Somehow — in a matter of seconds, minutes, years — I went from National Champion swimmer to NCAA swim coach to being a parent with a stopwatch on the swim deck. Damn that devil time. I used to beat the clock, and now it’s beating me.
There I was on Tuesday night, June 23 at the Winooski pool on a chilly Vermont evening to watch my son 11-year-old David in his very first swim meet ever. When he started swim lessons at the Burlington YMCA at age 2, David said he’d never ever join the swim team. He repeated this vow every year, as he moved up through the swim program ranks. He continued his progress with Gulf Swim in Abu Dhabi, but still refused to compete.
David has a been non-racer since birth — it took him nearly 36 hours to emerge into the world! I told my swimmers at James Madison University, where I was coaching at the time, that THE SPRINTER had produced a DISTANCE ATHLETE.
But just before we left Abu Dhabi a mere two-and-a-half weeks ago, David decided THAT HE DID want to join the swim team in Vermont. As the words were still coming out of his mouth, I signed him up on the YMCA website. BOOM! You’re in kid, I said.
I watched the first practice sessions last week surprised that he managed to do lap after lap. Slow and steady. He never complained, never faulted. He crashed into the lane line and the other swimmers a half dozen times. He worked on his dive start — complete with belly flops and goggle drops. No matter, David plugged along. Plodded ahead. Not at home in the water. But not at odds with it either.
Then suddenly we’re at the Winooski pool and David is in the water ready to swim the 50-yard backstroke. He has a tiny little smile on his face as he pulls himself toward the starting block. Tears are pouring down my face and I’m wiping them away as fast as I can because I have to time one of his competitors. Plus, I don’t want any of the other normal parents to see what a freak I am. The Winooski Team parents have no idea about my swimming history. When the head timer showed me how to work the stopwatch, I just listened. I didn’t want to go into the details of how I lived and died by that goddamned thing for 20 years.
David kept his strokes even and steady. He managed to stay in the center of line, mostly. He turned over on the wall, though, and was disqualified from the race. A fact lost on him. I did, briefly, want to beat up the official for DQing my son in his very first race EVER. Ah, but that’s the sport. It’s unforgiving. Like life on land. I teared up, again, thinking how the lessons of the pool have served me well and how they may do the same for David.
David went on to swim the 50-yard breastroke, which is clearly his best event and was on of mine too! He was beaming throughout the race; and, shook hands with the other racers when it was over. He was DQed again for not touching the wall with both hands. Oh well. I cried with frustration and pride. I also shed a few tears for my parents who managed two decades of highs and lows while I was racing. My mom spent so much time taking me to 5 a.m. workouts and then again to 4 p.m. workouts, as well as swim meets across the state and country — while working a full-time job. I wept in memory of my father, too, who could remember every single one of my times and records. He’s gone now, and here I stand in his place.
For his final race, David competed in the 50-yard freestyle, which as you may know was my big event. Short and violent. Controlled chaos. Power and precision. I spent years whiddling away tenths of seconds to be the best in Florida, and then in DIV. II NCAAs. David was excited to complete in the event even though he was worn down and ready for a hot dog. The wind was wipping across the unheated pool and night was falling. But David dove in and raced with very good form for a next-to-last finish. No DQ. I hugged him, and said repeatedly, “I am so proud of you. So proud of you.” Tears streaming again. He shrugged and made his way to the snack bar. I took all the money I had out of my wallet, which included 6 quarters and 1 rupee. Less than a month ago, David and I were in hot dry India and now we’re at swim race in cool rural Vermont. I was glad to laugh after so much crying.
WHO CRIES SO MUCH AT A SWIM MEET? Only someone whose entire young life was devoted to time and H2O, now watching her child dip his toes into those same rough yet rewarding waters.