I witnessed something extraordinary yesterday. It happened at a swim meet (Tarheel State) in Huntersville, NC. At this meet there were a lot of very fast swims, best times, and records pushed. But the extraordinary thing that I saw wasn’t any of those things.
To give some background, most of our nine kids have participated in the sport of swimming, on some level, over the span of the last 15 years. My husband and I have been driving kids to swim practices and meets for all those years as well. During this time, I have come to understand what is involved in the life of the competitive swimmer. There are the two and a half hour practices almost everyday. There are sometimes morning practices at the crack of dawn (they are called “doubles” because the swimmers come back for an afternoon practice as well). Countless laps across a pool at every practice, endless starts and turns, intervals, and yards and yards of swimming everyday. Then there is all the work out of the pool (called dry land practices).
Competitive swimming takes extreme dedication, serious discipline, and lots of passion. But even if the passion temporarily vanishes, there is no avoiding the hard work. Sometimes it takes an act of heroism just to get in the pool…again.
All of this comes into play every time a swimmer gets on the starting block before a race. From the spectator stands, all we see is a swimmer. But what is behind each competitor are all of the hours of time and effort that have been logged before the official blows the whistle. As a parent, I can’t begin to count the number of swim meets I have been to over the years. I have seen the age-group swimmers, fresh faced and eager, and I have seen the senior level swimmers, seasoned and water-logged. I have even had the privilege of experiencing the Olympic Trials in Omaha, Nebraska in 2008, where our son swam the 100 Butterfly. What I saw yesterday did not come with the glory of a high-level meet, however, but it should have.
In fact, it went largely unnoticed by most in the crowd at the Tarheel State meet. I was a timer at the meet. Next to me timing in the same lane was another mom, or otherwise I probably would have missed it as well. Before the start of the 100 freestyle, this mom told me that it was the last meet that her daughter would be swimming. It wasn’t that she no longer wanted to swim. This was the last meet of the short-course season, and she is a senior in high school. She is not swimming in college, so for her, she has decided the swimming road ends here. She has already been accepted at the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her future is bright; it just doesn’t include swimming at the college level.
When she dove in to swim her final race, I glanced over at her mom and saw the emotion on her face. I could feel my own eyes welling up with tears. As I watched her daughter swim powerfully through each lap and watched her strong turns, I wondered if she saw more than just this race. I wondered if in her mind she imagined her daughter at 10 years-old, swimming at an age-group meet. I wondered if she remembered all the countless hours back and forth to the pool.
With every stroke she took, what I saw was the incredible effort, commitment and discipline that competitive swimming demands.
She didn’t win the race. She didn’t even get second or third. She touched in at fourth place. But she was a winner in my eyes. I looked over at her smiling mom. I wanted to stand and yell and cheer. I wanted to get the whole crowd to clap as this girl got out of the pool. But the next swimmer was already on the blocks waiting for the whistle. The meet went on.
Later, as we were all leaving the meet, I saw her again. She was laughing with her friends as they left the building. It was then that I realized something. This wasn’t an ending for her. The sport of swimming had helped her develop into a strong person, not just an athlete. What she has gained from swimming, she will take with her wherever she goes. She will apply what she has learned in the pool to her life outside of the pool. I wish I could be a spectator for that!