It started when I was two.
It wasn’t necessarily for practice or competition, it was just lessons. It was just a mandatory thing my parents decided was pretty important, considering each of my grandparents had a pool in their backyards. And with my toddler-tendency of oddly standing on the outsides of the locked gates just to stare in at the flat glassy water, the point became teaching me how not to drown. That’s not to say I enjoyed it. See, while I remember everything about my swim school almost perfectly (especially the after-lesson red vines) and although I’m certain I floated oh so perfectly on my back each day, I’ve been told things didn’t go quite so swimmingly.
I hated every dripping second of it.
I pretended to be sick. I conveniently forgot my swim suit at home. I tried to convince my grandmother that the instructor was on vacation. Getting me in the pool was like trying to force a cat underwater: shrieking, crying, scratching, mewling pathetically, the whole thing. In hindsight it’s profoundly embarrassing, considering Olympic gold-medalist Debbie Meyers was the poor woman held responsible for teaching me how to swim (she’s a freakin’ legend, you’d think I could have shown a little respect).
They say the wand chooses the wizard. I have a similar sort of theory when it comes to where I’ve spent my last 20 years — because no one in their right mind chooses swimming. As little six-and-unders we did not look up at our parents with goggled eyes and say “I wanna be a swimmer,” but we glared at them from under the hoods of our towels and said “there’s no way in h-e-double-hockey-sticks that I’m doing this.” And so we were bribed, our goldfish attention spans caught with fruit roll-ups and gatorades, strings of colorful beads as rewards for all our best times even though we didn’t really get the point of time if we weren’t the one who was winning.
It started with ready benches and 25s.
It started with eat my bubbles scribbled on shoulders in a rainbow of sharpie.
It started as that thing our parents made us do during the summer.
Needless to say, my freshmen year of high school swim was unimaginably worse than all my recreational years spent on the Fair Oaks Dolphins combined, and if there was anything I figured out, it was that I was pretty damn good at not giving any effort. But what I didn’t know, was that things were about to get exponentially worse.
My first day of practice with Spare Time Aquatics USA Year Round swim team started promptly at 5:15 am on a Tuesday morning.
After two hours in black, unlit water (before the sun had even decided it was about time to get up, just sayin’), the short muscled swim coach looked at me with a spiked eyebrow and said in the most indistinguishable Brazilian accent: “Your swimming is a sucks.”
That was it, I was done, totally gonna quit.
But after three months of being forced against my will to jump in twice a day, everyday at Rio Del Oro Racquet Club, I found a place. It was during a kick set (to this day, though I love my kickboard with all my heart, I’m pretty awful at kick), and like usual I was so behind the pace that the kid leading my lane was starting off the next interval and meeting me halfway across the pool. Kurtis Gillespie was fourteen years old, stick skinny with a head of blonde hair under his cap, and as he went churning past me he managed a “keep it up, you got this” through his own wheezing breaths. Swimming wasn’t an individual sport anymore, because I finally started to get the idea that we were teammates, that it was all of us out there desperate for oxygen, pretty sure we were going to vomit, struggling and fighting the clock.
Coach Junior, you will always be my first and only coach. You changed my entire life and shaped who am I as a person and I can not find any words to completely express how whole-heartedly thankful I am.
I learned so many more things than how to flipturn with a snorkel or two-step a relay start or balance a water bottle on my head while swimming backstroke.
I learned sectional meet warmups are a warzone.
I learned parkas melt when they get too close to space heaters.
I learned getting slapped with a piece of pizza doesn’t hurt as much as it’s just slimy.
I learned pancake puppies are not the best pre-meet meal.
I learned a lil dancing is the best way to get ready for a race.
I learned to stand tall and proud on the blocks, to look down on the pool and say game on.
I learned even though nothing is easy, anything is possible. I learned every awful race has a beginning but every hell week has an end. From Adam Pinson I learned there is nothing more hilariously contagious than being exactly who you are (and that if you have to ask if you’re a lifeguard, you’re probably not). A boy all the way from Germany named Steffen Hillmer made me see that time and distance are relative, silly things, because yesterday you might have been thousands of miles overseas, but today you are breaking the decades-old records of a high school conference that isn’t even in your home country. There were the difficult lessons too, because Adam Ferguson and Talor Tadena showed me no matter how hard it is off the deck, how much you feel like you just can’t do it today, or how many times you’ve missed that time, the water treats you no different. The lane stretches out before your bare feet and says it doesn’t matter how you feel and it doesn’t matter if you won’t make it because I’m not going to take this any easier on you. I found a best friend Emily Rodgers, who later gave me unfathomable inspiration with a patience and strength I have never imagined from a girl who lives in a world of doctors who don’t know whether or not she might be dying. I learned you might be small, and your competitors might be tall and insanely buff and all from the rival team you never liked, but when you get on the block and stand straight-backed in the center lane you are fearlessly invincible and there’s not a damn thing that can stop you, a nine-year-old girl Claire Pinson taught me that.
And in all the days of being too sore to move and hoping the next set is warm down, I found out that sometimes people tend to come in pairs, because Tyler Larrabee is my brother and my soulmate, my best friend and my other half. Seriously, you are tied with Carl as the most important person in my life, and you do absolutely nothing but bring pure optimism into it. I have no freaking clue what I would do without you because you always know exactly what to do or what to say to get me out of any bad mood, and there’s no one else on the planet who knows how to remind me to have some self-confidence once in awhile, T.
STAS Seabass, I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for you, thank you all so much for getting me ready for four wild years of collegiate competition. I love each and every one of you so much, and I wish you all the most luck I can wherever you guys are swimming now. Soak up every second of it, because it goes by fast.
I’ve been to sectionals, I’ve been to Grand Prix’s, but there is not a damn thing better than swimming a SCIACs finals heat. And I don’t care what you say, the Poet is a badass mascot. More than anything else in my entire chlorinated career, I am so glad I ended up at Whittier and got lucky enough to have some of the greatest people as teammates and friends.
I love you guys more than the world, and I know I’ve already written a obnoxiously long novel on here but I could write books for every one of you about how amazing and incredible you all are.
Talya, there is not a brighter girl than you, and the energy you bring to the pool everyday has gotten me through more sets than I can count. Evelyn, you are so impressively dedicated, I remember back when we used to be lone wolves with Amelia, and I am so happy you came to Whitt after being one of my recruits. Kevin, you make me laugh every single day and you are one of the most kind-hearted people I know, I am painfully jealous of your dancing skills and the work you put in at the gym is insane. Jasen you are such a hard worker and one of the best attitudes out of anyone on the team, keep rocking the competition in the 200. GABE I am SO proud of you! Third time’s a charm, you made it through your first full season and absolutely KILLED it at SCIACs, better be breakin that 100 breast record next year! Also, Fil, keep being the fastest man in the conference.
Four whole years, weren’t we freshmen like yesterday? How we made it through all the 5 am practices at Whittier High, I’ll never know, but through the stroke drills and Christmas music played during winter training, I can honestly say I love you three most of all. From Haley‘s B cut and 3rd place in the 100 breast, to Polsi‘s freaking incredible 200 fly, to all of us counting for Ryne‘s last 1650, you guys have done insanely amazing things and you’ve all inspired me so much, especially in our last season. You might take the swimmer out of the race, but you can’t take the race out of the swimmer (and I don’t care how cheesy that is). It has been an honor serving with you, my captains.
We were not made for land.
We were made for the water.
Once a Poet, always a Poet.
It started when I was two.
It started with refusing to flip turn because I couldn’t hold my breath underwater and I was going to drown, and it ended with racing through my last finals heat of my last 100 yards of freestyle telling myself I wasn’t allowed to breathe again until I hit the touchpad.
Twenty years later and I’m so damn thankful the pool picked me.