture me jumping into a pool, going down a water slide, playing Marco Polo, and lastly and best of all, swimming really, really fast.
When the athletic center in my town was built, I wanted to join the swim team. I even brought up the website for my mom to look at. I was about ten years old. I could swim the basic strokes, but that was it. My mom looked through the team sight and told me it was not possible. The cost of the team was over two hundred dollars a month plus meet fees, then there was driving me to practice every day. She could not handle that and my then seven siblings.
I wanted to be on a team, but I did not realize how badly. I played the violin. That was my thing. I was in an orchestra. That was my team. But inside of me was a pile of green brush just waiting to be lit, and no violin was going to light it.
I never thought much more about being on a swim team until I was sixteen years old. My mom actually got me into it. She decided that she and I needed exercise. I was her biggest child, overweight by about thirty pounds. When I received that little green membership card for my sixteenth birthday, my life began to change. A spark was lit.
Each day we went to the pool for an hour. I enjoyed it, paddling up and down the lane. I was slow and decided I needed some help. I felt like I was doing something wrong with my strokes. I signed up for swim lessons. My instructor helped me a ton. She ended up getting me a job at my pool as a lifeguard.
Becoming a lifeguard really added to the fire than was beginning to burn in me. It was through Jeff Ellis Management which is one of the top lifeguard companies in the world. I learned a lot about myself; how much I cared for life, how valuable my life was, and how to work hard for something I wanted.
I started swimming before and after shifts; every chance I could get. Sometimes when I worked or swam in the evenings, I saw the swim team practice, the same one I wanted to be on six years earlier. I looked at them and how good they were, how smooth they were, how powerful they were. They seemed so big. It was like I was looking into a different world that had creatures that possessed superhuman powers. If I could only swim like them.
I looked at myself in the locker room mirror. There I was in a full piece swim suit, silicone cap a friend was letting me barrow, Nike goggles. I looked at my hands, my legs, my feet, back at myself again. I wanted to be on that swim team. The first step was to love the pool. I had that. I wanted that team so bad it hurt.
A year and a half went by. I still was not on the team. My mom still did not want to drive me to practices, though I could afford the team fees. I took private lessons from a swim coach, paying him $30 an hour. He was fantastic. He showed me everything I needed to know to improve my stroke. I watched him, every move he made. Everything he said to change, I changed it. He said move a finger, I moved it. In a few months, I had almost perfected my technique, mastered flip turns and starts, and picked up my speed. The only thing that still suffered was my endurance.
I remember my instructor talking to a lady friend of mine who also swam at the pool. He was talking about me. He told her that my mind was so connected with my body. I was able to think about everything I was doing which made me progress rapidly. His words fueled my fire.
In Fall of 2013, I tried out for the swim team and was rejected. I could not swim the sets in the times given. When I received the email that I had not been accepted, I put my head down and cried. I did not feel like my work went to waste. I was angry because the coaches could not recognize my hard work.
I ran into the coach later, the one who had watched me at tryouts. I confronted her and asked her why I was turned down. She tried to explain. She looked at the big picture; I had not been swimming my whole life, the other kids had. I could not complete sets in the given times, the other kids could. I was slow, the other kids were fast. What she did not understand was that in my situation, you could not look at the big picture, you had to look at the details.
I looked at myself in the mirror again. I was wearing a metallic tiger print racing suit with a black cap that had flames. In my reflection, I saw Martina, an overweight girl who would never be a good swimmer. I changed mind sets and looked again. I was a swimmer and no one could tell me otherwise. I was fire and there was no way anyone was going to put me out.
In the meantime, my grandpa in Oregon got cancer. My family was going to go out to visit him. My mom suggested the idea to me that I just stay in Oregon. I was almost eighteen. We did not end up going on the trip, but my mom urged me to go myself. I had several thousand dollars saved in the bank and access to public transportation. I could easily get a new lifeguard job in Oregon with the same company. I could live with my grandparents. There was nothing in my way except my decision.
Meanwhile, I contacted a YMCA that was about half an hour from my house. The coach there told me that I could be on the team. There was one problem; I still did not have a way of getting to practices. I tried really hard. I even got my brother to take me to my first practice.
One day there was a huge mix up (I wont get into too much detail) and I was getting stressed out. I was screwing everyone’s schedule up trying to be on that swim team at the Y. My brother finally just said, “Martina, why are you still here? You have a whole new life waiting in Oregon! Everything! Why are you not taking it? Get out of here! You can get away from Dad and all the stress in our house. Go give yourself a life that is yours!”
When I got home, I went straight to my computer and bought myself an Amtrak ticket to Portland, Oregon. I also searched swim teams in Oregon. And I found out there was one at the pool right down the street from my grandparents. I emailed the coach and gave him a brief description of my swimming abilities, and he said yes, he would love to have me in his team. I joined the team the day after I arrived in Oregon. I finally had a swim team.
The first few weeks of practice were hard and grueling. I had never swam so much and so hard in my life. This was the reality of a swim team. Now I had to work as hard as the time I spent imagining being part of a team. I had to use fins to keep up, swim with middle-schoolers, and be in the back of the line for the send offs.
In my first meet, I swam the fifty yard freestyle, hundred free, and hundred yard breaststroke. My hundred free time was a minute and forty-four seconds. I remember that moment when I climbed on that block for the first official race in my life. I was seventeen and I had ten year olds next to me. But it was magical, jumping into that water, giving everything I had. It was me and that water. I shut out the whole world. This was the moment I dreamed about so many times.
I have been on the team now for four months. A friend told me if I joined a team, I might start questioning my love for swimming. Not once have I questioned my love for swimming. I love every second of it. I take everything on as a new challenge to become better. I have progressed immensely. I can keep up with the kids in my lane. Not to mention I have made some wonderful friends.
Coach George has a huge part with what I have done so far. He is dedicated. He values every one of his swimmers and pays just as much attention to people like me as he does to his state qualifiers. He believes in me and my ability to swim more than anyone else ever has. What I love about him the most is that not for one second has he ever doubted me. He knows I can do it just as well as I can. He is the best coach I could ever ask for. I realize now why God made me wait so long to find a team. It is because he knew that no other coach would be able to work with me and understand me like George does. If I did not have such an incredible coach, it might have impacted my swimming in a bad way, both mentally and physically. George looks at the big picture too, but he sees the details.
When I am breathing hard, I can feel my tonsils, swimming lap after lap, sprinting, kicking, pulling, I love it. I encourage myself. I push myself. I keep a positive mind set. This was everything I had worked up to and there was nothing that would drag me down now.
Sometimes my lungs are sore and my arms ache. It goes on for days, but I keep going to practice. Coach George tells me it’s my body getting into shape. It is a good pain; the pain of success. Every time I swim, it fuels my fire. I am a forest fire engulfing everything that ever held me back. I am fire.
I have come in four months as far as it takes other kids years to come. Coach George told me that if I keep progressing at that rate, next year I will qualify or state. The other day, he handed caps and shirts out to the kids going to state this year. I want to be there so bad, and next year I will.
I think that inside, I have always been a swimmer at heart, just waiting to burst. I am late, but that does not take away my power to become something amazing. I am fire.