I launched from the block. Hitting the water, I went dove deep, all the while kicking my legs. As I hit the surface, I entered the zone. The zone where I heard nothing, thought nothing. But I sure felt something…
It was simple; I had done it thousands of times before. Pull, pull, pull, breathe. Pull, pull, pull, breathe. And yet, while I was in the water, I knew I could not come up. I couldn’t make myself do it. It was like a mental block. When athletes forget how to swing a bat or jump a hurdle. Something that comes so natural can all of a sudden leave you. Your muscle memory goes blank, and, essentially, you’re out of luck.
I couldn’t come back up because that meant I would have to swim another stroke, race down the pool, do a kick turn, make my way back, and hear Coach tell me “Again” yet another time. I was exhausted. We had been at it for three hours that day, starting at 5:00 AM. Training for the big event took countless hours of practice, as Jessie, a former gold medalist, told me. “You better be prepared,” she said, “It’s grueling, especially for women.” It is a cliché to say it, but I had been preparing all my life, ever since I hopped in our community pool one summer and everyone was stunned that I was a natural.
But thousands of hours of practice couldn’t prepare me for this moment.
I was aware that the world was completely silent to me. That’s what I loved most about swimming; you could get lost in the pool, lulled into meditation by the rhythm of the motions and the sound of the water in your ear. I actually hated it when people stood along side of the pool and cheered. It took my focus away. People hushed when I was in the pool, or at least my team did.
And in that moment, I feared for myself. I wished I heard something. I was slipping away.
Someone grabbed me. It was Christina, who had been swimming backstroke a few lanes over from me. She pulled me up, and I gasped for breath. Finally, sound started to come back. I was both relieved and disappointed. One more stroke, one more kick turn, one more length of the pool. One more “Again!” I would never escape. And yet, I knew I would never stop loving it.