When I first swam, I was five. My swim coach was named Cricket and she taught me to breathe every four strokes. One, two, three, gasp, one, two, three, gasp.
Nobody knows when the first human swam. I assume they drowned and people kept drowning until swim lessons were invented.
It’s funny to me that many people are so scared of water. It makes up most of our body. We grew into our bodies in the liquid of our mother’s womb. People say water births are ideal because they provide the smoothest transition from the womb to the outside world. The child leaves it’s growing place and transitions to a place that’s similar. Descending out of itself and into itself.
When Missy Franklin, a gold medalist in the 100 and 200 backstroke, swam for the first time it was like destiny. It was like I was born in the water, she says. Like she was returning to the womb, descending back into herself spiral by spiral.
When the flowers in my backyard are almost open, but not quite, I like to grab the petals and peel them open. Pressing the soft layers back–I have no time to wait for nature. The flowers need to bloom now, while I am still here to see them.
I understand that this is cruel and pointless.
When I was little, I learned to count very quickly. I counted my steps to get everywhere in school. I knew that it took exactly 102 steps to get from my classroom to the cafeteria, and 90steps to get from there to the library. I learned to count because I had to. How else was I supposed to fill the empty space in my mind. The ambiguity of a walk through school poked holes in my body and made me sick.
Because of this, I joined swim team. Structure is good, my mother says. Now, I can learn how to make things feel better. I can learn that the more your legs burn the softer they are after a shave. I can learn that it’s possible to ignore the spasms that come after one has held their breath too long.
There are four strokes that are legal in competitive swimming. Freestyle, butterfly, backstroke, and breaststroke.
Freestyle was a race horse, full of beast and muscle.
Then there was butterfly. Butterfly is the stroke made most popular by Micheal Phelps. It is not as easy as he makes it look.
Backstroke is the scariest stroke to me. You can’t see where you’re going so everything has to be timed perfectly. You need to know exactly how many strokes it takes for you to get to the wall before you flip or else you’ll crash against the wall. My number was three.
Then there was breaststroke. I could ever understand it. It was always my worst. Cricket taught me to kick—turn legs out, chicken feet, parachute, snap jaws closed. My ankles couldn’t turn out all the way and catch enough water for me to pull myself forward.
When you start swimming you begin to become acquainted with the most successful people in your sport. Allison Schmitt has a gold medal in the 200 freestyle. She is 6’1 and cannot stop smiling in the interviews that I watch. For some reason, I found her very annoying.
There were trees that grew over the pool I swam at. They would drop pine needles and leaves into the water. They would get caught in your suit and cause little pink pricks to form all over your skin. Sometimes I would take the needles and weave little bracelets. Other times, I would throw them at people. Once I hit my best friend square in the back. The needle pierced a scar that she got from jumping a fence in the 6th grade. Now on top of that wound, there was another smaller one. Little pink pricks forming.
On my tenth birthday I stopped all other sports and outside activities. I swam six times a week, for at least an hour and a half. I noticed that another girl is getting private lessons. I decided I should do those too. I decided I was going to make the Olympics in 2020. I would be 16 by then. Plenty of time to improve.
Micheal Phelps made the olympic team when he was 15 years old. In the 200 fly he came in 5th overall. I’m sure he wasn’t satisfied by this. My first swim coach used to say, a good athlete is never satisfied. You should never look at the people you beat, only the people who beat you. I always liked winning. Usually it was pretty easy. But when it wasn’t I was incapacitated. I remember one morning we played a game and the objective was to get across the pool in as few breaststroke kicks as possible. The record was four. I was stuck at fifteen.
Micheal Phelps now has 28 olympic medals. 23 are gold.
Most people I knew loved swim meets. Another opportunity to win was very welcome. I never felt that way. Swim meets were terrifying to me. When I got too close to the edge, the tile on the bottom of the pool blurred and formed a goats pupil. I wanted to vomit but I never could. I could never throw up at a swim meet.
Micheal Phelps tried to race a shark after his final olympics in 2016. He lost. He even had a head start. Pathetic, a woman next to me whispers. She’s not talking about Micheal Phelps. She’s talking about her daughter who is struggling to finish her race. She flounders in the water, lagging behind the other girls. It’s like she’s not even trying.
I could never lead a lane at swim practice because I couldn’t count laps. I had many other things to think about. How I had to breathe on this stroke, blink twice for every leaf on the pool floor, apply the exact same amount of pressure to each leg pushing off the wall. I suppose my teammates were better at multitasking than I was.
Once I tried to count laps for a friend instead of myself. She was swimming a long event at a swim meet, the 800 free, which is almost half a mile of swimming. Because of this, the athletes ask friends to count their laps for them. Counting laps is pretty simple. You stand at the end of the pool and hold a long pole. At the end of the pole are large plastic cards with numbers on them. For every lap, you flip a card and when the swimmer is turning they look up and see how many more laps they have. When I was counting for my friend I got distracted by the tiles on the deck and nearly dropped the pole on her head.
I chased down a boy I liked and hit him on the arm with a branch from a rose bush. I felt guilty about this for a while. Watching his arms under water, seeing how little pink lines had bloomed. When swim practice went on too long, I would lock myself in the bathroom. Staring at beetles crawling on the locker room floor. Watching little pink lines bloom.
In May of 2015, Allison Schmitt’s cousin commits suicide.
I cut my hand open at the bottom of the pool. A bee sting in between my toes. A stabbing pain in my shoulder.
When I was little my friend had a pool party. He said he could run, run faster than any of us under the water. He cut the soles of his feet open on the bottom. Little rivers of blood pooled on his pale skin. Even now I can’t forget it. I can never let my feet touch the ground. I have to tread water for hours.
Tiles are very important. Every time I finish a set there are four tiles I have to touch. One, two three, four, one, two, three, four.
Micheal Phelps has gone a year without skipping practice.
My mother learned to tread water in the YMCA pool by her house in Virginia. She was never the strongest swimmer. Too anxious, she says. Instead she played tennis. I was never as good as you, she says.
Micheal Phelps is pulled over for doing 84 in a 45 mile zone. He failed two DUI tests in a row. After that day he lays on the floor of his apartment and thinks about drowning. In an interview years later he admits, I was in a dark place, not wanting to be alive anymore. His coach, Bob Bowman said, I thought, the way he was going, he was going to kill himself.
Micheal Phelps older sister should’ve gone to the olympics. Unfortunately, like her brother, she lay on the floor for days, trying to hide her broken back and blue body.
I am very good at counting. I count every stroke I take. I can make it across the pool in fourteen. My coach wants me to make it eleven.
Missy Franklin has lost air in Rio. To her, it feels as though she has run out. Her coach removes her from the relay race she was supposed to swim on. She watches from her hotel room as they win the gold medal she was set for. The carpet under her suffocates her body. She folds back into her throat ring by ring.
My last swim meet was unplanned. After making finals in the 200 free I walked up to my coach and told him I was never swimming again. The only thing that disturbed me about the encounter was how unsurprised he seemed.
The first time I almost drowned I was jumping into a cold lake. I had a life vest on but when the water touched my body I was certain I was going to die. I hadn’t swam in two months. My cousin had to pull me out and I lay on the boat deck in shock. As my aunt explained that the cold currents came from the mountains nearby, my cheek melted into the warm metal like an ice cube.
Pearl Reagler is a student at the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Houston Texas. Most of the time, she likes to write poetry and screenplays. She also enjoys photography and film.
Visual Arts by Sumin Seo