Having by now been through two serious swimming commutes, my mother had learned her lesson. She chose our house in Tampa based first and foremost on its proximity to the Carrollwood Swim Team. Carrollwood was a country club neighborhood on Tampa’s north side with a six lane outdoor pool and a golf club at its center. The entire neighborhood was a brilliant mix of greens and whites, with sprawling fairways and ever-present palm trees providing most of the vegetation while the houses themselves were uniformly light-colored ranch or bungalow-style construction, most with pools in their backyards. If it didn’t have quite the exclusive feel of a place like Riverbend, the difference was academic. Riverbend had controlled its own access road and maintained a native police force; Carrollwood offered two entrances and made due with police from the city of Tampa. In either case, police were a persistent presence.
|My official Carrollwood Swim Team photo, 1990.|
Carrollwood’s pool reminded me strongly of my experience in Camelot, save that with Tampa’s perpetual heat, the club had to run a pool sprinkler-evaporator system in order to keep the water cool enough for competitive practices. Coach Jim Kelly was a black-haired and bearded man in his early thirties, and if I never quite hit it off with him on a personal level, he was still a knowledgeable, professional coach with substantial experience putting kids into collegiate swimming. His Carrollwood team was both larger and deeper than the Vista Swim Team had been, even in Vista’s heyday. No one had quite the otherworldly talent of my old friend Jennifer Ross, but there were still several who had futures in collegiate swimming.
I fell into practice with Carrollwood as a matter of course. I introduced myself to the other kids, hit the water, and immediately started leading my own lane. The kids were all friendly enough, but as with the team in Vista, most of the best were either girls or were younger than I was and not yet as competitively accomplished. Of the girls, the best was a muscular blonde named Christy. I saw at a glance that she was flat busting her ass in the water. I’d met a ton of talented swimmers over the years, but Christy was the first who, like me, pretty much swam as hard as she could all the damned time20. Christy and I were never particularly close—we weren’t each other’s types romantically, and we ran in different social circles at school—but I admired her dedication from the moment we met. Her persistent work ethic helped me stay focused in my own head right alongside her, a task that became more and more challenging as we got older. I was intensely grateful for her company, even when we were doing totally unrelated practice activities.
I was physically ready for Carrollwood in a way that I’d not been ready before joining the Vista Swim Team, but Coach Kelley still pushed me harder and faster than I’d ever before been pushed. We would swim six thousand or more yards at every practice—for me, this was often at least half butterfly—and on weekends we occasionally put in ten full kilometers in three-hour marathons. This was exactly what I needed to improve in the water. Socially, though, my new life was a tough come-down from the glory I’d known at Fallbrook. It didn’t help that I spent fully half of my time in the pool.
Still, I was lucky. The Florida school year opened with its high school swim season, giving me a way to meet people immediately. Most of my new friends at Carrollwood also swam for Chamberlain, a circumstance that would have been ideal if I’d known them for more than two weeks prior to the start of school. As it was, I had a few acquaintances and a way to make more, and with that, I would just have to make do.
I intentionally sat down next to a cute blonde named Erin during one of our first team meetings, just a few days after I’d gotten into town. High school practice had just ended, and if I was once again the New Kid, I was at least a New Kid in the context of being the school’s newest swimming star. I thought I could make that work.
The coach quit talking, finally, and I turned to Erin. “Hey. You wanna go out some time?”
This was forward, perhaps, and it may have cut across certain unknowable social boundaries as well. As a New Kid, though, I figured that I didn’t need to care just yet. Erin could say yes or no. I had a driver’s license. Whatever else came of it, we could at least get some dinner.
But Erin looked stricken. She glanced across at her friend, a slightly heavyset girl with short black hair. “I think my friend Nikki likes you.”
I hadn’t met Nikki. “What does that have to do with anything? I’m asking you.”
“I don’t want to hurt her feelings.”
“Look, if you don’t want to go…”
“It’s not that.”
“Then what is it?” I asked.
“Why don’t you just let me introduce you to Nikki,” Erin insisted. “Okay?”
“Fine,” I replied. I probably should have said no, but by then the entire situation had become socially mortifying. Besides, if Erin had really wanted to go out with me, she would have said yes and damned Nikki’s feelings about it. This was obvious, even at sixteen.
But that was how it went at Chamberlain. I could get dates, but seemingly never with the girls that I actually wanted to date. If anyone cared that I was one of the school’s best swimmers, they never made much of a fuss about it. It wasn’t like Fallbrook, where people knew who I was and cared what I was doing for the school. Swimming for Chamberlain was mostly just work. I’d long since gotten over the thrill of winning dual meets, and when I later won the 100 Fly at the District Championships, it was no more than the expected result of what had become a rather routine kind of season. I placed in the Top 8 at the State Championship meet that year, but as I had in Fallbrook, I again missed both the podium and my Junior National cuts.
Technically I’d gotten faster, but I felt like I was still stuck in a rut.
20. Christy would go on to swim at Pitt on a full ride. These days, she’s a professional photographer and a mother of two. Her Instagram account is one of my favorites.