Different Strokes

The best rewards don’t always come in bronze, silver, and gold

It’s 5:30 a.m., cold, and oppressively dark, and I’m headed out the door with my swim bag. Fifteen minutes later, I’m there with the others, waiting to be let into the building where the pool is. Practice starts at 6 a.m., with a 15-minute warm-up, which only the truly dedicated and anti-social accomplish. The rest of us bob in the shallow end, talking about last night’s episode of Glee and the hot new guy in lane three.

Unlike some of my teammates, I never swam competitively in college. I was on the high-school swim team, though, and I loved the feeling of being efficient in the water.

And so it was that I first joined a master’s team 10 years ago. The team met twice a week. Our Russian coach had been, she said, on the Olympic team but had been prevented from competing in the games for reasons that, through an accent as thick as KGB secrets, were hard to understand. Her philosophy of training, though, was quite clear: “You have to deserve your breakfast,” she once told us. My first practice with her was a set of 4 x 700’s. In other words, we swam as hard as we could for nearly half a mile, took a 30-second rest, and went at it three more times.

Perhaps because of her own success as a competitor, she’d encouraged us to swim in the state masters meet. Having no other obligations that weekend, and having been assured it would be fun, I signed up and—to my delight—came home festooned with gold medals.

 “I think I was the only one in my age group,” I joked to my sister, reasoning that most women ages 35 to 40 were probably home with small kids.

“Sure,” she said. “But also the fastest.”

When that team folded, I found the group I swim with now. Some of us compete in swim meets throughout the year; some of us are in training for triathlons and open-water swims; some of us are just trying to fit into our jeans.

Recently, our coach, an energetic 20-something and former Division I college swimmer, offered to videotape our strokes. She sent the clips to us, along with suggestions about what we could work on. I had to watch my breaststroke video twice to make sure I wasn’t actually going backwards.

“I thought I was faster than that,” I said to my lane mate, Amy, the next day.

“I thought I would look like Dara Torres,” she said. “But I didn’t.”

Witnessing my geriatric breaststroke and much more leisurely and random-looking backstroke than I’d thought I possessed, coupled with the generally inflated idea of my own aquatic grace, had me questioning my dedication to the sport. What sort of glory, exactly, was I trying to recapture? When had I developed this misguided sense of my own accomplishment?

Probably about the same time I came home with those medals, which, now that I thought about it, were plastic.

But lately, I’ve begun to think that winning doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s enough that we get up three mornings a week, commune in the pool, and do the best we can. Surely there are worse habits. Surely, doing something is better than nothing.

And perhaps it isn’t nothing.

My lane mate had recently gone in for a mammogram and the nurse had said to her, “This is hard to do on you! You have such great pecs!” That mammogram became the best part of her day.

And then I remembered the anesthesiologist for my own shoulder surgery. He’d been waiting for the ultrasound machine so that he could put a line in; finally he said, “Turn your head to the left.” And when I did, he’d remarked, “We don’t need the ultrasound. You have very well developed neck and chest muscles.”

“Why thank you, doctor,” I’d said, blushing at the recognition, which was better than any medal I might have won.

Shannon Olson, the author of the novels Welcome to My Planet and Children of God Go Bowling, is a regular contributor to “Last Word.”