I had won the town championships.
I had won the county championships.
I was going to the finals.
I’m a swimmer—A backstroke swimmer.
My parents had their sabbatical when I was in second grade, and my brother in preschool. We moved to Kinnitty, Offaly, in Ireland. Kinnitty was a small town, less than a kilometer. At my new school, we made friends almost immediately, and loved it there. It challenged us, and we learned fast. In preschool, my brother’s grade, the students were expected to write in cursive, and were given an hour of homework each night.
After a few weeks, my family heard about a swimming club, and we signed me up right away. I loved to swim, and was good at it, too.
At swimming club, we worked hard to improve our endurance. We did lots of swimming at a time, and had short breaks. One of our coaches, my favorite, was Patty. Coach Patty. But it was hard.
My mother said that swimming club made me tired, and told me that I would have to take a break for a while. I didn’t want to admit it, but I agreed with Mom.
It had been a while since I had been to swimming club, and I had begged and pleaded, again and again—until finally my mother gave in.
We arrived at the pool, and the woman behind the desk greeted us. She peered over the top of her rectangular glasses and recognition flooded her face. We smiled back.
“Why hello!” she chirped, “Haven’t seen you two in much too long! How are you faring?”
“Fine, fine!” my mom replied, “I finally gave in to Maggie’s pleading—mind her she’s been missing swim club a lot!”
“Yes well,” she said in her thick Irish accent, “the dear lassie ready for the big day? From what I heard, she’s way past her age group swimming expectations—but then again she does have some pretty tough competition!”
My mother and I were flabbergasted! We exchanged puzzled glances.
“Um . . . What do you mean ‘Ready for the Big Day?’” I asked tentatively.
“You didn’t know? The competition!” the lady exclaimed, “Every girl and boy in this swimming club, at Birr’s Aquatic Center, is put into groups based on age and gender. They have races in both backstroke, and freestyle, and, based on how fast you are, they choose one person from each age group to represent them in the county championships. If you win that, you get to compete in the national championships, and will represent Offaly for your age group. Like I said, from what I’ve heard, you’ve surprised the coaches with your talent. But you do have some fierce competition!”
She took a big breath, and then said, “you up for it?”
I was overcome, overwhelmed, and surprised, “Er, well, I—I guess?” I said weakly.
“OK then . . . let’s get off to the cubby rooms. Thank you, Miss!” My mom exclaimed hastily.
We got into the cubby room, unlocked my locker, and deposited my stuff, leaving my racing suit, and swimming cap. We locked ourselves into a dressing stall and I undressed and changed into my suit. I took long, slow breaths, squeezing my eyes shut, as my mother did my hair into a bun and put the cap over it. My heart beat faster, and more vigorously, and I could feel the uneven beats down to my toes.
“You OK?” My mom asked worriedly, “I know you’ll be nervous, but you look unwell.”
“No, I’m fine, but I’ve had this, like, sudden feeling that I need to win. I honestly don’t know why.” I said. It was true.
“Oh, well, that’s understandable.” My mom said reassuringly.
She straightened my cap.
“Ready?” Mom smiled down at me.
“Yep!” I said, sounding more confident than I felt.
We walked into the pool area and my mom kissed me on the forehead.
“Good luck!” She said encouragingly.
And she gently pushed me out toward the pool. She walked off and settled on the bleachers next to some other parents. I tentatively walked over to my coach, Coach Patty, and my swimming teammates and I huddled around the coach. He welcomed me and then said:
“You are to dive in when I blow the whistle, swim your hardest one length. You’ll be ranked in places: First with the best time, and so on. Remember all of your coaching that we’ve been working on throughout the year. You’ll do that twice, first with freestyle, second with backstroke. You’ll have a small water break between. Sit in that corner, and we’ll divide you into age/gender groups.
We did as we were told and strolled over to the wall, slumping against it. I exchanged anxious looks with my teammates.
“OK,” our coach said, “for 5-7 girls: Emily Rhenswhiff, Willow Jackson, Mary Carillis, and Jacklin Roder.”
The girls came up as the coach called their names. He gently directed the group of frightened looking, wide-eyed girls to one side of him.
“Now,” he said to the group again, “for 5-7 boys, Roger Doane, Jamie Culligan, Connor Clark, and Darragh Rob.”
He directed the boys to the other side of him. Now all 5-7 boys and girls stood in a neat line on either side of him.
“The 5-7 girls’ race will begin momentarily!” He said into a megaphone so that everyone, including the parents, could hear. “I will now sort the rest of you into age groups!” He said to us, quietly.
After he had sorted us into age groups, the 5-7 girls’ race had finished, and the 5-7 boys were taking their places, and preparing to dive.
It made me sick to my stomach to watch, and I already wasn’t feeling my best. I concentrated hard on sipping water, and taking long, slow breaths.
After about two minutes Coach Patty called our group over. I exchanged queasy glances to my teammates and competitors.
The next thing I knew, I was standing at the end of my diving stand, knees trembling and about to buckle, waiting for the whistle. I looked down my lane. It looked like it stretched on for eternity. And then I had three seconds to get ready.
“3, 2, 1, GO!”
And I dived….
To be continued…