Fly

Most injured athletes would agree that physical therapists have no idea what they're talking about.

As well meaning as the scrawny woman with thick framed glasses seem to be, they're not. And even if they are, they have no idea what's good for you. Which means that I refuse to listen to any of them—especially mine.

It's not even that I can't take bad news when she gives it to me—it's that it's completely false and unintelligent.

Junior Olympics are in two weeks. She thinks I won't be better by then, but I've been better for months. She hasn't wanted to believe what my body tells me when my muscles coil with adrenaline, energy pulsing through my veins.

I refuse to miss this race.

I can feel anger bubble to the surface, making the warm spring air around me seem cold compared to the heat of my skin.

I dropped down beside lone tree in my backyard. The tree stretched above me, looking protective, like the physical therapist. I sat back a little too fast, smacking my shoulders and neck against it hard. I winced in pain from the contact.

All I remember from the accident was trying to beat my hundred meter Fly time. I was reaching forward, extending my arms to touch the black pad and finish, successfully breaking the pool record and my own. I'm still kind of fuzzy on the details, but all I know is that the tendons and muscles in my shoulders stretched to the point of ripping.

From where I sat, I could see the back of my house, the little porch and the torn fabric of the chairs haphazardly placed as if specifically placed to make you trip. I could see the little twitches in the grass, the long summertime shadows that appear at this time of day.

I can see the small drops of moisture clinging to the grass, feel it beneath me—besides showering, this was the closest I'd gotten to swimming in months.

It was the time of day that wasn't quite afternoon, but it wasn't nighttime yet, either. Everything was caught in a certain glow that made you look twice at everything—the shape of your house, which you'd lived in all your life. The color of the grass—it makes everything seem uncertain.

I can see my window, and the rows and rows of ribbons I had hung there the moment I got them—there were so many, it blocked any light from seeping through. They meant so much to me. I wanted to keep adding to my collection.

My mind is set, though, and I know that what I've decided is right. I'm going to swim in the race. I have to. It's my senior year of high school—I'll never get the chance to redo this.

My life was spent at a public school big enough to drown in. So I learned to tread by joining a sports team in sixth grade. Initially I'd tried water polo. That didn't work out. When it got to winter season, I tried out for the swim team.

I was never very athletic, but I was a worse student. Starting up a sport, I figured, could help me meet new people, and hopefully make a name for myself. Now I'm the best swimmer on the team.

And when I go off to college, I'm sure I'll be the best swimmer there, too, even freshman year.

Junior Olympics are a higher rate of swim meets. You have to beat a certain time in a certain race in order to qualify. The times are different for each one. I qualified for the hundred Fly, my best event. I did this a few weeks before I injured myself.

Winning, to me, is everything. The first race I won that was announced over the loudspeakers during class brought me the attention I strived for—and some that I hadn't. I got grudging pats on the back by some, and envious glares from others. Despite the latter, I was proud of the attention and wanted more… So I kept improving and winning.

If you're not a competitive swimmer, there's no way you can understand how important this meet is. It's… Well, the junior version of the Olympics. It matters, a lot. I've qualified every year in high school, so this would make my record complete. My college choice was based off of their swim team—I'd gotten an athletic scholarship.

Since JOs were in less than two weeks, I needed to start working immediately. While my dad was at work the next day, right after school I headed down to the lake in the orange Volvo I'd gotten for my seventeenth birthday.

I have no idea what the lake's name is, but not many people go there. It's about two miles from my house, which is within running distance.

I have been here a few times before. I drove past every day between school and home, but my parents had never taken me there. It never interested me—it was just a swampy lake, while I had a beautiful pool to swim in—until now.

It sits like a present about to be unwrapped, an opportunity about to be taken. There are a few trees surrounding it on the left side, a whole forest on the right. There's some dull green grass under all these trees, and a few reeds poking up from beneath the murky water.

The lake is so different from the pool. Swimming and racing pools are chemically treated to keep it clear, clean, and most of all, fast. I'm not exactly sure how, since I'm not a great student, but it might have something to do with making the water thinner so it's easier to move through. However it worked, it worked. In a lake, though, it's meant to be a habitat for geese and ducks. No chemicals are used—the water's murky and thick, and difficult to move through.

This, just like my swimming in the meet, could either work really well or ruin me.

I start by jogging a couple of laps around the pond as warm up. I take my time and make sure I stretch out each muscle fully. I jump up and down a few times, as if about to start a race, and just as with a race, I'm completely nerves. I have no idea how this is going to turn out, but I hope it's good.

Finally, I wade in up to my waist. The sand feels kind of slimy against my feet, but soft. It gives much more than a pool's cement walls. I'm wearing a crappy drag suit because I'm not sure how my better suits will fare in this type of water, and pulling on my racing goggles as I go.

I dip my head beneath the water, pushing off the sandy floor. The first thing I feel is a sense of panic, as if I've forgotten how to swim. Next, I'm kicking gently with my feet and moving my arms in the circular give-and-take motion of Freestyle. I realize that I'm a little stiff, but I'm immensely relieved to see that I can still keep myself afloat.

It's painful. My favorite quote is "Pain is weakness leaving the body". I figured this related to me here, so the more pain I endured, the stronger I'd become. I pushed myself faster—there was no room for weakness in my life, I needed to be the best—till the pain was almost unbearable.

I notice how dark the water is, that I can barely see anything and there's hardly any use for my goggles.

As I glide through the water slowly, I was struck, once again, by the sense of peace I achieve while in motion here. My mind clears and I can finally think straight. I wonder, for the thousandth time, why I can't do my homework underwater, because here it makes so much sense.

I sigh contentedly, pulling my body a bit faster through the water.

It was hard for me to keep a secret. It always has been. It was even harder now, with the secret so big it seemed to swell inside my head to an almost bursting point.

The lake smells like reeds, damp grass, and mud. I didn't like the smell at first, but eventually I got used to it, even—after the first practice—enjoyed it. It contrasts with the harsh chemical smell in an enclosed area like an indoor pool. The air is much colder when you get out—it's outdoor, with fresh air, instead of the controlled humidity on a pool deck. Although it's cold, it's refreshing, and I like it.

The next day, I found myself able to contain it, but just enough. I'd decided to wear a drag suit again, but not my goggles. I didn't need them—I couldn't see, even with them.

After wading into the water a few feet, I heard a rustle in the reeds behind me. I wondered if it was a bear or something—but they don't have bears here. Do they?

Just to be safe, I ran back to the shore, reaching for my stuff. A girl emerged in front of me. I looked up, and then did a double take.

Her hair was the color of an apple. No exaggeration, that's how red it was. It was cut short, in a boy's style, and it stood out against the rest of her.

She had the slim body of a swimmer, and pale blue eyes that seemed not at all extraordinary compared to the rest of her. She was wearing a red bathing suit, and yet it looked dull in comparison to her hair.

"Staring's rude," she informed me, leaning her weight on one hip and planting a hand on it.

"Sorry," I muttered. "You just took me off guard."

"Of course," she said in a tone that implied that she didn't care one way or another. She glanced around. "You here alone?"

I nodded, starting to gather my clothes.

"Why are you leaving? You're not even wet yet."

I didn't know the answer, so I just dropped my belongings again.

"You're not a social butterfly, are you?" She sat herself down, patting the ground beside her. "I'm Delilah."

I found myself moving toward her, sitting down. "Chris."

Every day I found myself looking forward to my time at the lake, despite the algae that grabbed at my legs and the slime that always seemed to restore itself on the surface. I could focus during school, but afterwards, I couldn't sit still until after I'd swum. At night, I'd have dreams I was in either the pool or lake. If there was a doubt in your mind, I hope this shows you how dedicated I am to swimming. I love it.

The strange thing was, on that first day, I'd enjoyed every minute. Since my injury, I couldn't wait to get back into the pool. But I'd met Delilah there, and she attracted me just as much as swimming itself did. Not in a lovey kind of way. She was… Interesting.

I've never had a friend before. Maybe that's what made me like her so much. I don't know. But she showed up, same time as I did, every day. It was never spoken, just assumed.

I learned about her swimming experience, how she'd swum since she was eight. She was my age, and had been swimming for four years longer than me—that was my first thought. My second was that I could race her, and she'd help me get back into shape.

But then she'd told me that she'd quit two years ago—that the pressure had gotten to her. She didn't like her whole life being spent in a chlorinated pool with coaches screaming at her to work harder.

She took up painting. She still occasionally swam, like the days we met, and every day after. She remembered her love of swimming in that lake. But she told me she could never take it up again, because eventually it would consume her life again. She liked being able to do more than one thing.

On my last practice, the day before the meet, we stayed a bit longer than necessary. I looked out across the brown surface, watching the sunlight dance across the slight ripples in the water caused by the wind.

"You don't have to go, you know," she said unexpectedly.

I turned to her. "Yes, I do."

She frowned, her brows coming together. Her mouth never moved when she was unhappy, just her eyebrows. "Chris, there's more to life than swimming. You could do so much more."

"If I don't win this race, I won't go to college." I reminded her. "I have to go to college if I want to do something. I don't have good enough grades to get in otherwise."

"You do realize that if you swim in this race tomorrow," her brows contracted further. "That's it? If you make the decision to do this, not only might you ruin your shoulder, this is going to be the only thing you do, for the rest of your life? And once you get older, that's it?"

This kind of upset me. "That's not true. There are tons of things I could do. If I get into college for swimming, I can take classes, develop other talents, and grow up to be something. If I don't, then there's no way I can do that."

She sighed in frustration. "I'm asking you as a friend. Please don't do this. I've been there before—and I chose to swim. I chose to give up my studies so I'd be a better swimmer—but I was wrong. I had enough time to fix my mistake. You won't. Please listen to me."

It was funny, how I looked at the lake now as opposed to how I looked at it before. When I'd first started coming here, I'd seen it as an unopened opportunity. Now, I wasn't sure how I saw it. I was reminded of the haze of twilight, how unsure it can make you. It was about that time now, but it had less of the uncertainty affect on me than the lake itself did. This time, I don't know what I'll decide.

I'm finally here, standing behind the block, shaking out my limbs. I didn't have a cheering squad, or even my parents, but I was here and that was good enough for me.

When I swam to warm up about twenty minutes ago, I was surprised at the difference between this and the lake. I knew it would be different, but not so much. This pool was warmer. It was also faster. There were no algae grabbing me—and oddly enough, I found myself missing the slime. I had to get used to wearing goggles again, which was a lot harder than I'd anticipated.

They call out everyone's names in my heat after the racers before me dive in. I figure if we get going according to plan, I'll be out of here in about ten minutes and get home before my father.

"Chris Starr," the announcer calls. I hear a gasp from the audience, and look over to see Delilah. She came to the race. She must have known I'd swim—but did that make the right choice?

I step up on the block, bending over to touch the front of the block. In my peripherals I saw her movement across the stands to grip the bar separating us from them.

Suddenly the light's flashed, the horn's blared, and everyone on either side of me is in the water. I wasn't paying attention—I forgot to dive. I leaped in; hoping the lag in my start wasn't enough for me to lose.

My arms try to reach farther than the muscle and bone would stretch. I feel pain immediately, but I ignore it, pushing my legs to kick harder, keeping my knees and ankles glued together.

I came into the wall on a massive wave. I'm off the wall almost as soon as I touch it, arms pulling through the water. The problem with competitive swimming is that you never know where your opponents are. You could look over into their lane, but that would slow you down dramatically.

I settle into a rhythm, which is the only way I can swim fast. Kick, stroke, kick, stroke. Arms move up, out, down, push the water. I hear a grunt from one of the lanes beside me, and it's surprising that I can hear it because there's so much splashing going on to drown it out.

I can hear adrenaline thunder through my veins, pulsing in my ears. It's everywhere as I hit the wall again, turning once more, kicking off the wall. There's pain in my shoulders and upper back, but I once again push it down, cupping my fingers into a spoon shape so I can put more water behind me.

Racing down the pool length again, I catch sight in the side of my goggles of another swimmer abreast of me, two or three lanes away. I use this as fuel to work my body harder. I can't feel much anymore, my body's so amped up with adrenaline that it's all that's working, and as soon as it wears out I'm done for.

When I hit the far wall, turning back for the final stretch, my worst fears come true. Well, not just my worst fear—any swimmer's. I'd only been able to train for a week and a half—my endurance wasn't up to par, and neither was my supply of adrenaline. I was slowing, and I think the swimmer next to me was probably beating me.

It feels like I was swimming through molasses. Everything seems to slow, and I feel the crushing weight of what I'm trying to do.

As I was attempting to say before: you hear all these stories about lies and poverty, but there's another, even bigger occurrence that doesn't get as much recognition because that's the way humans are. They don't notice the good things because they're too wrapped up in the bad. I could've given up right there, thought, There's no way I can win, why don't I just stop trying, but instead, I thought, The past five years of my life have been about this moment—my senior year, my hundred Fly J.O. time. I was going to swim.

I can't really remember what happened next. I hit the wall, clinging to it with the rest of my strength. I couldn't feel my body, much less move. A dizzy feeling over took me, and I lost my grip on the pad. Black spots swam before my eyes, my face submerging beneath the waves we had made coming into the wall. I could hear a buzzer go off, which I supposed I imagined because I couldn't understand why else I could hear a buzzer when I was still in the pool. I tried to move, but my body was too weak. Sensation came back with a fire in my lungs, and I thought I knew I was drowning. I attempted to flail, or scream, or something, but instead I just felt a calm serenity overtake me. I learned later that I had fainted.

I woke up in my own bed—my dad wouldn't have taken me to the hospital. I was alone, but there was a navy rosette on my nightstand. I pick it up, reading but not comprehending for a few minutes.

When I realize what it is, I blink a few times down at it. I don't feel anything. I know I should be proud that I'd done so well in the race, as I had been when I'd won in the past. I couldn't help but think, though—had I made the right choice?

I drag myself out of bed, my head spinning, pulling on clothes as I hurry down the steps. It's early morning, and my parents are still asleep. Quietly, I tiptoe out of my house.

Starting up the car would wake them, so I decide to just walk. It was a nice morning, serene and cool. The sun was just starting to rise, and a few birds were singing. My head rights itself while I walk, my feet doing most of the moving. It is always miraculous to me how quickly my body recovered after a race—it seemed as though it didn't even matter that I had fainted.

The lake looks the same as I had left it—caught between trees, beside soft grass, under the half risen sun. I take a few minutes to remember all the little details—the smell of the mud, the feel of the grass between my toes, the sound of the wind and the birds.

I'm a little disappointed that Delilah's not here, although there's no reason for her to be. There's a hollow feeling in my stomach, and I think it's because I didn't make the right choice.

Delilah was right—there was no way to fix this. I was wrong.