I walk on the pool deck, the wet stickiness of the tiles pressing into my bare feet. The heat presses in on me, burning my cheeks as I line up to receive my time card. The monster of anticipation still rises, clawing at my insides, threatening to explode from my mouth the second I let it get the best of me. The air is hot and thick, clumps of half naked, bathing suit clad teenagers spread across the pool deck like weeds growing on a summer lawn. They are out of place from the normal city pool atmosphere, yet so naturally at home; it is as if they belong there.
I stand, track pants rolled low to expose my hips, bathing cap tucked under the seam, pressing into the crevice of skin where the spandex material meets my legs. A sweaty shoulder brushes against me and I shuffle forward in line to avoid being bumped again. I’m standing in a crowd of easily 20 women and from behind, you would never know the difference between us. Our sport has moulded our bodies to be as dynamic as possible, cutting through the water like the blades of a knife. Our shoulders are broad, our waists small. Each of us has our hair piled high above our heads and many, are chewing on the straps of the goggles as we wait impatiently for the race to begin. As waves lap aggressively against the edge of the tiled pool, we begin to pull on our plastic bathing caps. There is an unannounced pattern, a timing that you feel in the heat of the race before you, a sign that it is time to prepare. The caps form to our heads, each elastic, clip, every strand of hair held beneath them, tightly matted to the scalp, controlled, contained. The smell of plastic is strong and the cap digs into my forehead. It is the sign of the competitive swimmer, the mark left by this cap; a red indented line, stark against the whiteness of your skin. A billboard directly on your forehead reminding you that regardless of your being out of the pool, your race will still be with you. If I do well, I’ll look into the mirror and won’t give this line a second thought. If not, I know it will irritate me for the rest of the long day ahead.
We shuffle along, carrying our little pink cards. The smoothness of the paper mixed with the powder residue left on my hands from bathing cap makes it hard to hold on to, but I somehow manage. There is a thundering cheer from the crowd. 5 different teams cheering on 8 different people and suddenly it is silent. I shuffle forward again, taking a seat on the bench, waiting to stand behind the block once the next race is underway. I hand the pink card to the official behind my lane. She reads it quietly, Lane: 5 Event: 200m Butterfly. I’m in the right place.
I begin stretching my arms and legs, shaking out the muscles more as an act of anxiety rather than necessity to be loose. 7 years. I have spent 7 years on this sport. 7 years of 5:00 am practices, 7 years of Saturday mornings in the pool. 7 years of dedication to the sport that keeps me training nearly 35 hours a week. 7 years of striving for perfection, wrinkly fingers, dry skin, and blisters along my collar bone from the persistent rubbing of my bathing suit strap.
I stretch behind my lane. The roar of the crowd flares up around me as the race continues. Team mates are out of their seats. Timers and officials, dressed in sterile white, are looming over the edge of the pool, their eyes pinned to their stop watches, to the time clock, waiting; waiting for the swimmers to near the end of their race, to slam against that wall and win.
Their hands slam against the wall, one after another, and I reach to my left shoulder, unwinding my goggles from their place on my strap. The rough plastic scrapes my collar bone and I can feel the straps of my bathing suit pulling from the centre of my back up to my shoulders as I untangle the plastic cord. A swimmer, soaking wet and red faced, pulls himself out the pool, slaps me on the back with a wet hand and walks away. I place my goggles on my head. I pull them down and lick the inside of the eye piece, even though I know they’ll fog up anyway.
A shrill whistle pierces the air. My heart skips and I step behind the block. I shake my legs and arms like a child pretending I’m a piece of spaghetti. This is what I do. This is who I am. This is all there is; just me, and the water and this race. My mind goes blank as I pull my goggles to my eyes and firmly press the plastic rims against the socket. There is a foggy silence over the noise of the pool, my heart throbs in my ears. The second whistle sounds, loud and shrill in the silence of the awaiting race. I begin to climb up the block. The rough cement presses into my feet and I position myself; left toes on the edge, right leg curled beneath me. I grip the diving block hard and inhale the comforting scent of chlorine below.
Three beeps followed by a blinding flash.
The call is made.
I pull back hard; I am a jockey at the gate. Every muscle in my body straining to be released. In an instant I throw my weight forward, point my toes, straighten my legs, and throw my chin against my chest. I soar through my dive, cutting through the screaming of the audience and within a second, that small fraction of time, I hear nothing.
There is a thundering crash, my ears pummelled, my nose fills and I am assaulted by the water as I'm engulfed by its frigid waves. My arms remain tight above my head, squeezing my ears and instantly, I begin to fall into the groove of my favourite stroke. My hips delicately bob through the water and my legs obligingly follow. My broad shoulders, for once, are not hideous; they are not too large to fit into a sweater, not awkward or unflattering. They are my driving force and they beat through the water, churning against its resistance, catching it at the exact moment and pumping back under me to catapult me forward. I feel good. My stroke is smooth, my movement fluid. I am a powerhouse.
I pump forward; my head breaking the surface and sucking in air every second stroke. My lungs feel as if they may burst. A flash of red catches my eye. Another foot, another human, another swimmer. I am not alone. I am not in front. The red bathing suit is just out of reach. The swimmer’s feet are even with my fingers, are a stroke or two away. With one thought in my mind and one alone, I clamp my teeth and force my body to its limits. I thrust my hips forward, tightening my thighs and straining my arms. My legs burn, my arms burn, my lungs burn. My hips now move two times for every one before and my arms churn though the water as if my life depends on it. I come even with the swimmer’s hips. The wall is just ahead of me. Five more strokes and I'll be there.
I make a choice. I suck in as much air as I can without breaking my stride and throw my whole upper body into my stroke. Without raising my head, I focus on the wall and plunge forward as hard as I can. Three strokes, my biceps scream in resistance. Two stroke, my toes begin to cross as they cramp. One stroke, the lack of air causes my eyes to bulge, pushes behind their sockets, screaming for me to stop. I hit the wall with all the effort I have, slamming the blue tiles as if I can shatter them and escape the pain. I surface, gasp for air, and collapse on the lane rope. Exhausted, I lift my head and in front of me, in an eight lane pool, I see six swimmers; pulling with all their might towards the finish. I feel the pull of the water against my body and the slap of two hands resonates on a tiled surface. I feel the lane rope beneath me fall suddenly deeper into the water and I turn, startled by the change in my buoyancy, yet not bothering to keep my body afloat. It is the swimmer, the one in the red bathing suit. The one who was, at last glance, in front of me.
“Congratulations,” she says, “you won.”