Swimming Diaries

Dear Jessie,

Can I talk about swimming for a second?

School has started for a little more than a month now, and I think we can say some things have changed. You have meetings and shoots and work and I am tired all the time. But I was restless when the school year started. I was happy all the time, which was embarrassing to explain when there was no particular reason for it. I was restless and signed up to audit a fourth class—it was literally that: I felt like it was too early to go home after only one class on the first day of school and decided to drop by a professor’s office to ask about his class. It is material that I love, 18th century women writers, which sends my adrenaline level off the chart before each class.

But I also knew, all that jouissance is not joy. It is not the love for life, only the precarious bliss of living. This restlessness will eventually crash.

I guess you could say I found the brake in time and it saved me from crashing. (What would crashing look like? Giving up? Regressing to a subpar, self-loathing, uninterested self?) I have started swimming again for a week now. It drains me and I crave it.

Your most vivid memory of me and swimming is probably those mornings at the end of the first semester when I would go swimming in the morning right after working on conference papers all night. I almost forgot about them, but that was probably the same manic energy that got me into the pool again this time. For three years, my friend never stopped asking me to join the school team. I finally said yes this time.

On the first day of practice, we met in the locker room and she said she was really happy that I made it. “Did you have a bet with someone?” I joked. “I had a bet with myself! This is like a personal victory for me.” I feel overdramatic to say “she got me into the pool again”, but she did, and I am grateful.

Do you also remember that I did try to swim regularly again in our first year? I thought I could pick it up again as a discipline, after four years of hiatus. I tried to swim three times a week for six weeks for PE credit, and that was when my friend took notice and first asked me about joining the team. I couldn’t commit to the idea of a team yet, but I signed up for a once-a-week swimming class in the spring, reasoning that being in a class that earns me credit would be incentive enough for discipline.

I stopped showing up after three classes. It was as easy for me to show up as it was not to. I also grew weary of the whole routine of getting wet, having to shower at school, and getting dressed again. Instead, I ran on the treadmill for the rest of the semester.

And you know I hate running.

When I think about how did I get from person I used to be to here, I think about the flight from Hong Kong to California on my twelfth birthday. I am never sure whether I really had a choice or my parents made it seem like I did, but on so many levels, it seems like my life has been existing as a consequence to that decision: Before and after America, before and after childhood, before and after my most meaningful face-to-face relationships, before and after being the most capable person I know.

(That was also around the time we met. So here’s another organizational principle: before and after you.)

Sometimes, I want to scream, I used to have a life! Like it was okay if that plane crashed; like I have been living an afterlife ever since.

Before: I can’t remember a period of time when I wasn’t going to the pool after school and/or on weekends. I came into swimming late and didn’t until I was in the third grade because I had an ear condition that kept me from being immersed in water for long periods of time. It was fixed after two surgeries, and my mom sent me and my brother to the swimming school in the neighborhood run by my classmate’s parents. I didn’t think too much of it. My dad, too, swims and likes water sports.

We swam three times a week, which was far from a lot for seriously inclined swimmers, but enough for us to win medals at school meets, and enough for the pool to make up a substantial part of my memory. The routine lasted until we left for the States.

There were several pools in the neighborhood where we swam in rotation. My favorite pool was the outdoor one next to the big playground (do you know which one I’m talking about?), especially on the nights during the colder months, when there were only a handful of us kids swimming, one or two coaches on the deck, and a handful of other swimmers. By eight o’clock, there would be only the few of us left. Being underwater was even clearer than during the day because of the contrast between the velvety dark land and the lights in the pool. The usual aesthetic and sensational ecstasy of pulling a stroke under water as if breaking through liquid glass was heightened and felt as if in slow-motion. We indulged in the generous blue of the water, of the night sky, of the cold, and of the mosaic tiles in the steaming hot tub with messaging jets where we relaxed after lessons, before being hurried by our maids to shower and head home for dinner.

The locker room at that pool was a treat, too, because it was dimly lit and underused. I used it like a private sanctuary for the post-swim rituals of showering and changing.

But for the most part, training was seldom beautiful, let alone mystical. More often than not, my brother and I would be dragged out of bed at daybreak or from a nap to a pool already crowded by whistles, splashes, claps, gasps for air, and shouts rendered unintelligible by echoes. This confusion of noise made me look perpetually lost in the pool. I would deliberately swim slower so that I didn’t have to lead the lane, because I often had no idea what the set was.

We ran into our coach, my classmate, and his mom when my brother went to swim at the outdoor pool again when we visited Hong Kong two months ago. My classmate’s mom, like how we began to notice people our parents’ age seem to have stopped aging, looked younger than I remembered her when I was 12. The whole effect was that it seemed like the world has been still and waiting for me to grow up and catch up to it this whole time. In fact, I frequently feel this way about the world after college, which is not-so-patiently waiting for me to catch up: get smarter, grow wiser, become kinder.

That night, I realized something: Swimming was probably the only time my brother and I spent together almost all the time. He spent as many nights at the pool as I did, and loved it as much as I did. We were always conspirators at the pool, either making trouble together or towards each other, depending on our moods (mostly mine). But even when we fought, we fought with the understanding of the fight as a show: a show of our boredom, our cruelty, our humor, our creativity, our bond. Nothing made us laugh harder than getting in trouble together.

He didn’t believe that I would join the team.

“I was like whatever when D— said she’s asking you to join,” he said. “I didn’t think you would show up.” Me neither. I didn’t blame him for not believing in me. I had given up on myself. Before practice started, I warned my coach how slow I am like a disclaimer—like an excuse.

“D— has told me all about you,” the coach said on the first time we met. “Are you better than your brother?”

I grimaced almost in shame, and half-joked, “Used to be.”

“You’ll be fine if you are anywhere near your brother,” he added, as if I was daring him to believe I am as slow as I said I am. Your expectation is setting me up to fail. Don’t do this to me.

I had to apologize about speed. If I’m not fast, what the hell am I doing there? This is competitive swimming, not water aerobics.

Two days later, I had the misfortune of getting a test set on my first day of practice. This means we swim ten 50m freestyle as if a race, with two minutes of rest in between each. The goal is to produce lactic acid, “the bursting feeling you get in your lungs after you finish a race”, and to record our times to check our progress from time to time.

At some point my lungs stopped bursting and I simply felt like a wobbly drunk when I stepped onto the diving block.

At some point, I felt like I was cutting through the water like a barracuda, only to come up for air at the wall and hear, “36.6”. That is defeat.

36 seconds for a 50 free was my best time at twelve.

You know what’s the coolest part about swimming, besides being a bra-free and sweat-free sport? Its pitiless precision. For a person who cares about life in a vague way, this artificial enlargement of time becomes an irresistible motivation. You can’t cheat in swimming: there is only time and yourself.

When I was twelve, swimming was simply something I did, and happened to be good at. I remembered desperately calling my primary school crush’s attention to the four gold medals I won at a school meet—I wore them around my neck in the afternoon and made sure they clinked as I walked back and forth. I never thought I would stop swimming. I thought I would always be good at it because I had always been good at it. The logic was, one does not give up what one is good at. At least that was the logic before.

There wasn’t a competitive swimming program for pre-pubescents in the first town we lived in in California. It wasn’t the kind of town where pre-pubescents train four days a week, play violin in orchestras, sing in a choir, read a lot, and are knee-deep in three other kinds of extra-curricular activities. In America, people generally pick one thing to be good at.

Is it America or is it just “growing up”?

If, at my most resentful, I imagine what life would’ve been like if I stayed in Hong Kong, at my second most resentful, I imagine what life would’ve been like if I had kept swimming. If there was any way—any way at all—that there could’ve been more consistency between before and after, instead of what looked like a recklessly clean break.

In the second year, we moved to a new town and there was a club team at the community college. I went along grudgingly. My mom didn’t understand: “You were desperate to swim for an entire year, and now you are throwing a tantrum when I finally found a place for you to swim.” Swimming wasn’t a privilege anymore. It was an obligation to the past and a source of incompetence. I was never among the top in the big tanks, but I was good enough to know that I had lost a year and 36 seconds wouldn’t last me very long. After a year, I quit.

I threw myself into something new and played field hockey for two seasons, before the sweating and the collective cheering became aimless and artificial. I was increasingly incapable of caring about defeating some opponents I knew nothing about. I began to crave for the solitude in an open lane. In an open lane, your body alone marks the before and after: behind you, the water is in splashes, bubbles, ripples; in front of you, it is a calm and crystal-clear frontier waiting to be sliced through. Still water can be either inviting or foreboding depending on the number of laps you are on. It can also be both, at the same time.

I thought I could start fresh again as a nobody—disappearing into the masses was the only way I could cope with getting through high school, a conglomerate of test scores and obsessions about the future. I practiced with the junior varsity team for three weeks, swimming in the slowest lane. But then the question of entering meets came up, and at the same time, my coach wasn’t happy that I had to leave early every Tuesday to tutor an elementary school kid in reading. I quit before he kicked me out.

Every now and then I biked to the YMCA for a swim, mostly to show my parents I was exercising. On some days, I just went to the Target next door and showered becoming coming home.

I don’t know if it was swimming that haunted me or me who haunted the pool all these years—ever hovering, never committing. At the pool, I could always be the one with potential, but too little, too late. Is there a more pathetic source of pride than that?

Today, we swam a test set of six 100m freestyle. The first one was a blunder: my goggles fell off and I stopped to fix it. I used to have coaches who would yell at me for that, to whom I would sheepishly pout back in my best confused expression. I miss that, too.

Remember that first-year chick who asked me for college advice? The other day, I said I would tell her, “Labels don’t matter.” Today, I want to say, “At the end of the day, it’s all on you.”




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