Back in the day, before both my shoulders had to be rebuilt, I was a swimmer. I spent all my waking hours spent looking forward to being back in the water. I swam competitively. I swam for fun. I swam because it made me feel safe, and strong, and confident. I swam because that was where I felt most in control of my life.
Through some of the tougher parts of being a budding adolescent queer person who had never heard a single positive thing about queer people, I swam because of my desperate need to feel powerful, graceful, and buoyant. Maybe it sounds overblown, but there were many times as a teenager when I felt I was swimming simply to stay alive. On land, I often felt as if I were drowning. In the water, I frequently hallucinated about being able to breathe under water. I’d swim an entire set, 40 laps or more, without ever remembering the need to breathe, without remembering breathing at all.
I began swimming competitively at age nine. Somewhere in a shoebox, I have the first award I won: a small white, third-place ribbon that shows that I thrashed my way through the 100 yard freestyle in just under two minutes. I came in third because there were only three swimmers in the four-lane pool.
Through years of practice, I got better. I got faster. I learned about the endorphin high, how if you push muscles into territory they’ve never covered before, the initial agony of the unfamiliar gives way to something exquisite and ecstatic. I learned how to envision success, to swim a race in my head, before I even got to the pool.
I remember preparing for a big swim meet as a teenager. My coach spent hours working with me on my breast stroke start and turns. He kept shouting, “Races are won on the turns!” On a breast stroke start and turn, you’re allowed to stay under water and perform one stroke with your arms and one kick with your legs before your head breaks the surface. Any more than that and you risk disqualification. Any less than that and you waste your biggest opportunity to glide under the water, which is faster and more efficient than swimming.
Coach put cones along the side of the pool to show me where my head was breaking the water after my one stroke and kick off the turn. He kept challenging me to increase the distance. He kept shouting, “Races are won on the turns, Joy! ON THE TURNS!!” We worked and worked, and I pushed the cone out farther and farther.
The day of the big meet arrived, and I was entered in the 400 Individual Medley (also known as the IM), my favorite event because it includes all the strokes. My biggest rival, a girl named Bonnie, was also in the event. She usually got the best of me in the IM because she was better at butterfly and back stroke. I was a better breast stroker, and we were about even on the freestyle.
My coach was convinced that even if I was behind Bonnie once we got to the breast stroke, I could pull ahead of her on the turns. The person who is leading at the end of the breast stroke has a huge advantage, because that person is swimming freestyle — the fastest stroke — while everyone else is swimming breast stroke — the slowest stroke. He added, “On your breast stroke turns, when you blow by her under water, you will break her.”
The day of the meet came. I spent the whole day in a kind of trance, swimming the race over and over in my head, randomly leaning forward in my chair as I envisioned pushing off the wall. To this day, I still lean forward when I watch people make their turns at swim meets.
When the gun went off, Bonnie went out to a slight lead in the butterfly. I lost a little more ground in the four laps of backstroke. When we started the breast stroke, I was about two body lengths behind her. With each lap, I closed the gap, especially at the turns. I began feeling like I was reeling her in like a fish on a line.
We were even going into the last breast stroke turn. As we hit the wall together, I remember vividly the sound of the screaming crowd being reduced to a hum as my head went under the water. I remember thinking, “Explode!” as I pushed off the wall. I glided. My hands felt as big as toilet seats as I grabbed the water and shoved it toward my feet with my arm stroke, and glided some more. I blew by her. I took my kick, feeling like I had flippers on my feet. I completely eclipsed Bonnie. When my head broke the water, the noise of the crowd was deafening. My coach whistled loud, piercing bursts. The effect, as my head bobbed up and down in the water, was very much like the sound of a heartbeat: roar, whoosh, roar, whoosh, roar, whoosh.
As I turned into the freestyle lap, I peeked over at Bonnie, finishing her breast stroke laps. It was just like Coach predicted: I had broken her. I won a gold medal, which felt like an Olympic medal to me. Bonnie and I both swam personal bests for that event. She was gracious and classy, even remarking on how she had lost the race on the breast stroke turns.
Earlier this week, PW walked me through a confidence-building exercise she learned recently. It involved thinking of a time in my life where I felt a sense of unbridled confidence, and to give that time a sound and a color. This story I’ve just told you was what I envisioned. But the sound I remembered wasn’t the roar of the crowd, and the color I remembered wasn’t the gold of the medal.
The color I remembered is of water is in a swimming pool when it’s rushing by my face — that bubbly whitish bluish greenish color. The sound I remembered is the swirly muffled music of water giving way to a body — to hands, feet, head, arms, legs.
It’s not that I haven’t ever felt unbridled confidence since I was 15. There have been quite a few times in my life where I felt I could do no wrong. What makes this particular story so potent for me is the clarity and power of the sensory memory of it.
I’m not one who thinks of life as a race that I’m running, or swimming. But I do think that the transitional places in life are like the turns of a swimming race. I’ve had turns where I came too close to the wall, and clipped my heels on the concrete. I’ve had turns where I flipped too far from the wall, and lost all my momentum. I’ve had turns where I cracked my head against the wall because I wasn’t paying attention.
Throughout this transition I’m navigating now, I feel like I’ve done all of the above. And yet, at some level, deep below the surface, a swirl of bubbles whispers, “Pull, kick, breathe. Pull, kick, breathe.”