I didn't make the Olympics. Now what?

I spent years training for gold, but came up short at the trials. Where does an obsession go when the dream dies

Published July 11, 2012 12:01AM (EDT)


Excerpted from "Swimming Studies."

In 1984, when my brother Derek and I first joined a summer swimming program, we became obsessed with goggles. My hero was the Canadian champion Anne Ottenbrite — a blonde breaststroker who wore a pair of wide, round Speedos. I wanted a pair of those goggles. When I finally got them I thought I looked faster.

At the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Ottenbrite won gold in the 200m breaststroke and silver in the 100m wearing the Speedo goggles. But Victor Davis won gold in the 200m breaststroke and silver in the 100m in a pair of squarish Arenas, with black lenses and opaque white sides. Alex Baumann won the 200m and 400m IM in Arenas. By the end of the summer, I switched to a pair of squarish black Arenas that I regularly rinsed out with tap water as the instructions advised.

By 1988, when I was swimming seriously, minimal Swedish goggles had arrived in southern Ontario. These were molded plastic eyepieces that fit securely into the eye socket, without any rubber or foam lining the rims. At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Janet Evans won her 400m and 800m freestyle and 400m IM gold medals in a green pair. There was a coach who sold Swedish goggles poolside at Ontario meets for $12. I bought two, a red pair and a brown pair that came, unassembled, in narrow ziplock bags. Brown for training, red for racing. These goggles marked a step up in my swimming career, from okay to good. It was the beginning of my loyalty to equipment, to rituals and patterns. These goggles are a Masonic handshake. Even now, if I see other swimmers using them, I know they know.

Since I quit competitive swimming in 1992, my exercise routines have been a combination of jogging, kickboxing (briefly), swimming laps at the Y, swimming laps in my backyard, swimming laps with a group of Italian illustrators before heading to a juice bar where they smoke and drink carrot juice, tennis lessons, yoga, an early- morning boot camp, and, after being persuaded by a guard or coach on deck who notices my stroke, tagging along for various masters team swim workouts in different cities. When I do this, it starts out great, but I eventually grow shy of the mid-set banter, get discouraged by my practice times and uncomfortable with my loss of autonomy.

When I decide to push past these issues and join a New York masters swim team, I take the training back up like an old habit, an outgrown winter coat or friendship. It’s familiar territory, but, as a teammate points out, I need a pull buoy and flippers, and it’s the perfect excuse to look for new goggles.

Flicking through the selection at Paragon Sports, I see they have a few based on the Swedish design: foamless, socket-fitted molded plastic goggles that you assemble yourself. One version is called the Socket Rocket.

The night before a morning workout I find it hard to contemplate getting up to swim. My head is full of protest, a persuasive voice tells me not to bother. I have to mentally freeze-dry these impulses so that my body gets up, pulls my suit on, ties my shoelaces, picks up my bag, and calls the elevator. From there — like getting into the chilly Hampstead pond — it is one fluid motion: street, blocks uptown, building, stairwell, pool deck.

Once I am on deck, my will slumps again and the petulance seeps in. For the first hundred meters the water feels resentfully cold. In the face of the oncoming meters and the interval training, the inner whining becomes a wail. I blur my already blurry vision, and force my body to eat the meters, eat the laps. My body is constantly in motion, while my brain is glued to the clock, willing the minute hand to move, to eat the minutes. My head and my arms are like a bickering couple, beseeching each other to chill.

I clearly have not Made a Commitment, defined in a 1987 memo that my coach Greg made, xeroxed from the book The Nuts and Bolts of Psychology for Swimmers by Dr. Keith Bell. I still have it. The spread he copied includes two paragraphs titled “Make a Commitment.”

A commitment is important. Once you have set a longterm goal, you have decided to make the trip. Without a commitment, however, you are liable to question each step of the way. Commit yourself to an intense training program. Don’t allow yourself to be making decisions about whether to attend a given day’s practice or whether to cruise through the upcoming set. It doesn’t make much sense to have to decide whether to take each individual step in a trip you have already decided to make.

Do I have a long-term goal? If anything, it’s to figure out what to do with something I do well but no longer have any use for.

The one thing that I am formally trained at is swimming. I’m aware I rely on this training when I’m working, that I know when to push through and when to rest, that I’ve figured out the equivalent of drills, interval training, and performance when I’m on deadline or trying to realize a project. But I don’t know where to put the old skill, if I can, or even want to, incorporate it into my adult life.

Watching the even strokes of my masters teammates, I wonder whether they question what they’re doing as much as I do. I’m used to hearing artists and writers question what they do; self-loathing, doubt, and mental blocks are par for the course. Athletes may wince at muscle pain but generally don’t articulate their struggles. We respect them because they suck it up. They just do it.

My masters team holds practices at the Baruch College pool, in the basement of the Athletics and Recreation Complex, on the corner of Twenty-fourth Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. In the bluish 6 a.m. light, the bronze life-scale statue of a smiling Bernard Baruch sitting on a bench in the lobby never fails to startle me.

Our coach is from Russia. He gives us textured workouts, often involving dolphin dives, fins, partners, and streamlining drills. He demonstrates each drill balletically himself from the deck, sweeping his arms around his body.

I like his workouts, and as much as my mind questions the point, my body knows exactly what to do, with some advanced level of competence, even grace. When I arrived for my first practice with the team, two other swimmers were stretching against the cinder-block walls and I joined them. The coach then led us jogging through the corridors and empty rooms of the basement. We ran up and down the stairs and did pushups on pleather benches in an anteroom. While we did ankle stretches, the coach looked at my flexible feet and remarked: “You have been a swimmer all your life.”

As the weather warms up, my focus weakens. I don’t prioritize practices, barely manage one a week, dreading it in the days before. The usual frustration sets in when I can’t make pace times. I’m embarrassed that the coach thinks I’m better than I actually am, and baffled when I hear another swimmer in the locker room after practice enthuse about what a kickass workout we just swam. The kickass workout only makes me grumpy. Where are my endorphins? I leave, sore, and think: You can’t choose what you are good at, but does that mean you should do it? It occurs to me that I might be happier doing something I’m not good at. I have a bad attitude. I’ve noticed one swimmer who cuts corners and leaves early. I dislike him immediately, the way you dislike someone who reminds you of yourself. I think about quitting. But a team e-mail announces a local meet, and I decide to enter.

The day before the meet, when I tell my husband, James, I have to carboload, he prepares sausage orecchiette with fresh chard from our garden. After dinner, in bed, I assemble a new pair of pink Swedish goggles I ordered online. On race day, I buy macaroni and cheese from the gourmet shop around the corner, happy to continue my carbohydrate binge. When I was fourteen, I’d cover a plate of my mother’s spaghetti and meatballs with foil the night before a race. I’d then eat it, cold, for breakfast on race day. Tucking into my elbow pasta and Gruyère, at noon, alone in my apartment, I feel silly and have a pang of longing for the world I knew instinctively, the one I started eating spaghetti in. I see the rounded edges of my parents’ kitchen countertop — a small swelling lip dropping to a ninety-degree vertical, ivory laminate chosen from a fan of colors on a beaded chain. The three steps leading down to our side door. The way the light from our basement window fell on a small snow drift. The pale blue shade of the seat belt in my mother’s station wagon.

The meet begins at three p. m., with warm-up at two. On my walk to the pool I buy a bottle of blue Gatorade. On deck, Ludacris is playing over the loudspeakers, and the volume rises as I get in to warm up. I feel a little tired but good. I loosen up my arms and legs, try a few starts to make sure my goggles stay on, and do two sprints before getting out. The heat sheets are taped to the wall. I’m swimming four events: 50m freestyle, 50m breaststroke, 100m breaststroke, and 100m freestyle. No sign of my coach, or anyone I recognize. I seem to be the only person representing my team, so I sit against a wall between two other teams and watch the rest of warm-up, soothed by the beautiful strokes of some swimmers, the jerky awkwardness of others.

Watching a good swimmer is the visual equivalent of patting a dog’s smooth head — something naturally, wondrously sweet and perfect. You can never tell if swimmers are good or not by looking at them on land. I watch one woman, tall and graceful, perfectly proportioned in her tank, get in and demonstrate a gruesomely mincing, hesitant freestyle. A short, chubby man, wearing no cap or goggles, dives in and executes a delicately churned butterfly down the pool.

It’s funny that here — amid all this exposed adult flesh — I am my least self-conscious. Maybe my goggles and cap confer a sort of Maskenfreiheit. Without fashion, without slimming blacks and elongating verticals, there is less information to parse and judge, more to accept. Here my mind is the plus one. I don’t wish I had a book or magazine to pass the hours. I watch the races, I sit silently, the most relaxed I’ve been in a long time.

The Bearcats, the team hosting the meet, occupy a single set of bleachers. The rest of the teams are grouped along the opposite wall. Keeping an eye out for my coach, I watch women with big wet circles on the seat of their track pants, men pale and hairy, coaches holding heat sheets, busy officials in shorts. One competitor’s mother and girlfriend sit patiently at the end of my bench. I glance at the clock and think of this scene in cross section, happening four stories below street level, a pool full of busy adults, kicking and gliding and splashing on a Saturday afternoon. Overhearing bits of conversation I realize many of the swimmers also do triathlons. I can’t even imagine. During the national anthem, a few swimmers place wet hands over wet breasts. I think of the traffic lights above us, the cashiers at the Duane Reade where I bought my Gatorade, who were short of change. I head for the women’s locker room. It’s empty, with a large shallow puddle in front of the sinks. It feels different from how it does during practice, like an elementary school lit at night, full of fizzy anticipation.

My first race, 50m free, is relatively painless; I win my heat, and then the event in my age group. Still no coach. I wait for my second swim, watching the heats, shifting on my wet bottom, itchy as the Lycra dries. (My brother called sufferers of this common swim-meet affliction the IBC: Itchy Bum Club.) I am irked in my second event, the 50m breast, by a woman in the lane next to mine, who finishes almost a second faster. She is wearing a technical suit I thought was prohibited. I look up her name and age on the heat sheets: she’s ten years younger than I am. I vow to beat her in the 100m. There is a break at five o’clock, and I use the telephone in the lifeguard office to call James, who is in a car on the way to the airport. There are two pizzas reserved for the officials on the desk in front of me. I am getting hungry. Back in my corner the man sitting next to me opens a bag of peanut M& M’s.

The 100m breaststroke is next, and staring at the swimmers in a state of strange hypnotism, I nearly miss my heat. The start, four lengths, and finish unspool like the poems I memorized in high school and remember slightly off: Magee, sunward I climb / towards the tumbling mirth; Housman, Roselipt maidens sleeping / in fields where roses fade. I know the pattern and the color, but I don’t know the right words. I win my heat, beating the woman as planned. My time, which places me first in the country in my age group, is shockingly slow to me. I shall wear my trousers rolled.

One more race and I can go home. As I wait and watch the heats before mine, I remember how much I loved to race. My last event is the 100m free. The four lengths feel good, and so does the familiar push into the bank of pain and fatigue during the last two laps. I finish and glance at the board: 1:11:00. As I’m detangling my hair in the locker room, I realize that is the time I was obsessed with all those years ago for the 100m breaststroke, my microwave time. When I look up the results the next day, I realize I must have read someone else’s time; mine is recorded as 1:10:51. The time places me third in the country in my age group. The rankings mean a lot and very little, like I did it in spite of myself. My body gets it more than my mind will ever appreciate. I give it that.

Body: “Awesome, right?”

Mind: “. . .”

Body: “I’m hungry.”

I believed, for a while, in the aphrodisiacal qualities of my swimming. Sometimes, doing laps somewhere, I’d think: If only he could see me swim, he’d fall in love. It’s like my karaokelomania: the belief that I wield a seductive wand and appear totally awesome when I’m up there singing Radiohead. Sometimes I have swimalomania.

While I’m voguing, in cap and goggles, in the back of my mind, I mention to James that there’s a meet not far from where we live, in an outdoor pool. I think: He’ll love me even more if he sees me race, he’ll fall in love with me all over again.

He agrees to come watch me swim.

The meet takes place in a six-lane fifty-meter pool. It’s surrounded by a low chain-link fence, and overlooks a small artificial lake. The meet day is sunny, an ideal outdoor-swim-meet day, the deck full of people, elderly, middle-aged, a few in their twenties. Some wear technical suits, most don’t.

Swimming long course again feels luxurious, Californian. An outdoor fifty-meter expanse of water shimmers with the same kind of American dream that football fields and baseball diamonds do. Lines are crisp and colors are primary: swimming-pool blue, touchpad yellow, striped lane ropes, red and yellow flags. The pool, built in 1993, shows a little of its age, making it even more charmingly East Coast. It has heavy revolving doors leading to the locker rooms, old maroon starting blocks, and worn concrete decking. As I warm up, the bleachers begin to fill. I’m not feeling tip-top. My arms are heavy and my body drags a bit. I do a few starts and a few sprints, then get out and head for where James is sitting with my things, sipping an iced coffee. He’s trying to read the paper over someone’s shoulder as I approach.

The officials are having trouble with the touchpad system and ask the crowd for timers. James volunteers. I am the only swimmer in my age group again, and during my first race I swim beside a man in the thirty-nine-to-forty-four age group. I lead the field, but fade in the last fifteen meters and finish second behind my neighbor. I look at James and he gives me a shrug. I realize he doesn’t get the whole age-group thing; to him a race is a race. Fortunately I win the heats of my next two races, giving the appearance of really winning. James offers a thumbs-up.

As I stand behind the blocks for my last race, an older woman walks past in her black and neon-green tank, two children in tow. “Mommy’s about to race, honey.”

It dawns on me why I am the only one in my age group. All the other thirty-five-to-thirty-nine-year-old women are pregnant, breastfeeding, or chasing toddlers. I cross my arms over my chest. I think the old thought: I have to start thinking about babies. Then: What do I think of babies? I think of being warned about performance-enhancing drugs twenty years ago and being encouraged to take them now. Of ovarian dysfunction at eighteen and now, at thirty-eight. How my body understands time better than my mind does. Then I think: This will be my final meet.

When we leave the pool, James strolls toward the car like a man who has just sat through an interesting lecture and is now peckish. There are no cartoon hearts popping out of his eyes, just a distracted practicality. On the drive home, fishing for compliments, I remark that I’m surprised my times were that fast, considering I hadn’t really been practicing and I felt so crummy in warm-up. “Well,” James says absentmindedly, glancing in the side mirror, “I overheard someone in the stands say they wondered if the pool was short.”

I stare hard out the window. James notices.

“What? Sweetheart . . . was that a big contest?”

A contest. I stifle a smile out the window and my pride thins.

It won’t matter to James if I’m fast or not, a good swimmer or not. It’s the last thing he’ll be impressed by.

Excerpted from "Swimming Studies" by Leanne Shapton. Copyright 2012 by Leanne Shapton, courtesy Blue Rider Press.

By Leanne Shapton

Leanne Shapton is an illustrator, author and publisher. She is the author of "Swimming Studies," "Was She Pretty?" and "Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry." Her work has appeared in Elle and The New York Times, where from 2008-09, she was the art director of the op-ed page.

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