Dear Michael Phelps,
This isn’t a fan letter, so don’t go getting any ideas. I’m a little too old for that. It isn’t a letter resulting from a schoolgirl crush either, although I will admit that I have a grown up appreciation for your goofy ears and puppy dog eyes and probably wouldn’t kick those sinewy legs and torso out of bed for eating crackers.
But I digress.
This is, quite simply, a thank you letter. I was raised the right way and know to send a thank you in return for something I’ve been given; and you, my aquatic friend, have given me something. Maybe you’ve given it to many more than just me, but I really see its value and just wanted to say thanks. Thanks for getting me back in the water.
My triathlon was over just a week before the Olympics began, and in the same tradition as my triathlon last year, the end of the race seemingly marked the annual hanging-up of my cap and goggles until training begins again next summer. I’ll still ride my bike and go for a run on a fairly regular basis, but the swimming always seems like too much of a pain.
Then came 08-08-08 and along with it the buzz that surrounded your attempt at a record-breaking eight gold medals. The spotlight was all over you, and swimming was suddenly cool again. What was the coolest about it for me, though, wasn’t necessarily the racing or the world records or the amazing hundredth-of-a-second finishes. For me it was all about watching you before and after the races. Sitting at the end of the lane, crouching against buoyancy with shimmering turquoise lapping at your neck, hanging over the lane-lines to talk to your buddies. You belong in that water. I used to, too.
Being raised in a single-parent household meant that my sister and I were also partially raised by the Village Seven Swim Club. My mom was a nurse who worked nights and needed to sleep during the day. During the school year this was the perfect schedule, however, when summer vacation rolled around, my mom had to get creative. The pool was within walking distance of our house, open from 6am to 8pm, and had lifeguards on duty at all times. For fifty dollars a month, she could send my sister and I down the street and know that we were happy and taken care of all day.
We donned brightly colored bathing suits, Courtney taking pride in the fact that hers was one of the few pieces of her wardrobe that wasn’t handed down from me. This was because a suit would never last us more than one summer after being worn every single day subjected to the chlorinated chemical warfare, our little butts barely covered by the threadbare material that scraped across the cement each time we lifted ourselves out of the pool. We looked like alien children with our green hair and chocolate skin and sturdy quadriceps muscles. We thought we owned that pool.
I was on the Village Seven club team for the first time the summer between the fourth and fifth grades. I was a backstroker from the start, a five-foot-six nine-year old built like a toothpick wearing a backpack. I was an average swimmer relative to my team.
I made the high school team, too, but was still average. 100 meter backstroke, 200 meter backstroke, the team’s only backstroker, but still just average in the grand scheme of high school sports. There would never be any state titles, never any Olympic dreams, and never anything to write home about. Once high school was over, I basically forgot about swimming.
I signed up for a triathlon last year as a goal to help me rehab my knee. Later in the training than planned, I went to the pool at 24Hour Fitness and jumped into the water for the first time in over ten years, just to make sure I could still swim. Mike got in too, although he had never spent much time swimming.
Weightless in the water, I suddenly felt at home again. Not chubby, not injured, just at home. I stroked out three quick laps then stood to look for Mike. I squinted though my goggles to see him hanging on to the edge of the lane at the other end huffing and puffing. I glided 25 meters underwater and came up for air right in front of him. The man who has beat me handily at every single sport, who leaves me in the dust on every mountain trail and ski slope, the man who has climbed Kilimanjaro and played soccer for 25 years asked me “How in the hell can you do that?” I grinned at him. Later during that same workout, an elderly woman doing water aerobics in the corner of the pool asked me in a thick Eastern European accent if I had been a “stet chomp-ee-yun”. I laughed and thought of my mediocre high school career. Had I actually gotten better in all of these years of swimming apathy? I strutted into the locker room with my head held high, but then I practiced for a few weeks, competed in my triathlon, and for some reason forgot about swimming again.
Keep listening, Michael Phelps; we’ll get back to you here in a second.
A few weeks ago, I had drinks with an old high school friend whom I had randomly found on Facebook. She was a standout on our high school swim team, and during the course of our feverish catch-up conversation I asked her if she was still swimming at all. She said no, and it shocked me in a way. But then she went on to talk about how it ruined her hair, and was so time-consuming what with the multiple showers and wet towels and musty locker room showers. I totally related, knowing that part of swimming sucks.
A few days later, I raced in this year’s triathlon while suffering from a chest-cold and sadly added almost four minutes to my time from last year. I raced, vowed to get ‘em next year, then hung up my cap and goggles, leaving those musty locker rooms behind for awhile.
Then I saw you. Crouching in the end of the lane, eyes upturned towards the scoreboard, waiting on the results of your first semi-final with chlorine-laced water flowing freely into your open mouth. You were almost breathing it in. Like a fish.
I could taste that water. I could suddenly remember the way it felt to be at home in the water. Not even just the way it had felt last year in my tiny moment of fame with the old ladies at the gym. You made me remember the glory days of swimming. For some reason watching you made me think of those late summer afternoons at the VSSC. I could remember my red, burning eyes, and my squeaky brown skin. I could smell the hot pavement mixed with chlorine, taste the melty PB and Js that my mom packed for lunch. I could even remember the swell of responsibility I felt in being in charge of my sister everyday, always making sure to keep an eye on her in the pool. I haven’t thought about those days in years.
I don’t know what it was about your focused, calculated journey to victory that made me think about my lackadaisical, childhood dog-days at the pool. I think I just saw something in your eyes that said “this is still fun.” Whatever it was, I came home from work yesterday and decided to go for a swim.
I packed my bag. With towel and shampoo, and ultra-moisturizing conditioner. And comb, and lotion, and underwear and shower-flops. I pulled my cap and goggles down from their proverbial hang-up all the while praying that my (completely unnatural) blonde hair wouldn’t turn green. I got to the pool, jumped in, and powered through a few laps then stopped for a drink of water from my bottle at the end of the lane. The guy in the lane next to me had been swimming slow physical-therapy drills with a kickboard when he stopped and looked over at me. “Were you some kind of state champion or something?” he asked. I just laughed and told him “Let’s just say I’m no Michael Phelps”
I think I’ll go back tomorrow. So thanks.
Photo courtesy of LA Times