Wednesday, July 4, 2018

#SBRLLR: Beat Navy (Part 3)

I was surprised to the point of shock when I got to West Point and found Layne, the object of my ill-advised affections from my halcyon days with the Vista Swim Team, ensconced as a yearling on the Army Women’s Swim Team.  Though she’d once been one of my very best friends, indeed an object of true adolescent adoration, Layne and I spoke maybe two dozen words in the three years we were together at the Academy.  The Army Men’s and Women’s Swim Teams just weren’t close when we were there, and whatever romantic affections I’d once felt, they weren’t strong enough—on either side—to pull us back together against the tide of our teams’ mutual animosity.  
I gave little thought to this as a plebe because plebe life offered little time for self-reflection.  As a yearling, however, I mourned the loss of Layne as a perfect ideal.  In time, however, I realized that whatever I’d once felt for my first crush, those feelings were of a piece with a part of myself that lived only in memory.
Army-Navy weekend with a shaved head.  This was *not* my best look.
The picture is ripped right at my throat, unfortunately.
I just wasn’t that person anymore, and neither was Layne.
The bleached blond boy I’d been at Fallbrook Union High School still loved the memory of the Layne he’d known in those first triumphal years of high school swimming.  He probably always would.  But that boy was rooted firmly in the glories of the past and in the specific memory of a day at the beach a long time ago.  I treasured those memories, but the man that I’d become had long since moved on.  Life at West Point was rooted firmly in the here and now, and I wanted to move forward without pining for the past.
* * *
Thanksgiving came, and my grandparents flew up, both to celebrate the holiday and to watch Army’s annual dual meet with Cornell.  With all the local stores closed, Pa Pa Dan, Granny, and I made Thanksgiving dinner from leftover turkey sandwiches in a tiny motel room at a local Highland Falls motel on Thanksgiving afternoon.  However, my teammates and I had to be back at practice that Friday, leaving everyone in my family feeling very put-upon by the requirements of Army Swimming.  
But that was my folks’ problem.  Having fought through Beast Barracks and the rigors of plebe year to the point where I finally felt like I mattered to my friends and teammates, I personally cared for nothing beyond my responsibilities to Army Swimming.  Friday’s practice was a gift because it was all I had to do that day.  No classes would distract me, nor would any upperclassman want to hear The Days or The Corps.  That was all I wanted.  When I won my event that Saturday morning, I felt like the weekend had been an unmitigated successful despite the persistence of my grandparents’ grumbling about Thanksgiving dinner.
With Thanksgiving gone, though, the Navy meet loomed large on the horizon.  The swim team began its first taper of the season while the Corps of Cadets started gearing up for the only football game that truly mattered.  There was a bonfire, pep rallies, and a few underclass spirit missions, most of which passed me by in a haze of ignored anticipation.  The Army-Navy football game might be the biggest rivalry in college sports, but my first Army-Navy swim meet was the only thing that had any actual weight in my own personal reality.
The Men’s and Women’s teams piled into a pair of chartered buses on the Thursday before the football game and drove for six long hours down to Annapolis.  We got there that afternoon and went straight to the pool to warm up, leaving me with the distinct impression of being in enemy territory.  It was beyond weird to see “Beat Army” stenciled on the ceiling of Navy’s pool.  Uniformed midshipmen walked around like it was the most natural thing in the world.  I left the pool that night feeling alive with anticipation.
I might have had some ridiculous notion of getting homework done in the hotel that night, but the swimmers were entirely too hyped.  We had dinner and then retreated to our rooms.  I hadn’t been there five minutes when my phone rang.
Rocket’s voice: “Come to my room.  Now.”
I arrived to find the rest of the team huddled around Rocket’s bed.  He turned to his bag, pulled out a set of brand new barber’s clippers, and handed them to one of the yearlings.  
“We’re shaving our heads.”  
No one said anything.  Rocket stripped off his shirt while the rest of us looked on.  He then sat at the edge of his bed, and one of the guys buzzed his hair off right then and there.  Soon, the rest of us were stripping off as well, so that we could also get our heads shaved.  
Rocket pulled a disposable razor from his bag and held it up.  “When you shave down tonight, make sure to get your scalp, too.  Don’t leave any whiskers for drag.  We want to kick their fucking asses tomorrow, make no mistake!”
The next day started late, but by mid-afternoon I was back at the Naval Academy warming up for the meet.  I was nervous but swimming okay.  I kept trying to reassure myself that I was on my best form, but true confidence eluded me.  With all the adrenaline and the buzz in the air, I found it hard to hear what my body was telling me.  It also felt weird to have a shaved scalp.  I’d shaved my body many times for meets in high school, but this was the first time I’d ever shaved my head for a swim meet.  I tried not to think about it, but after more than a decade of swimming with hair, the feeling of my smooth scalp remained endlessly distracting.
We sang the National Anthem, and then the meet began, starting with the 400 Medley Relay.  Our backstrokers got off strong, but by the time the butterflyers came up, Navy held a commanding lead.  Toad and I both went into the water third, but if we gained any ground, it wasn’t enough.  Navy took the first win, but we took second and third.  We were behind, but not by a devastating margin.
Army had better sprinters, but Navy had better stroke and distance swimmers, and over time this took a toll.  Navy won more events, but Army finished strong down the roster, and Rocket and the rest of the sprinters contributed enough actual victories to keep the meet close.  The 200 Butterfly came in the middle of the meet.  By the time I came up, Army was down by maybe five points.  We needed a win to pull even and set us up for the second half.
I tried to stay calm, but this was the biggest race of my life.  After years of wrestling with cut times and school choices, I’d decided on West Point.  I’d struggled through the summer, swum back into shape during the early part of the Academic Year, and bonded with my teammates.  Now those teammates needed me to do what I did best.  There was no question why I was there.  Coach Bosse had recruited me specifically for this moment.  My team needed me to do my job.  We either turned things around with the 200 Butterfly, or Navy’s lead would grow insurmountable.  I needed my very best stuff.
The Navy stands were jammed, but they grew quiet as we approached the blocks.  Navy’s butterflyer, a junior named Brian “Mookie” Blaylock, had won this event in each of the two previous years.
We climbed to the blocks.  I can win this race, I thought. 
Brian must surely have thought the same thing.
We took our marks, and the buzzer sounded.  The stands erupted with cheering, but this was squelched when we hit the water.  I took a few hard dolphin kicks through the eerie quiet of those first opening moments, and then there I was, no shit, swimming in my first ever Army-Navy swim meet, an integral part of the biggest rivalry in college sports.
I took the first hundred out long and steady, riding even at Brian’s shoulder and maybe just a touch ahead.  We hit the fourth turn at a dead heat, and I tried to drop the hammer.  Brian put it down harder, however, and I knew immediately that I’d gone up against a better swimmer.  When someone puts a move on you like that at the midpoint of a 200 Butterfly, it’s emotionally devastating.  It is harder than Hell to come back from something like that.  Brian pulled ahead by maybe a half-bodylength, and I spent the next fifty yards trying to convince myself that this was okay, that a plebe could get second in his first Army-Navy swim meet, and it didn’t mean that he was a failure.  I tried to convince myself that I could still have a good swim if I put in a good time.
I couldn’t do it, though.  Not with my teammates counting on me.  Not when the meet itself hung in the balance.
We hit the sixth turn, and I thought, I’d rather die than lose this race.  
Considering how much the race hurt already, dying seemed a distinct possibility.  I didn’t care.  There was no substitute for victory.  I would go down right there in the pool if that’s what it took to win.  I put my head down and put everything into the next twenty-five yards.  I went beyond mere pain or fatigue, transcending my body’s physical limits entirely.  I clawed back Brian’s half-bodylength, so that when we hit the seventh turn, we were dead even once again.  The crowd grew so loud that I could actually hear them roaring in the water.
The last twenty-five was total commitment.  It didn’t hurt.  It was just balls-out swimming.  I could feel myself pulling away, though the margin was never more than a fraction.  We touched, and I knew I had it, though the difference was maybe a tenth of a second.  I sagged back, exhausted.  The pain and fatigue I’d been ignoring had their way with me all at once.  Toad let out a war-whoop two lanes away, and when I finally made it out of the water, he grabbed me in a bear-hug that lifted me bodily off the ground.
We won!” he screamed.
We did.  We took first, fourth, and fifth, and that put Army a few points ahead30 at a critical moment.  I knew a moment of pure, transcendent glory of a kind I’d experienced only once previously, the day I’d made my first and only “AAAA” time.  I collapsed into the warm down pool and took a long time coming out.  My day was done.  I’d done my job.  All we needed now was to hold serve in the diving and put a win on the board with the 200 Breastroke.  The meet would be ours.
Alas, it wasn’t to be.  Navy swept the diving and pulled into a decisive lead.  They took the 200 Breast as well, and though Army pulled out a few more wins and took the meet to the final freestyle relay, it wasn’t enough.  We needed to take first and second in that final relay, and we didn’t—quite—have enough sprinters to pull that off.  Navy won their first Army-Navy swim meet in five years by fifteen points, exactly the value of their dominance on the diving board.
I slumped away, feeling exhausted and confused.  I’d put together one of the best swims of my career, not so much because it involved a fast time but because of the way the race itself unfolded, because I’d had to commit fully to get a hard fought victory against a truly worthy and talented opponent.  The lead had changed hands three times in that race, a thing I’d never seen nor even heard of anywhere else in a 200 Butterfly.  It could only happen at Army-Navy.  
And yet, I walked away disappointed, even devastated.  
Swimming is an individual sport, and at some level I was ecstatic to have come through when it counted in my own personal event.  My team’s loss, however, still left a scar.  We climbed onto the bus the following morning feeling like whipped dogs.  
Navy clinched victory on the football field the next day, and I was left with nothing, no emotional reserves whatsoever.  Dave and I “boomeranged” back to West Point following the game, eschewing the weekend in Philadelphia for a bottle of crème de menthe that he’d somehow hidden in his room.  
This was our first experience drinking in the barracks.  Afterwards, I felt sick for a week. 

30. Video of this race is on YouTube.  I've dropped it below.  

My memory says that we took 1st, 3rd, and 5th, but in the video it looks more like 1st, 4th, and 5th.  Regardless, I spoke to Sherry, our assistant coach, immediately after my warm-down, which is why I remember how the scoring played out.

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