A New Swimmer's Nationals
“I’m going to need my hand here for a second,” pleaded my husband Tom as he moved his blue fingers back to the steering wheel and out of the vice grip my hand had formed over his. Brake lights flashed red across all four lanes but did nothing to slow the out-of-control, speeding heart that pounded in my chest. I could feel the air struggling to dry sweat that seeped from the palms of my hands. Drawing a deep breath was the only way I’d been able to stop these paralyzing episodes over the last few days. Now, letting out a deep sigh, I kept telling myself, “It’ll be ok, it’ll be ok.” But the fear did not subside.
The makings of a suspense novel, you may be thinking? Think again. For me, this was the beginning of my journey to Mesa, Ariz. for my first USMS Nationals and only the eighth swim meet of my life. When I joined the Plano Wetcats a year and a half earlier I didn’t know a descending set from a one-armed drill. I didn’t sleep at night because I’d be so nervous about keeping up in practice in the morning. I swam so hard trying to keep up that I was exhausted at the end of each practice but I kept showing up. As my husband pulled up to the curb at the airport, the first of several surreal moments slowed time around me. I was getting on a plane and flying to Nationals. I had qualified for Nationals. I was going to Nationals!
Flying with me was my teammate Krissy MacCurdy, a seasoned, lifelong competitive swimmer.
“How many Nationals have you been to Krissy”, I asked her at 30,000 feet somewhere between Dallas and El Paso.
“Tons.” She replied and began to run down a history of meets that spanned well over two decades.
There was something so comforting about having Krissy at my side and it wasn’t just her experience. From the moment I joined the team, there was a sense of belonging and encouragement that made those 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls almost bearable. Our team is fortunate to have incredible swimmers in our program, even National record holders, but they all come across the lane lines to offer support and advice for teammates. As soon as they saw my commitment to swim, the top women on my team were there for me and now they were taking me all the way to Nationals.
We checked into the hotel and went to lunch across the street. Before we could even sit down, my teammate Lynn Morrison spotted a table of friends. Scanning the menu for something to eat that wouldn’t be ejected by my nervous stomach in the pool later that afternoon, I listened in to the easy conversation of old friends reconnecting through swimming. This was a scene I would see played out over and over again at the meet. Friendships that began decades ago were warmly rekindled poolside as if heats, not years separated their last meeting. Friendship seems almost as important as speed to these athletes. Almost.
The pool deck was an animated and colorful scene, a bit like a three ringed circus with two competition pools, advertising banners, two warm-up warm-down pools, bleachers along two sides, a blaring PA system and swim suit clad athletes swarming the deck and water like bees. Dropping our gear on the bleachers, we readied for a swim in the competition pool. Stepping up to a lane filled with swimmers, time slowed again, so I paused and took a moment to soak up the energy and excitement that electrified the warm Arizona air. Jumping in, my arms began pulling, I settled my face in the water and grinned. Nationals!
Friday was my first day of competition. Positioned on the block for the 100 Breast, my heart was racing but my nerves held steady. It had only been a few weeks earlier that I had swum our regional zone championships in San Antonio, Texas. My first day there, I was frozen in a web of nerves and fears. I was determined to rise above my destructive nerves at Nationals. But even if I succeeded, I was still feeling under-conditioned and poorly prepared for the meet. My father died in February and life had been complicated and intense ever since. I was dedicating my meet to his memory but I didn’t know what I had in me.
“Take your mark …”
I reached down for the block with my hands and began to pull myself into position.
Krissy swam a great race a few heats before me and I held fast to the image of her steady stroke as I dove in. With about 10 yards to the finish, the searing heat began burning my lungs and deadening my limbs. As I pushed for the wall, I scolded myself for thinking about how much I’d like to scratch the 200 breast! Glancing up at the scoreboard, I found my lane and saw I’d managed to repeat my time from zones that had been a personal best. I’d take it for the first race at Nationals.
Later that day, I was scheduled for two relays: a mixed 200 medley and a women’s 200 free. I’d only swum two relays prior to this and felt honored for the opportunity to swim with my teammates in a race at Nationals. Clearly, I was the weakest link on both relays but my teammates were all supportive, encouraging and reassuring me that we were going to have fun! My splits for both races, even adjusted for the rolling start, were solid personal bests. After my share of high fives and knuckle knocking, I headed for a warm-down pool feeling thoroughly happy. Day one over!
The next two days were filled with time in the water, time under the tent and time poolside cheering on teammates. Our coach had gotten sick a few days before Nationals and hadn’t been able to join us for the meet but he had sent us with a well- organized list of events, heats and lane assignments for each of our swimmers. We all worked together following the meet’s flow to make sure we were on deck and at the right spot when one of our own swam a race. We would congregate at the end of the lane and began shouting words of encouragement before our swimmer even mounted the blocks. Someone always managed to get your splits and my husband, the self-appointed team cheerleader; videotaped and photographed as many races as he could. There wasn’t a race that I swam that I didn’t hear the voices of my teammates rolling across the blue pool water, letting me know that they were there.
Comedy abounded under the shady white awning that served as our home away from home as we all piled onto towels and into chairs to pass the time between races. There were highs as Tom swam to several new National records, when Shaun split under thirty for a 50 free and when Lynn got her sub twenty-seven and won the 50 free. There were quieter moments when a teammate missed their goal and moved through the moments of disappointment that come when the clock doesn’t match the dream. There were opportunities to watch other swimmers accomplish inspirational swims due to their age, circumstances or even Olympic proven ability. There was little time to be bored!
It had been a long wait for my final race, the 100 Free. When the time came, I joined a legion of other women in a procession to the locker room to squeeze into my new tech suit. I hadn’t bought one for Nationals even though the girls told me to get one. They were expensive but I was more worried that if I wore one, people would think I knew what I was doing. I was sort of attached to wearing my amateur off the rack Lycra suit that identified me as the beginner I am. Unfortunately, a vendor at the meet had a snazzy new tech suit just my size at 50% off and the bargain hunter in me overruled the embarrassed swimmer.
I had just enough time to cheer on a few of our guys in the 100 free before heading to the warm-up pool. I had my warm-up routine by now: an easy 100 or two followed by a few 50s building into and out of the walls and maybe a few 25s to fine tune things. I felt good. My body felt responsive. I worked to relax my arm in recovery like Lynn told me to do, to roll my shoulders, to go deep and really feel for the catch. I needed patient arms; I needed to hold the water.
Heading over to my lane I could feel the anticipation beginning to prickle my skin and quicken my heartbeat. The afternoon sun was low and slightly golden upon the low bleachers set behind the starting blocks for competitors waiting to race. I took a seat and wrapped my towel closely around my shoulders against the cool breeze that bounced the flags over the pool. Lynn sat quietly in the shade in front of me, no doubt preparing her race in her mind. Teammates cheered wildly as heats were sent off in both pools. Voices boomed from all sides shouting encouragement to racing swimmers and then it happened again and it was the last time it happened.
All the noises seemed to fade and were replaced by a warmth, by a silent glow that came from inside and told me to look around. As I turned my head from side to side I saw countless swimmers in varying stages of readiness, I saw boisterous laughter and celebration but mostly I saw smiles in the gilded afternoon sun. I was smiling too and for a moment in time, I just sat there and soaked up the magic of Spring Nationals.
Lynn went on to swim her 100 free and shortly thereafter I swam mine. The magic calm remained with me and I kept patient and focused for those four laps. When I looked up at the board, much to my astonishment my time read 1:09:44. My fastest previous time was a 1:13.08. I had shattered my personal best. I was just about the slowest swimmer in my age division in the 100 free but I didn’t care. I came to my first USMS Nationals with one goal; to swim my best and I did. I swam four personal bests out of five events. I’ll be back next year for sure and I’ll definitely be looking for faster times. I’ll also be returning for the magic; for those rare moments when time slows down and if you let yourself be still, the magic of USMS Nationals washes over you in a wave of happiness you’ll not soon forget.