Usually I need a minute or two to process things in order to reach a conclusion. If the stakes are high, sometimes I need longer. But in the following case, it took 30 years.
After retiring from a decorated swimming career in 1986 — a career that began when I was six years old on the Gulf Coast of Florida and ended with a national championship — I devoted myself to life on land. I lived in rural Africa, a big city in Asia, and the desert of Arizona. I ran for exercise, and played tennis. I did aerobics, yoga, and lifted weights. I had no interest in getting back in the water. In fact, I decided that I hated swimming and I was vocal about it.
When people asked, as they did repeatedly for years and years, “Why don’t you swim anymore?” I always answered, “The pool was for winning, not for pleasure.”
Until this year—my fiftieth—when I started swimming again. I had to be at the pool anyway for my 12-year-old son’s practice with his YMCA team in Vermont so I decided to get in. More as a way to kill time than anything else.
I started slow—a speed heretofore unknown to me. And my strokes, once renown for length and leverage, were weak and inefficient. Even more bothersome was the fact that a handful of other middle-aged ladies were swimming faster than me.
I was a long way from the lean and mean me that dominated the sport in the mid-eighties. How long would it take until I got her back? The answer wasn’t going to be 23.69 seconds, which had been my best time in the 50-yard freestyle. I lived and died by the clock in those days, every minute of my life timed including trips to the grocery store and sex.
After two months of swimming twice a week, I was able to complete 3,000 yards in an hour-long workout. I was surprised how quickly I got used to the chlorine smell on my skin again, but I wasn’t happy about how long it was taking to get faster in the water. In fact, I hated it.
I longed to race — the thing I once loved more than any other thing in the entire world. I craved the feeling of power and speed, efficiency and quickness. The very act of killing time.
I signed up to compete in a master’s swim meet—choosing the shortest distance, 25 meters in my best event, the freestyle. Essentially, I’d be swimming one length of the pool for the title of fastest 50-to-54-year-old waterwoman in Vermont.
Before I knew it, I found myself on a pool deck, in a Speedo, about to race again. I felt, dare I say, happy.
Diving in for my race, I felt the water push my swimsuit over my left breast. I marveled (briefly) at just how far my body had come in 30 years. In college, my breasts were underdeveloped thanks to overdeveloped pectoral muscles and a very low percentage of body fat. Now, thanks to time and motherhood, I had boobs with which to contend—one of which was now exposed. I actually laughed underwater.
I devoted my first awkward stroke to pulling the suit back over, and I saw that a number of swimmers had pulled ahead of me. I tried to find a rhythm in water even though it felt more like sand slipping through my hand. I’d planned not to take a breath for the entire length, but wound up taking two. Still, I moved into the lead.
And then the race was over. The timer said I’d clocked in at 15.39 seconds—roughly my speed as a 10-year-old girl. I broke into a big grin anyway. I’d reached the wall first and broke the meet the record for the race in my age group. In doing so, I finally resolved the question about whether I like swimming. The answer is no. Actually, it was the question that had been wrong.
What I’ve loved all along is sprinting. And, yes, I plan to continue.