Where did the time go

Dear Jessie,

It had been a hell of a week for the both of us. I had been dreading the meet today up until thirty minutes before meeting time when I finally remembered to shave. I dreaded it because it was a long-format meet where the even distances are doubled: instead of 50y and 100y events, I would be swimming 100y and 200y. I still don’t understand why I am put on as a backstroke leg for the medley relay. It is my weakest stroke and I am never confident about my turns.

The significance of today’s as the season’s last home meet didn’t occur to me until an hour ago when D— cc’ed me on an email to our don with a link to today’s meet results. The last home meet, in the American athletic tradition, is also senior meet, where seniors are “honored” because for having “withstood the test of time” (coach’s words). The honor felt rather dainty on my head, as I have only swum for two months. The four of us seniors received a little blurb from the coach, whose hardest job I thought must be to come up with something nice to say about kids who, for example, never shows up to practice and swims slow. When it came to me, he said something about it took me three years to get here (“I was spirituallywith you!”) and he hopes that I will keep swimming faster than I said I do. I couldn’t resist to say a line about how I will swim faster if he keeps forgetting about me—the last time I surprised him with my 100 free time was when he forgot to put me in a heat in a test set during practice. Everyone ooh-ed and he made a face that said “I can’t believe you are going to hold this against me forever”. But I think I have extracted enough comic juice from this blunder. If I say something more it will just seem petty and mean.

On my way home, I wondered if he (and my teammates) would be able to place me if I wasn’t the sister of the (second) fastest kid on the team. Every time I come out of a meet or a practice that left me with a good feeling, I wish I joined the team earlier. If I had started training again since my first year, I would have gotten much better times right now. (I see age 18 next to the names of swimmers with my time on the roster and the number breaks my heart.) I would have a closer relationship with my teammates and with my coach. I would have probably end up being a very different person.

But then I also know that it wouldn’t have worked out two or three years ago because I was a very different person and wanted different things. These four years could’ve unfolded only the way they did.

The on-going battle—what has so hard for me to adjust to at the pool at almost every practice—is still getting used to not being the fastest person in a lane, in a relay, on the team, in a race. I say “fastest” when I mean “being considered in the fast cluster”. Accomplishments had come to me so easily that even the idea of training and learning seemed more matter-of-fact than a conscious effort. My brother phrased it nicely when we talked about this at a meet: “Minimum effort, moderate results. That’s us.” It is a kind of asshole thing to say, but it is true. Is it luck or talent that we have made it this far in all the areas that we put minimum effort in and achieve good enough results—as a swimmer, as a student, as a writer, as a person? “At the end of the day, we are just against trying too hard,” I said to him in conclusion. He nodded gleefully. I never realized how much we are alike this way.

On my way home, I remembered what a big deal seniority was in high school, when I was on the field hockey team. The hierarchy of grade levels became much more democratized on this swim team. We are grouped according to our speed, and as a result, I always feel like a child at the pool, perpetually lost and preemptively seeking for forgiveness. There is one line from Leanne Shapton’s memoir about swimming and quitting swimming at the Olympics-trial level (she is from Mississauga!) that has stuck with me:

When you’re a swimmer, coaches stand above you, over you. You look up to them, are vulnerable, naked and wet in front of them. Coaches see you weak, they weaken you, they have your trust, you do what they say.

I had been wanting to read the book since it came out, and I finally bought it as a present to myself for joining the team. I am reading it slowly, allowing myself only paragraphs at a time lest I become too engrossed and begin to identify with a swimming experience that I never had. (I am jealous of the kind of relationship she has with her coach—”guardian, father, mother, boss, mentor, jailer, doctor, shrink, and teacher.”)

I got home, where the lights were off and it was quiet. I arranged the senior honor flowers in two beer bottles, put one in the kitchen and one in my room. I wish someone—anyone—for once—would ask how did the meet go. It is during moments like this that I feel the most alone. The only people who ask about my meets are my bosses at the alumni office.

The season will be over soon. It occurred to me, on my way home, what a coincidence that one of my happiest memory of Hong Kong was the swimming days, and now one of the best memories of college will probably be swimming on the team. Why couldn’t I have started sooner and had more of this? After college, there will never be a chance to swim in such an organized way that we get to be serious and young at the same time.


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