The familiar combination of chlorine and mildew at the Foster Natatorium, which usually calmed me, did just the opposite on this Friday afternoon. It wasn’t my first swim meet, but it was my first high school conference meet and I desperately wanted to qualify for state. I was fifteen, a freshman in high school, and though I’d been swimming competitively for going on ten years, I’d yet to hit my stride in the water.
I was the kind of swimmer who usually worked her way from prelims into the bottom of the B Finals, and sometimes, at smaller meets, I snuck my way into the A Finals. But I never won. I was consistent in being a bottom-tier fast girl, which meant I was pretty fast for the high school league, but my swims were pretty forgettable at club meets, which were what really mattered.
Even still, non-swimmers knew me as The Swimmer, which was fitting because my hair was almost always wet, I had semi-permanent goggle lines around my eyes, and even my sweat had the sterile odor of chlorine. It was an identity I embraced because it was all I did; it was the only lifestyle I knew. The pool started as a place to be and turned into a sanctuary, a home. The water felt safe, constant. And my club teammates were my family. We suffered and conquered sets together, pushed each other while also competing against one another, and somehow in the stolen moments between 50’s and 100’s and 500’s, we grew to love each other in a way I haven’t felt since.
I didn’t quite feel like I’d earned the title of The Swimmer because I wasn’t fast fast. But that changed my freshman year.
Ten years ago tomorrow, my 400-yard freestyle relay teammates and I qualified for state, placed third at conference, and broke the school record. We were ecstatic! We were starting to understand the worth of double and triple practices a day, and appreciate the sacrifices that came with endless hours in the pool. Swimming in college was starting to look like a real possibility.
Four years later, I was swimming for a Division 1 university. I had all kinds of maroon, white, and black Adidas gear with my school’s logo embroidered in the most visible places. The gear was one of the perks of being a walk-on. We weren’t given scholarships, but we got free gear and access to the athletes’ health clinic, and in return we boosted the team’s GPA. More importantly, we got to continue being bottom and mid-tier fast girls. It didn’t matter to me; I just loved to swim.
Then, I quit.
For me, swimming was this big, all consuming, life-defining thing until it wasn’t. At fifteen, I never could have imagined my life without chlorine, but I quit swimming when I was nineteen. My college teammates, the ones with scholarships, didn’t welcome me like they didn’t welcome most of the other walk-ons. They’d move lanes when I set my gear down next to theirs, they’d walk past me in study hall to sit next to linebackers and wide receivers, they’d pretend not to notice me in the student union, even if we were wearing the same jacket. My love for the sport and practice wasn’t powerful enough to overcome the feeling of being ostracized from the people I felt I should be closest to, so I quit. And I thought quitting would be the biggest regret of my life, but that lost love led me to new ones.
My fifteen-year-old self didn’t know she would lose the thing that meant most to her, or that it would lead her to a renewed love of literature, to friendships with people passionate about sifting through the human experience with their stories, and to her own sifting. The woman I am now carries pieces of that swimmer through the waves of becoming and unbecoming. We are not all that different, though everything has changed.
Originally from Joplin, Missouri, Genevieve Richards now lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. She is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Nonfiction at Eastern Washington University where she has also served as Nonfiction Editor for Willow Springs. Her short fiction can be found in Black Bear Review and Crab Fat Magazine. She encourages you to donate to the USA Swimming Foundation. Visit usaswimmingfoundation.org, or to donate your time and volunteer at a local swim meet.