Monday, February 9, 2009


I remember the first time I felt true development as a swimmer. It was at one inconsequential WHAT (Woodland Hills Aquatic Team) practice—one of many I attended as I began to train with the team for the first time during the spring of my senior year of high school. I had just finished my first and last swim season on the high school team (having played basketball during the winter sports season the previous three years of my high school career), and I found that I not only enjoyed the sport, but I respected and admired the coach so much that I wanted to keep training with him. Thus, in spite of my very short and consequentially unimpressive swimming career, I joined WHAT and began to train with other, “serious” swimmers.

While I had known very well how little I had contributed to the team throughout the high school season, I was brutally reminded every day how poor my swimming abilities were when I began to attend WHAT practices. Obviously I had to begin in the slowest lane, and this meant swimming with eight and ten-year-olds. I was seventeen and twice their size, and I still couldn’t beat some of them down the pool, especially with a kickboard. At the very least, it was a lesson in humility. However, I am nothing if not dedicated and tenacious when I want something, and I wanted to work for this coach. I wanted to be a part of this team, and I wanted to make him proud of me, even if he never said so. Obviously he had other swimmers to give his attention to, who would do impressive things in the pool and who would go on to swim for important colleges and maybe even make National or Olympic trials. I, however, worked hard every day for that little sliver of attention I might earn by “getting better.”

On the particular day I am remembering, George (our coach) assigned us a very typical set: a series of repeat 100s. For non-swimmers, a “100” refers to the yardage swum. One hundred yards equates four lengths of what most people consider a typical pool; two lengths if you’re lucky enough to swim in an Olympic-sized pool. In our practice set, we had to swim four 100s on a certain time, and then repeat the set twice, with each repeat getting faster. For instance, in my case, I was assigned to swim the first set of four 100s on a repeat time of 1:45, meaning that every minute and forty-five seconds, I had to leave the wall to start my next hundred until I had completed four 100s. The second set would be on 1:40, and the third would be on 1:35.

So the set was four 100s repeated, repeated 3 times. Twelve 100s total. George wrote our names up on the board beside the intervals we were assigned to do. There were only three intervals: the “A” group, the “B” group, and the “C” group. On this day, the “C” group’s first set of 100s started on a 1:40 interval. This meant that by the third set of 100s, the interval would be down to 1:30.

“No way am I going to be able to make that,” I told him as I strapped on my goggles. Ordinarily, I would hit the wall and barely have enough time to look at the clock and orient myself before I had to go again. And that was on a 1:35 interval. I had never done a 1:30 interval before. “Sure you can,” George said. “You’re faster now. You’ll see.” Yeah, I’ll see all right, I thought. See how slow I am. I pushed off and started the set. By the third set of repeats, I was gasping for air. I would hit the wall, and I would have to push right off again. It was like swimming a straight 400, because every time I finished a 100, I would bring my head up and George would be saying, “Ready…go!” and I would have to push off again. But I made it. Not once did I hit the wall and see the second hand drifting past the 30 second mark on the time clock. It might be centered dead on that 30 seconds, and I might not even stop for a single breath before starting the next repeat, but I made it.

That’s when I knew: my body was swimming physically faster than it had before. I had just completed a set five seconds faster than I had done it at previous practices. It was possible to do this—it was possible to get better.

I have had this same experience with running, but now it’s twofold. Because with running, I never thought I’d physically be able to run for as long and as far as I am trying to push my body as I train for this marathon in May. Every Sunday, as I add miles to my long run, I am astounded when I finish. Did I really run that long? Did I really go that far? It seems impossible that I would ever have found this goal impossible, and yet what I am still striving to do seems so daunting. I have completed up to sixteen miles, and even as I waddle home on wobbly legs, this mentally seems insignificant. I still have to add ten more, in the coming weeks. Yet I went out today and ran five miles in under forty minutes. I remember when running four miles in forty minutes was a feat that would be cause for celebration.

It’s funny how goals can shift and morph, depending on perspective and ambition. I am excited and nervous to see what the future brings.

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