The poolside silence before the races began parted waves of noise. It lasted a seemingly infinite amount of time while I remembered my own swimming triumphs.
I set a pool record once.
Seven-year-old me stayed scared of everything. Maybe I grew up a little too far out in the country. Maybe my size had something to do with it. It did not matter. When something new came up, I hid from it. So when forced to learn how to swim, I had no intention of knowing any kind of efficiency.
The water burned my eyes, so I never put my head down and if I did by accident I never opened my eyelids underwater. Splashing clouded my vision, so I never brought my arms up over the surface. I looked like a furless dog, thrashing noiselessly, just trying to get to the side of the pool and rest. When my father, a coach and teacher by trade but a lifeguard to make ends meet during the summer, took me to work, I would walk off the diving board and sink until a lifeguard “saved” me. That way, I’d get kicked out of the pool for the day and not have to worry about the water.
It stood to reason. I told my grandfather I was scared of water at 4 years old. He threw me in the pool and told me to swim to him. That introduction scared me half to death, quite literally.
When my father asked me to join the swim team at 7, I balked. I had no idea how to swim. He asked me to do it for his birthday. I conceded. By then, I had learned how to crawl, as it were, and had spent summers under the tutelage of Ms. Patricia Knisely. She taught me that the pool was not an ocean and that deep waters could be conquered. Other coaches, over a long swimming career, would teach me techniques, but no one taught me half of what Ms. Pat did.
In New Bern, we had somewhere around eight swimming clubs. I swam for River Bend Golf & Country Club, the Otters, despite not having enough money to join and not really understanding that people played golf. Ms. Pat coached us. I started opening my eyes underwater, started kicking more and got really fast. My relay team — Mike, Adam, Luke and me — were unbeatable in every race. We ran the short-course sprint game in Eastern NC.
And I was the slowest one of them.
Obviously, coming into the 25-yard sprint, the smart money laid on the shoulders of my teammates. Then my coach told me the secret to swimming:
“Get to the other wall as fast as you can,” Ms. Pat said.
Nothing had ever been explained that way. I went as hard as I could. I got out of the pool and other kids were still swimming. My teammates were in there. Ms. Pat smiled as big as she could and hugged me harder than anyone who had not birthed me. In 1988, my name went up on the Twin Rivers’ YMCA wall: fastest 25-yard freestyle in the pool’s history amongst the 6-8 bracket.
At my father’s funeral, Ms. Pat recanted that story to me. The record stood until 2008. Twenty years. The only thing I’ve ever been completely sure of faded away, and I didn’t even know it had happened until Ms. Pat told me a couple years ago.
Back at the GAC, the starting gun broke my reverie. The pensive silence turned to pandemonium.
Greensboro had a few more teams than New Bern did. Two thousand kids piled into the Greensboro Aquatic Center, milling about the Athlete’s Village, none of them quite as cognizant as I. I knew they would forget about this day once they quit swimming. So many of them will leave the sport behind as I did — college will call, or romance; other sports will interfere with their schedules. Summers will be for traveling or going out with friends, not sitting Indian-style on towels or wandering around the coliseum grounds.
Herding into a superfluous room, dressed in hastily made costumes to celebrate their neighborhoods, their clans, they ran in circles around the place. The kids didn’t understand conserving energy for the races and why would they? These kids had boundless energy. They had just been introduced to a capacity crowd as though they had qualified for the Olympics. One team came out to Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” Who would want to sit down and be calm after that?
No one cared about 25 years ago. Ms. Pat retired this year from teaching and coaching. Time displaces new waves. Below me, coaches screamed the same way they did before, and the kids still cannot hear them.
They were cutting through the water, eyes wide-open, metering their breathing. They heard nothing.
They were too busy trying to get to the other side.