My once glorious “AAAA” time receded further into the past, and the improvements that would have seen me keep pace nationally with my would-be elite peers remained stubbornly elusive. At the same time, I only rarely saw swimmers of my own actual ability, and then only at the very biggest meets. These were the times when I needed my very best stuff, but transcendent greatness was not the kind of thing I’d learned to summon on command. I could feel my potential, but I couldn’t quite grasp it. Meanwhile, the social interactions that might have cushioned the blow remained equally elusive. I made friends, but I still felt like I’d lost more than I could easily explain. I went on dates, but the girls that I actually cared about seemed totally unavailable. Somehow, the right girls were always dating the wrong people.
|Me & my friend Tim during swim practice one day. I think that's Tim's|
sister Jennifer in the background.
I went on what was a typical date with a girl named Mary Shelley, a friend from Chamberlain who happened to be a direct descendant of the author of Frankenstein. We went on exactly one date. She was a petite, very cute blonde with a genius-level IQ, and we’d had several classes together, including AP Biology, in which we’d dissected all manner of pickled animals as partners. We should have been a perfect couple. I thought that all the way out to her house. But for as much as I wanted things to work, we just didn’t have any chemistry. I picked her up, and we went to dinner at the local Bennigans. But when we sat down, I flat didn’t know what to say. This to the girl with whom I’d cut apart multiple pickled fetal pigs! I’d previously found Mary fascinating, but one-on-one we struggled to connect. It was work to keep the conversation going, and who knows? Maybe I had something stuck in my teeth, too. Whatever the reason, we sat through an awkward round of appetizers, another awkward round of actual food, and—eventually—a car ride back to her house that got so awkward that it actually hurt. Metallica’s One came on as I pulled into her neighborhood, and I actually turned it up to avoid having to sit in any more uncomfortable silence.
She said, “Oh good. I like this song,” and that’s when I knew that we just weren’t meant to be. How could we have conversation with Lars Ulrich screaming in the background?
I drove home that night wondering what I’d done wrong. I liked Mary. Even after that date, I still liked her. But I couldn’t seem to say or do any of the right things, and whatever moment we might have shared inevitably slipped away.
A lot of nights were like that.
By midway through my junior year, I was frustrated all the time. I would sit in class, listening to one of my teachers drone on about some nonsense, and I’d find myself dreaming about swimming. I would picture myself working out that night, busting my ass and getting faster because that was the only way that I could see to change my life. At nights, I would pour my rage wholesale into the pool. I wasn’t happy, but I managed, mostly by staying too tired to feel or care. I again did push-ups between homework assignments and added pull-ups on the weekends, alongside resistance band training three times per week. Swimming became my sole focus, the only thing about which I truly cared. It was my refuge, the reason that my life made whatever sense it did. Making my Junior National cuts became as important to me as breathing.
My father understood this. My mother did not. She would get waspish about my social life, saying things like, “Why don’t you ever go out drinking with your friends? Why aren’t you cool anymore?”
“I don’t want to drink,” I would snap back indignantly. “I don’t even like those kids, Mom. I want to swim! Why can’t you understand that? Why isn’t that enough for you?”
Sometimes my mother would walk away shaking her head. Sometimes she would light back into me saying, “I don’t understand what happened to the cool California beach bum I knew back in Fallbrook…”
He was a fucking figment of your imagination, I’d think viciously. He never actually existed. They don’t even have a Speedo Patrol here, and if I tried to organize one, I’d get expelled. How the Hell am I supposed to be cool?
I only had the one move, and when that didn’t work, I was the fucking New Kid all over again.
I knew better than to argue with my mother aloud, however. The version of me that existed in her head was an image that I could never live up to it. I’d learned in Vista that it took commitment to get where I wanted to go. Even then, my dreams of making it to the Olympics were fast fading into fantasy. I’d stopped growing after my freshman year of high school. Despite a year’s worth of denial, I’d eventually realized that I was already as tall as I was ever going to be. Wherever else I went, I was going to have to get there on hard-nosed determination. My mother didn’t want to hear it. She didn’t understand. She wanted the kind of effortless success that happened to Cool Kids in movies from the 1980s. She didn’t want me to be Ralph Macchio from the Karate Kid. She wanted me to be Billy Zabka’s tough guy Johnny Lawrence.
My focus began to shift towards the 200 Butterfly. I’d been bumping my head against a Junior National cut time of around :52 in the 100 Fly for almost two years. I didn’t know how much more raw speed I’d be able to coax from my five-foot, ten-inch frame. However, I was still improving in the 200. I’d gone 1:54 by the middle of my junior year against a cut time of 1:52. That looked more manageable. Getting faster in longer distance races wasn’t necessarily a matter of building more pure high-end speed. I was already going longer than I’d ever gone in practice. With that came better back-end endurance, and that was what I needed to make nationals in the 200.
I could get there. But could I get there in time?
Age was becoming a factor. USA Swimming had a natural progression that it expected out of age group swimmers. It organized regional Zone Championships for age groupers, with aggressive cut times for 11-12-year-olds, 13-14-year-olds, and 15-16-year-olds. I’d gone to long course Western Zones after my freshman year with Jeff, Jennifer, and the rest of the Vista team in San Diego, and I’d even made it into the finals in my best races. But the cut times for 17-18-year-olds were slower for Zones than were the cuts for 15-16-year-olds, with the assumption being that most of the kids with talent, the ones who’d gone to Zones as younger swimmers, would make it to Nationals once they got older. The truly elite, however, made itahead of that expected timeline. These were the kids who would go on to swim at big time NCAA programs like Stanford or the Universities of Florida or Tennessee. If I didn’t make it to Juniors soon, I’d be off the elite track, behind the best of the best, perhaps permanently. Even if I made it to Senior Nationals later, my big break might come too late to get me into a truly elite college swimming program.
At the same time, Jim Kelley was getting frustrated in the other direction. “When you get to college, you can pick one event and swim it,” he said one afternoon as I floundered through another long butterfly set. “For now, you’re only sixteen. You need to be more versatile than this. You’re too young to focus solely on the 200 Butterfly.”
He was right. I should have been able to do more. I’d always been able to hold the pace with the distance swimmers in practice. This had been true as far back as junior high school summer camp at the University of Tennessee. But I was never able to hold my distance swimming form in meets while simultaneously putting in the kind of grinding butterfly yardage that I needed to be my very best in my best events. Jim wanted me to train differently, but after a while I started wondering if maybe I just didn’t have enough raw talent to do both things at the same time. Regardless, we went through several iterations of the short course 500 Freestyle and the long course 400 Free, but I never did well enough to justify continuing the experiment. I needed a full season to buckle down, hone my form, and learn to really race mid-distance freestyle. But I didn’t need that as badly as I needed to finally make the national-level cuts that would eventually get me into the right college swimming programs. In the long run, I couldn’t afford to waste half a year doing something completely outside of my specialty, regardless of how much more well-rounded it might have made me at some indeterminate point in the future.
And still I couldn’t make those damned cuts!
Short course season dragged and became an exercise in futility. In time, even my parents woke to the realization that I’d gotten off-track. My mother, previously concerned only with my anemic social life, began to wonder if maybe I didn’t have quite as much ability as she’d once assumed. Her frustration boiled over on the way home from yet another unsuccessful multi-day championship meet, this time in St. Petersburg, Florida, out on the other side of the causeway from the city of Tampa.
“What the Hell were you doing out there?” she asked hotly. “We drove all the way out here, got a hotel room, pampered you like you’re some great athlete, and still you never seem to make any best times! What are we doing this for if you’re not going to win? Aren’t you even trying out there? It’s like you don’t care anymore!”
I shook my head, unwilling to say anything that might drag that particular conversation out any longer.
But Mom wouldn’t let it go.
“This shit is expensive!” she yelled, getting fully into the flow. Her anger ignited a self-reinforcing cycle, and she turned around, fixing me with a glare. “The hotel room, our meals, this drive, our time… You think we’re made of money? You have to perform! What are we doing this for if you’re just going to sit there and swim like crap all the time? We couldstay home and watch you swim like crap! That hardly requires a two-hour drive and an overnight stay. Do you know how much this weekend cost?!”
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly.
My mother was not having it. She stuck a finger in my face, and gave it to me straight up. “Understand something,” she said. “This shit…” she motioned around to the car and to the past few years all at once, “…is not cheap. We’ve paid for college with this; we’ve just paid in advance. Do you hear what I’m saying to you? You have to get a scholarship. You have to make this work. Your money for school went into your swimming. I don’t want to hear any bullshit later about how you just couldn’t make it happen. No! We’ve done our part. We’ve paid. The rest is up to you.”
I shook my head and looked away, unwilling to speak. The waters of Tampa Bay rolled by outside the window.
“Well?” Mom said. “Aren’t you going to say something?”
I looked back at her hesitantly. “I won’t let you down.”
“Are you sure?” my mother asked. She must have known that I’d tell her whatever she wanted to hear. She drove the point home regardless.
“I know what I have to do,” I said. “I won’t let you down.”
“You better not.”
Mom turned around after that, and I let myself sink gratefully into a numb kind of quiet. I’d said what I’d had to say, but in truth, scholarships seemed a long way off. The future that she wanted looked like an impossibility. I had no idea how—or even if—I would ever be able to make good on my commitments.