The problem wasn’t just that some of New Bern’s small-town Cool Kids refused to accept a stranger from another state. They weren’t trying to be mean. I’d simply carried too much of my former life with me when we moved, and I couldn’t bring myself to let it go. I couldn’t bring myself to be the kind of kid who would’ve fit in within New Bern’s closely held values systems and unique social norms. Not down in my soul. This created a gap that no amount of Cool Kid clothes and confident swagger could ever hope to bridge, new girlfriend or no. I was still faking it, and the kids who most owned the identity of the town itself could smell that from a mile away.
So I kept swimming.
In my mind, this was how I saw myself. This was how my life made sense.
|My first 5K road race, when Dad was at|
MCRD San Diego.
Luckily for me, competitive swimming was still a highly regional sport back in the mid-1980s. I needed the sense of accomplishment that came with occasionally winning races in rural North Carolina and with setting new personal best-times. My accomplishments, however, were only possible because I was competing so far away from where the real swimmers lived in American swimming’s heartland.
No matter where you live, age group swimming exists through a series of national-level “cut” times. If you want to race at a specific meet, say Junior Nationals or a regional Zone Championship meet, you have to make the cut to qualify. Cut times are established ahead of a given season to provide age group swimmers with seasonal goals. There are national ranking cut times, too. The best of the best of the best earn the coveted “AAAA” times, the elite designation that marks the theoretical Top 16 swimmers nationally in each age group in each event. These are the swimmers who would theoretically qualify for the Finals and the Consolation Finals of an age group national championship were such a meet ever established. Beneath the quad-A times, there are “AAA” times, the owners of which are regional badasses but not quite elite at the national level. Further down are the “AA”, “A”, and even “B” times, which mark the “very good”, “good”, and “above average” cut-offs, respectively, for the swimmers of a given age group for each stroke and distance.
I’d never heard of cut times or of swimming’s national ranking system until I started swimming with the Devilfish. Considering how important swimming was to my self-image, it was a good thing that I didn’t understand what the cut times were trying to tell me. I’d done well in the NVSL, but that was a recreational league, filled mostly with kids who swam summers-only, strictly for fun. Being good in the rec league was by no means proof of future glory. The Devilfish, however, were a part of USA Swimming, the governing body for American swimming’s national ecosystem. This gave me access to a larger worldview.
Mark Spitz introduced the American mainstream to swimming’s modern era through his dominance at the 1976 Olympics, but the sport had yet to achieve the kind of social penetration that something like youth soccer saw, nor had we yet seen any true professional swimmers. A few regional swimming hotbeds, like Southern California and Florida, still produced nearly all of the sport’s biggest stars. Still, colleges had long since started offering swimming scholarships, and competitive swimming was hardly rare, even in places like Coastal Carolina. A town like New Bern might not be big enough to host a team, but nearby East Carolina University not only had a team, it hosted regional age group meets as a way of supporting USA Swimming teams regionally from cities like Raleigh and Greensboro.
My first meet as a Devilfish came at the Greensboro Natatorium. As I had in Annandale, I did fairly well against the kids from my local area. When my folks came over after the meet with the cut time sheet that they’d gotten from Coach Pete, however, I saw that I was stuck solidly in “B” time territory. I’d done okay, sure, but on anything other than a strictly local level, my swimming was nothing special.
That would not do.
As we drove home, I thought intently about what this meant. I believed myself to be a good swimmer—a very good swimmer—and my family had gone to considerable lengths to support my ambitions. But though I could win races at a few local meets, I could also see that there was a whole other world out there. Another level existed, and I’d barely glimpsed it from afar.
Things might have gone very differently at this point. My father had taught me the basics of volleyball as a kid. I could bump and set as well as any twelve-year-old, and I was fairly tall for my age. H.J. MacDonald Middle School had a competitive volleyball team. My “B” time in the 100 Butterfly was by no means such an overwhelming differentiator that it immediately precluded all other sports in favor of swimming. It was not too late to refocus. Similarly, my father and I frequently ran together as I approached my teenage years—as often as twice per week when we both had enough time for it. I’d run my first 5K at age eight. By the time I’d turned twelve, I’d finished multiple 5K and 10K road races alongside my dad, though the latter had often been a hard slog.
Dad and I headed out for one particular three-mile run that spring, just past the midway point of seventh grade, and for the first time ever, I found that I didn’t have to struggle to keep up with him. Despite running side by side with my father for more than twenty minutes, I never felt tortured or raggedly out-of-breath. I never wondered if I was going to be able to finish, or if I was simply going to drop dead by the side of the road. Instead, for the first time in my entire life, I just ran. I paced my father as though it was the easiest, most-natural thing in the world. As our workout wound through its final mile, I actually saw my dad—former collegiate cross-country runner, infantry Marine, and two-time marathon finisher—start to falter. I sped up, elated, and dropped my father at the finish to win an impromptu sprint to the line.
He stared at me in stunned amazement.
Watershed moment. Not only because running was my father’s sport, and I could now do it on his terms, but also because exercising with my father soon became one of the principle ways in which we communicated. That we could now run together as equals changed the dynamic of our relationship. From that point forward, I actually began to enjoy running with my father. I began to look forward to spending that time with him out on the road. I even ran by myself sometimes, often for no reason other than that I enjoyed running.
There was therefore no reason at all why I couldn’t go out for the Cross Country and Volleyball teams at H.J. MacDonald Middle School, potentially providing an organic way into the school’s social scene and solving all of my problems at the same time. I’d already had a girlfriend, and through her I’d met people. I’d attended the bi-weekly cotillion dances that were the backbone of the junior high social scene. Adding a sport (or two) at school would have been enough of a compromise, I’m sure, to make me one of them in all the ways that I had thus far refused to be. It would have meant changing who I was enough that I would have fit in on their terms.
In my own mind, however, I was already a swimmer. My decision was made, and it left little room for other aspirations. The fact that I’d earned a mere “B” time only served to push me harder and further into the pool.