She had shaved six seconds off her time in the 50-meter freestyle. That meant the front crawl, non-stop, across one full length of an Olympic-sized pool. She was bummed that she’d only placed second that day at a spring meet in Princeton. As in the university, not just the town. She was intense. She could kick my ass. She was nine years old.
“I hope it doesn’t sound like bragging, but I’m so proud of her,” her mom said and gave her daughter’s shoulders a squeeze.
Was the girl’s closed-mouth expression a smile or smirk? I couldn’t tell, but I knew what she thought as she stared at me and registered every detail. Standing there on a bright, cloudless beach day, she and her mom could see right through my Speedo performance swimsuit (the same worn by Olympian Dara Torres, my contemporary), competitive goggles (the model favored by Michael Phelps), and drag-reducing swim cap. I was no pro. I was a 42-year-old adult-swim-class flunkie.
While Aqua girl had spent the spring competing, I had taken swim lessons for the third time in my life. Twice a week for eight weeks, I and nine other aqua-phobic adults practiced bubble blowing, floating, and kicking. I managed a competent freestyle stroke by the end of the course, but never completed the final exam: jumping into the deep end of the pool. Even the woman with the flowered swim bonnet and skirted suit who clung to the edge of the pool like she was going to tear a chunk of it jumped into the deep end. I was the last one on line that day, and became the only one standing at the pool’s edge. I watched my classmates tread water as they urged and tried to coax me. The only thing I’d shaved successfully throughout the spring was my bikini line.
I practiced my freestyle stroke in the bay every day while on vacation. It felt like a literal crawl in rhythm with my motivational mantra, “Don’t dog paddle. Don’t drown. Don’t dog paddle. Don’t drown.” I was mortified as I talked with Aqua girl and her mom, and realized they’d been watching my daily flailing.
“You’re so dedicated,” her mom said. “I remind her it’s important to practice, but I’m just mom, so what do I know, right?”
She gave me a conspiratorial wink that I could not return, and Aqua girl gave a slight exhale.
“So anyway, she’s too shy to ask, but I think she’d like to join you out there. We both think you’ve got great form…”
My ear plugs were in my hand, so I had heard her just fine. Aqua girl gave me a shy, expectant closed-mouth smile. They had watched every day and though I could not believe it, they were certain it was me they had seen swimming.