We were on the starting blocks.
“Swimmers, take your marks.”
Each assumes the position, poised for the signal.
AAAAAAAAAA. Rather than a starter’s gun, the signal is an electronic buzz through speakers. It echoes in the high-ceilinged pool venue.
The swimmers uncoil, fly horizontally for a moment, and angle into the water with momentum pointed toward the other end of the pool.
As soon as the momentum wanes, with arms forward, legs moving together with a rhythmic dolphin kick, I initiate the first arm movement of the butterfly stroke, raising out of the water. The race is on.
In the individual medley (IM) event, all four competitive swimming strokes are employed, in the following order: butterfly, back stroke, breast stroke, and freestyle. This was a 200 meter IM in a 25 meter pool, so participants swim 50 meters, i.e., two lengths of the pool, of each stroke. If it was on a track, the distance is about half-way around a football field. I don’t even like to run that far, but at least when running one can breathe with more freedom than fitting it into the rhythm of various stroke techniques.
This was not my first swim meet. In my younger years, I had competed in many events, in many meets, over many years. However, I had not been in a race since college, over thirty years ago. This meet was part of the Senior Games. I had entered several events, hoping to qualify for the national championships in at least one. If an athlete finishes first, second, or third in one’s state’s Senior Games, he or she qualifies for the nationals.
So, one of my events was the 200 I.M. After swimming the butterfly for the first 50 meters, I wanted to quit. This was not fun. But I knew I couldn’t quit. I do not recall ever seeing someone stop swimming in an actual race. If I was just practicing on my own, however, I would have stopped to catch my breath.
To my surprise, when I pushed off the wall to begin back stroke, I saw that I was ahead. Swimmers in the other lanes were still doing butterfly. I kept going. Backwards.
A swimmer in the next lane passed me during the second half of back stroke. That was not a surprise. I knew that breast stroke was next, which is my best event. “Maybe I can catch up during breaststroke,” I thought. The competitive juices were still flowing.
So I really pushed myself during breaststroke. Out of habit. Out of pride. I really pushed. I did not regain the lead until after the turn into the sixth lap of the race. There was a price. I was running out of gas and had no pit crew.
There were still two more lengths of the pool to go, this time swimming freestyle. My arms and legs were burning with that ache of exhaustion. While feeling that temptation to quit, or at least slow down, while timing my breathing when I longed to just breathe whenever I wanted, I thought of my father.
It was almost like a religious vision. It was almost a prayer to him for strength, like native Americans praying to ancestors. It was a desire to not disappoint Dad, who was not at this meet as he usually had been when I was young.
He had passed away a few years before this race. An athlete himself, and a WWII veteran, he had exemplified The Greatest Generation. In his seventies, he could beat high school tennis players up until he suffered a stroke that took away his ability to speak. Paralyzed on one side, he dutifully performed the prescribed rehabilitation exercises. If they said to do something ten times, he would do it one hundred. He was motivated to get better. He would never give up. Ever. One of the occupational therapists told me, “They don’t make guys like that anymore.” I told that story at his funeral.
Remembering Dad during my temporary pain amidst the bubbles and splashes inspired me to go as hard as I could until the end of the race. My race only took a few minutes. Dad went as hard as he could to the end of a much longer race. I am grateful to have him with me in my challenges.
Oh, I finished the I.M. event full speed ahead, just like my father taught me.
I went to the National Championships, where I competed in six events. I believe Dad was proud. I would gladly give him all my medals.