When the winter season began, Elizabeth and I cut a deal. It goes like so: Elizabeth, who is 11 years old now, continues to be on her recreational swim team — she will go to practice three times a week and try really hard and have a lot fun. That was her part of the deal. My part of the deal is that I will not make her compete at the swim meets.
Elizabeth does not like swim meets. At all. She worries about them incessantly. She gets horribly nervous — I mean a body-shaking kind of nervous. And here’s the strange part: She isn’t nervous because she wants to win. She doesn’t want to win. She doesn’t expect to win. She doesn’t care if she wins. Elizabeth is probably the least competitive person I’ve ever met. When she was little, she was in a dance class, and at the end the teacher would hand out some sort of candy. Elizabeth never raced for the candy. She always let everyone else go first. She gets much more joy out of her friends winning than when she wins.
No, her nerves about swim meeting involve the possibility that she will do some horribly wrong and let everyone in the world down. At first, I thought she would get over the swim-meet nervousness … but she never really did. Every time out, it was exactly the same — she would be scared all day, she’d be even more scared as the meet began, she’d be scared throughout the meet, and afterward when we said, “Did you have a good time,” she would say, no, she did not. Elizabeth started to talk about how she wanted to quit swimming, which about broke my heart. Elizabeth loves swimming. So I came up with the deal: Would you keep swimming if you can skip the meets? She readily agreed.
Before I get to Thursday night, I should say that although I’ve been writing sports for more than 25 years now and was a fanatical fan and inadequate athlete before that, Elizabeth has taught me something about sports I did not know. The lesson came slowly. I’m the one who takes Elizabeth to practice most days, and I would notice that going into practices her moods were unpredictable. Sometimes, on the car ride over, she was preposterously chatty and bubbly. Other times, she was silent and sullen. Sometimes, she was worried about something that happened at school. Other times, she was excited about an upcoming event (like getting her ears pierced — a whole other story). I never really knew what to expect.
After swim practice, though, she was always happy. Always. No exceptions. She was tired and cold and hungry … and happy. I’m not entirely sure when I noticed the transformation, but once I did there was no mistaking it. Elizabeth has never won a race. She has never come close to winning a race. But she’s better today than she was yesterday, better yesterday than she was the day before, and lately she has started to talk about how much stronger swimming has made her. She will make this little muscle pose, it’s priceless. I don’t know how it is for little boys because I haven’t been on in a very long time. But as parents of two daughters, we are constantly looking for ways to infuse confidence and conviction and assurance into our little girls. It’s difficult. Swimming has been magical that way for Elizabeth.
Thursday night, Elizabeth’s team had a special swim night — everybody 11 and over swam a timed 50 meters in all four strokes. Then: pizza. It wasn’t exactly a meet because it only involved members of the team. Anyway, that was my view. Elizabeth’s countersued, saying that it absolutely was a meet because there were races and timers and so on. We needed a good contract lawyer. None was available. I told Elizabeth I really wanted her to go.
Elizabeth fought back with some fury. Finally, though, she agreed to go. She was very nervous. When we got there, she became even more nervous. She was, more or less, the youngest person there. Most of the kids seemed at least a foot taller than her. None of her swim-team friends were there — they are all a little bit younger and so not eligible. She was pretty much panicked. I was a time-keeper (don’t ask) and so she pretty much spent all her time by my side, nervously shivering.
Her first race was the 50-meter freestyle. It was a good-news, bad-news kind of race. The good news was that for the first time in competition, she used a swim turn. That was really cool to watch and she flipped very well. The bad news was that, yeah, she kind of missed the wall. She had to go back and touch the wall (well, I suppose she did not HAVE to do that since nobody was really watching her, but she did because she’s scrupulously honest) so that kind of hurt her time.
She swam her backstroke and breaststroke without incident. It wasn’t fun for her; I could see that. The older kids were not really noticing her. She didn’t have any chance to win a medal. Her nerves, well, you always hear in sports that they butterflies go away after a while. That was my experience in sports. Not Elizabeth. Her butterflies just kept flapping, every minute.
Then … they had the T-shirt relay.
The T-shirt relay worked like this: There were four relay teams. Each team got one T-shirt, a pair of socks and a single swim cap. The idea was for one person puts all that stuff on and swim 50 meters. They he or she would get out of the pool, take off those clothes and put the T-shirt, cap and socks on the next person, who would swim 50 meters. This would go on until the teams ran out.
Well, for whatever reason, the relay team picked Elizabeth to swim the anchor leg of the T-shirt relay. Well, I know the reason since I was standing there — she’s so small that they kind of didn’t really see her until everyone else had lined up. It wasn’t choice made out of some deeply-thought strategy.
As it turned out, Elizabeth’s team was pretty good. They had worked out some kind of convoluted Cirque du Soleil move to get the T-shirt off one swimmer and onto another — it didn’t always work as planned but it was always entertaining. And the team had built up a moderate lead going into Elizabeth’s anchor leg.
It was rather extraordinary watching the team try and dress Elizabeth in those socks and the T-shirt. By that point, all tactics were out the window and everyone was just pulling and yanking at Elizabeth to get her inside the shirt and to get those socks on. At one point, they just about knocked her into the water. Elizabeth absolutely loved it. And then she was off. She was in the lead and she was pulling away. It seemed to me she was swimming faster in the T-shirt and socks than she had in her own freestyle. She was almost floating.
And then, just as she was closing in on 25 meters, someone on the team noticed a rather important point: One of Elizabeth’s socks had fallen off and was floating in the pool.
“She has to get that sock on before the end of the race,” a swimming official (or maybe it was just some guy) told the team, “or else you will be disqualified.”
So everybody on the team started screaming “Elizabeth! Elizabeth! Stop! Get the sock! Elizabeth!” But she could not hear them. Then one of her teammates jumped in the water, grabbed the sock and threw it at Elizabeth. The sock almost hit Elizabeth. She still did not notice. She was in the zone. She made the turn and started for her last 25 meters.
“ELIZABETH! ELIZABETH!” She still didn’t hear. As her father, I could relate. Meanwhile, there was now a girl in lane 2 who was gaining. It was time for desperate measures. A girl on the team jumped in the pool, grabbed the sock, and started swimming after Elizabeth. It took her a little while even though she was a better swimmer and wasn’t hindered by a T-shirt. She grabbed Elizabeth’s foot.
“You have to put the sock in,” the girl screamed. Elizabeth treaded water while the teammate put the sock on. By now, the girl in Lane 2 had just about caught up with Elizabeth and seemed ready to pass her. But the sock was on. The race was on. Elizabeth swam her heart out the last 15 meters. It was not unlike Michael Phelps-Milorad Cavic finish at the Beijing Olympics. Well, OK, yeah, it was quite unlike that. But it was close.
And Elizabeth out-touched her at the wall for the victory.
There was much joy and celebration at that point. Well, no, it wasn’t exactly the final scene of “Victory.” But there was some happiness. Hugs. High-fives. Cheers. All that. And, for a few seconds, Elizabeth was the hero. It was complete unexpected and completely ridiculous and completely pointless. And she was the hero.
She swam her butterfly race best she could, and then on the ride home she relived her moment of glory again and again and again. She talked about how scared she was when someone grabbed her foot, and how funny it was when she was sloshing to the finish, and how great the night was. She told me that that if the T-shirt relay was an Olympic event — and she is quite sure it SHOULD be an Olympics event — her team would win the gold medal. I told her that in my professional opinion, she’s absolutely right.