The 7-year-old girl squirmed. “I don’t want to take swimming lessons.” Tears welled. All her twisting and wriggling didn’t loosen the matriarch’s resolve and grip around her wrist. “You’re going to need this when you are older,” were the stern words before she found herself, still in a fit of post-tantrum hiccups, amidst girls her age in the basics class. It was a consolation that none of them donned the same yellow bathing suit that had tutu-like frills around the hip and a ballerina bear in front.
I was not fond of that suit or of that point in my life. Begrudgingly, I attended those lessons just so Mom would stop nagging. One summer, memorable mainly for its horridness, she requested for me to be transferred to an advanced class – despite my vehement opposition and clamorous reasoning. Had she noticed my incompetent water-thrashing; that I was a wiry spider spinning splashy webs? Like most mothers, she had a little too much faith in me; an overwhelming amount of confidence I couldn’t muster.
In the big kids’ class, at ten, I was the smallest, slowest, and weakest. Everybody else was a teenager, some even had funky-looking muscles. Naturally, they were all faster, stronger, and more skillful. I was the clumsy clown doing drills with them.
I have no vivid recollection of the succeeding mortifying summers or how many more gallons of chlorinated water seeped through my nose, ears, mouth and pores. Luckily, all that chlorine wasn’t enough to impede my acquisition of a scholarship for high school. The institution had a surplus of participants to math/science quiz bowls but a deficiency of athletes. As the city-wide athletic meet approached during my junior year (that would be grade 9 in some countries), out of the sick feeling of moral obligation, I agreed to join the school swim team.
Our government-funded school had no coach or pool, so we practiced in the only competition-sized public pool in the city. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the camaraderie among the group of swimmers I trained with (many of them have gone on to compete on the national level). Training was enriching (I dropped soda, cola and other fizzy drinks permanently). I stuck with the routine; 3 hours after school on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and the entire morning on the weekends – swimming an average of seventy 50-meter laps gradually became bearable. It was then disheartening when my parents told me to quit. Swimming, which was eventually downgraded to “hobby”, took most my time and energy that my academics were spiraling downwards. This ended my Olympic dreams – not that I had any.
After all, I have never been considered athletic. My name is associative to that of a classic skinny nerd who read in moving vehicles and avoided volleyball, tennis, soccer (and pretty much every sport that involved objects hurtling overhead) for fear of being hit in the face. One of my PE teachers had yelled at me, “That’s why you have to hit the ball away from you, #49!”
Why didn’t I give ball sports, or sports in general, a real shot? Looking back, I wasn’t as athletically-incapable as I initially thought. Hadn’t I learned the fancy strokes and swum at a decent speed? A coach once commented that I could race long-distance because my stamina was good. This was a glimmer of potential. Potency that remained untapped as I conscientiously steered clear of athletic pursuits for most of my life after high school.
Dormant potential hovers slightly above eternal inutility, doesn’t it? Consider this woman whose designated English name is Eve and who works in an office adjacent to mine. She’s a packer; she boxes up products for shipping. I admire her, not for her perfect enunciation, but because she is not afraid to chat with me in English despite being unable to go to college. I’ve encountered many college students and graduates who shy away from conversations, claiming that their English was too poor*. What if Eve attended university? I would have met her packing, not vitamin supplements, but her suitcase for a business trip to Europe.
Cliché dictates, “You’ll never know unless you try.” Time has blurred from the moment I first tried to hold my breath to this day as I’m trying, nay, struggling to relearn the proper swimming techniques. Interestingly, when I hit the pool again for the first time in a very long time, I didn’t make like an anchor and sink. I managed a short swim (before lungs, legs and arms protested). I still know the precise strokes at the back of my mind; I just need to access them again. This is a take-away from that brief stint as a pseudo-athlete; the unknowing acquisition of skills that are now priceless to me as a runner (swimming is good cross-training) and ultimately, as a person. All this is to say that I am eternally grateful to my supreme seer of a swimming coach – my Mom. She taught me to try things; carefully equipped me to diminish the possibility of drowning. She has arranged my learning so meticulously that I am now able to enjoy a bit of being both an academic and an athlete. Had she not prodded me to learn how to keep my head above water, I would’ve probably met the anchor’s fate years ago.
*“My English is too poor,” is a common excuse I hear, thus the emphasis.