“The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”
― Thomas Paine
My mother drove me out to my first practice with the Vista Swim Team one afternoon a few weeks before I was set to start my freshman year of high school. I stepped through a gateway cut into a twelve-foot chain-link fence and onto the deck of an unassuming six-lane public pool. I felt as though I’d been transported into a bygone era of swimming lore. The facility itself was ancient. The pool area was a solid mass of flat yellow concrete, stretching maybe fifteen feet out from the pool’s lip, which overhung an eight-inch trench-like competition gutter, also cast from concrete. I’d seen competition gutters previously, but only at collegiate competition facilities, which typically boasted newer pools, electronic timing systems, and gleaming sidewalls cast from shiny aluminum. By contrast, Vista’s pool had the oldest competition-style gutters I’d ever seen and the only ones made from concrete. Kids had been swimming for time in Vista for decades, and even back in the day, those kids had possessed the right swimming technology, probably since before East Carolina University had even had a swim team.
|Granny, Pa Pa Dan, and me in front of our house in Fallbrook.|
Vista’s whole setup was like that. The sides of the pool were adorned with fourteen-inch strips of 1970s-era blue-green tile above an expanse of white concrete that formed the body of the pool itself. Like all Southern California swimming facilities, the pool and everything around it was outside. Giant lights like submarine portals dotted the walls beneath the water line, and a busy street lay just on the other side of the chain-link fence, so close that the only thing separating automobile traffic from the pool deck was the sidewalk, a narrow strip of grass, and a low off-white concrete wall.
All of this was fully functional, but man, it was old.
I’d stepped into swimming history.
I walked up to the coach. He was a grey-headed tree-stump of a man who reminded me more than a little of Mick, Burgess Meredith’s character from Rocky. Though he was probably only in his early fifties, and the coach was both broader and stouter through the chest and torso than was Meredith’s character, I could tell at a glance that he had the same kind of hard-nosed intensity. He gave me a look that went right through me, sizing me up and finding me wanting. That he was a grizzled veteran of the sport was obvious. The fact that he held court at the oldest competition facility I’d ever seen only served to reinforce the feeling that I’d just stepped into the role of Rocky Balboa.
“Hi,” I said by way of introduction. “My name’s Dan.”
“Mr. Malone,” the coach replied. He shook my hand but didn’t smile. “Welcome to the team. Now get in the water. Start in lane four.”
I looked down at the pool and saw a substantial collection of high school kids, boys and girls both, looking up at me. I pulled off my shirt, put my goggles on, and climbed in. My new lane leader introduced herself as Layne; behind her was her friend Shirley. I slotted in third and wondered idly how hard it was going to be to keep up.
That first practice with Vista was life-altering. Layne, Shirley, and the rest kicked my ass relentlessly for two solid hours, leaving me gasping and humbled. They were friendly about it, but they were also the best swimmers I’d ever seen—by a substantial margin. All of them. Every single one could do things in the water that I’d previously only seen from afar. I believed that I could improve, but I also saw—for the first time in my entire life—how truly far I had to go.
After practice, the kids introduced themselves. They seemed relaxed, friendly, and even eager to meet the New Kid. Jeff was their leader and—informally—the team’s captain. He was about my height and build and was either a high school senior, or else he’d just graduated. Like me, he was a butterflier and sometimes a mid-distance freestyler. He had two sisters, Jennifer, a rising sophomore, and Trisha, who’d not yet reached high school. Both stood about average height and had blonde hair, but after just a single practice, I could already tell that Jennifer had as much talent as anyone I’d ever met. The Vista Swim Team had a number of very good swimmers, but of the group, Jennifer was the one who’d already made it to Junior Nationals and who could legitimately compete with the best swimmers in the nation12. Most of the rest were within striking distance of their Junior cuts, especially the girls, and everyone had at least a few “AA” times somewhere on their swimming resume. Most had earned “AAA” times, too, including both Layne and Shirley. Moreover, every swimmer on the team could expect to go to the San Diego CIF Championships13 and place in the Top 8 in their best events.
I’d finally joined a team that was well-coached, tightly knit, and highly successful, and which looked to the future with every expectation of continued success. I left the pool that night weary to the bone but determined to take advantage of the opportunity. There was glory to be had here, perhaps, but I was glimpsing a mountain from its base. The climb would be an incredible slog along no obvious trail to a summit obscured by fog.
But I’d arrived at the right mountain, at least.
The next few weeks passed in a haze of pain, persistence, and exhaustion. I swam twice per day almost every day, and when I wasn’t swimming, I was in the car with my mother, either on my way to practice or on my way home from practice. About the only things that kept me sane were the hard rock music that Jeff insisted on blasting at every occasion during practice and my desire to get faster. Jeff was so animated about his music that I couldn’t help but be drawn in. He could go on at length about Van Halen’s transition from David Lee Roth to Sammy Hagar and why OU812 and 5150 were truly great rock albums. It was important to Jeff not only that we rock out when we swam but also that we, his teammates, understood why rock mattered. Because he cared what we thought. He cared what I thought. Through this, and a million other things, I felt loved and truly accepted for the first time since Camelot. No one ever tried to exclude me or to treat me like a New Kid, for all that I’d just arrived and couldn’t quite keep up in the water.
I needed that sense of acceptance because joining the Vista Swim Team was otherwise work on a scale I’d never previously contemplated. We swam more and faster than I’d believed I could swim, doing sets that I would never have thought myself capable merely a year prior. We swam day and night, and when it got dark, Mr. Malone hit the underwater lights, and we kept right on swimming.
It was unreal.
One particular night etched a scar on my soul. We were doing sets of 400 yard repeats on an interval that I could just barely manage at a dead sprint. As I swam, I gasped for breath, fought through the increasingly acute ache in my arms and shoulders, and still found myself pushing relentlessly just to keep up. At any moment, I thought my heart would explode. Everyone on the team was smoking me. Everyone. It took all that I had just to finish each repetition in time to start the next one. I fell into a kind of emotional numbness that allowed for nothing beyond the pain of the moment and my unthinking desire to see my way through to the next rep.
Dear God, I thought, there really is a Hell, and this is it. This is what Hell is going to feel like.
I kept fighting, though, and somehow I kept making those intervals. And yet there I was, still no closer to the finish. Practice dragged on and on and on. After a while, my mind looped into a mantra of song lyrics, but then it shut down entirely, leaving me empty of everything save pain and the effort of the moment. I was no longer human; I was an animal fighting to hang on to the back of the pack as it ran away.
I still thought of myself as a good swimmer, though. That was the idea of myself that I held in my mind. I’d held it through the early days in Camelot, and I’d held it through two years in exile in New Bern, North Carolina. Now that I’d arrived in San Diego, I knew who I wanted to be. I could see it. That person, that mental conception of myself, he was strong enough to make those intervals. He was capable of swimming with Jennifer and the rest. He could keep up with kids who were amongst the very best swimmers in the heartland of American swimming. He was capable of moving up and of maybe even leading a lane someday. He wasn’t intimidated; he was getting through this. He was becoming the person that he’d always known that he could be.
He was good. Not just in his own mind, but in truth.
I made myself become that person.
This did not happen overnight. There was no moment when realization struck or when Mr. Malone finally saw something in me and moved me up. Things never got any easier. Not in any meaningful way, anyway. Instead, I just swam balls-out all the time. I just pushed and pushed and pushed, and then there I was one day, swimming right behind Jeff. Not just making the intervals but trying to go faster. And then one day I was leading a lane of my own, competing with Jeff, trying not just to keep up but to win, to be the very best version of myself that I possibly could be.
Life is full of so little transcendent glory. But there I was, no shit. Living in San Diego, swimming with the best swimmers I’d ever known. I wasn’t just keeping up with them, I was doing well. I was good. Not just in my mind, not just in some conception of myself. In reality. I became the person that I’d always known that I could be.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
I wouldn’t let it. I would pay whatever price was required, but I was not going back to mediocrity.
* * *
12. Jennifer turned out to be the best swimmer I’ve ever known. She went on to swim at the University of Kansas and then Cal Berkley on full swimming scholarships. She would eventually qualify for the Olympic Trials in the 200 Breaststroke. She later qualified for Olympic Trials again as a flat-water kayaker, and as I write this, she is the current Age Group World Champion for Run-Swim-Run, a new discipline within the International TriathlonFederation’s competitive racing series. She is also a mother of five.
13. Because California was so large and populous, there was no single state championship meet. Instead, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) held regional CIF championships. The San Diego CIF Championship was therefore the biggest school-related meet of the season.