The nervous thoughts began to fill my stomach as I sat in the locker room moments away from the biggest race of my life. I got up and paced back and forth, trying to control my breathing. Cold sweat already formed on the tips of my fingers. It was less than an hour before my event. I pulled my brand new racing suit out of my bag. This was the “LZR Elite” everyone was talking about. It was a $260 water-resistant suit, the fastest of its kind. My mom had heard about it and had saved enough money to buy one as a Christmas gift.
Careful not to rip it, I slowly slid the size 26 past my clean-shaven legs and it brushed right past them. As the suit neared my waist, I understood the “skin-tight feeling” everyone complained about. The compression suit tightly wrapped around my crotch in an awkward way, making it difficult to walk without flinching. I sprinkled some water onto the suit to test it and was surprised to find that the water bounced right off. I looked into the mirror and shut my eyes as I played out the entire race in my head. I imagined the start, the middle, and the finish. I imagined that I had just won the race. I jumped up and pumped my fists in the air. I smiled and waved to the crowd. But my smile quickly faded. Even then, in my own little world of imagination, doubts filled my mind.
I was racing against Jay Thompson, the fastest freestyler in the state, who also happened to be my longtime teammate and captain. All I ever wanted, all I ever dreamed of was beating Jay in any event. I wanted to prove to him that work beats talent.
Walking out of the locker room, I went and sat down beside my coach.
“Hey coach, how do I swim this race?” I asked even though I already knew the answer.
“You nervous?” he asked.
“Yeah, just a little bit.”
“Don’t think about it too much. Just do it like we did in practice. Keep your strokes long and strong and remember to keep your breathing pattern steady. Don’t try to keep up with Jay; you’ll burn up all your energy. Just swim your own race. Really kick your legs in the back half and try to get that second place.”
“Okay, thanks coach.”
I wanted to ask if there was any possibility I could win, but instead I nodded my head and left for the warm-up pool.
Heading towards the pool, I looked up into the stands. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people were packed into the stands. Parents, friends, teachers, and even a few Division 1 college recruiters had come to watch this state championship meet.
As soon as I entered, I spotted Jay talking with a bunch of swimmers from the other teams.
“Look who’s here,” he said smirking.
His friends turned around and looked at me. Jay singled me out not because I was the second fastest on the team, but because I was the only one who would have the guts to challenge him. Even the coaches were obedient to him. He would make fun of my name, my skinny body. He loved it since it made him feel superior.
“What’s his name again? Jizzy? The one who wants to beat you?” one of his friends asked.
They all started laughing, but I didn’t find it funny. I knew that I had trained harder than he and deserved that first place more than anyone.
He declared loudly in front of everyone, “You don’t have to keep it a secret. We all know you think you can beat me. I know you’ve been working hard, but I’ve been working on my talent.”
I remembered the night when Jay broke the state record. He said to me, “Work will get you nowhere if you have no talent.” But how can you get talent? Can you build talent? He told me only a few athletes are gifted with talent and that I wasn’t one of them. But I would have none of that. I wasn’t the best, but I trained like a champion. I knew that if I trained my hardest, I could swim as fast as him.
I walked away from them without saying a word and jumped in the pool to start my warm-up. During the 500 yards of easy swimming , I practiced the smooth long strokes that coach wanted. Breathe, pull, reach… Breathe, pull, reach. Simple right? I had practiced the same stroke day after day for years. But now my strokes felt foreign to me. The anxiety began to overwhelm me. My head spun. My body tensed. How much more pressure could I endure?
The meet had already started and there were only a couple more races ahead of me. I finished my warm-up and headed to the waiting room early. There were eight seats for the eight finalists for the event. Seeded with the 8th fastest time, I had barely qualified, which meant I would be swimming in the farthest lane. The fastest swimmers swim in the middle lanes, giving them a clear view of the competitors during the race. As usual, Jay was the number one seed in this event.
The television screen in the room was tuned to a sports network, with two analysts giving a preview of the race.
“… This really isn’t much of a race. It’s not IF Thompson wins, it’s how much he wins by.”
“That’s right. He is a three-time defending state champion and is looking to not only break his own state record that he set last year, but to also break the decade-long national record.”
“Folks, this is an event you will not want to miss. We’ll be back to deliver you live coverage of the men’s fifty yard freestyle… “
“Pretty cool huh?” Jay said behind me.
“Yeah, sure I guess,” I admitted.
“You guess? I’m gonna break the record and it’ll be nationally televised! Oh, and by the way, good luck. You’re gonna need it,” he said and walked away.
The pump-up music started booming from the natatorium speakers, as the PA announcer signaled us to walk out.
“… And nowww, the men’s… fifty yard freeestyyle… “
We walked in a single file line to the pool deck and lined up behind our blocks as the announcer introduced us.
“In lane 1, swimming for West Central… In lane 2… “
I strapped on my goggles and put on my cap. Extending my arms, I stretched shoulder to shoulder and took ten deep breaths.
“… And in lane 3, a high school All-American from Rock Valley… “
My lips quivered and my throat dried. I told myself to keep breathing and that everything was okay. But my heart was throbbing uncontrollably. I tried shaking my arms and legs to loosen my stiff body.
“… In lane 4, your top seed in this event, is a 3-time defending state champion and state record holder… swimming for Mission Viejo High School… Jayyy Thompsonnn… “
The roaring crowd drowned my thoughts. I picked nervously at my fingernails; and readjusted my goggles and cap, worried they might fall off during my dive.
“… And in lane 5, who was runner-up in this event last year… “
I looked into the stands trying to find my parents so I could wave to them like I always did before my race. I wanted to thank them for everything, for all the support, for all the effort that they put in for me. I kept looking, but I could not pick them out from the hundreds of onlookers.
“… In lane 6, from Lincoln High… And in lane 7… “
This was it. This was my time to shine. All those sleepless nights I spent dreaming of this race; all those hours I spent training day after day, were not for a second place finish. I poured my heart out to prepare for this last race of my high school career. I trained like a champion and now I was ready to win like one.
“… And finally in lane 8, also swimming for Mission Viejo, is Jizzzy MacGibsonnn… “
The whistle blew and the official signaled the swimmers to take their marks. It was dead silent… and then whoosh, off we dove into the water.
My hands entered first, in a streamline position. I glided for a few yards and took seven dolphin kicks before I surfaced. Holding my breath, I swam the length of the pool and charged into the wall for my flip turn. My feet positioned perfectly as I hit the wall and carried my momentum into the final length. By now, the crowd’s cheers were deafening. I took another five dolphin kicks and swam the rest of the race with my head down.
I finished to the wall and took a few seconds to catch my breath. Gasping for air, I lifted my head up and looked at the scoreboard. Out-touching Jay and the others by less than a tenth of a second, I had claimed my first victory.
Now as I looked into the stands, I could pick out my parents from the hundreds of spectators. They were screaming and jumping up and down with joy. I smiled and waved to them and they gave me a thumbs-up.
As I got out of the pool, a news reporter immediately congratulated me.
“Hey, great job. Do you have a moment to tell us about your race?”
“Uh yeah,” I stammered.
I had only dreamed of being interviewed, but reporters never asked me about anything.
“Well, tell me about the race. How did you prepare for it and how did it feel to finally win your first title?”
“I spent months preparing for this race. It took a lot of commitment, but through the pain, through the sweat and tears, I knew that every ounce of effort was worth it.”
I had practiced reciting those exact sentences every night for this moment, and now I was finally able to say them.