When we were young, my mother wanted us to have the opportunities she did not have in her youth. So we all had to take a music instrument, and do sports. The sport she chose for us was swimming.
It took me many months just to put my head into the water and learn to float; but I had the luxury of youth and time. As Malcolm Gladwell said in his book on success, it takes 10,ooo hours of effort to become really good at anything. Because I was really young when I started, I became a competent swimmer but only just.
A lot of juggling was involved to make sure we went to the pool regularly for training, but mom took the responsibility seriously. The coach she engaged for us was a handsome young man – a Bruce Lee lookalike. He was actually employed as a lifeguard at the pool and coached us during his off hours. We stayed with him or rather he stayed with us for many years despite my mom not giving him any raise!
Coach encouraged us to participate in competitions, and there were so few swimmers in my small hometown, we did quite well. We also represented the hometown at national level championships, and at these championships, I often came in last or second last. As Coach said, it was all for the experience, and we will do better next time.
One of these races was particularly memorable; it was the 200m butterfly. It is such a long and difficult race to do that I tried to pull out of it. As usual, Coach would hear nothing of a withdrawal. Go do it, try, it’s a good experience, he said. Nevermind last, just try. You might get a medal. Yeah, fat hope.
Upon registration, I realised there were only 3 other girls still in the race, and they were miles better than me. I could see the 3rd best girl was relieved I was there to bring up the rear.
It was a fiasco from the starter’s gun. From the moment we hit the water I was 2 body-lengths behind the rest. They pulled further and further away. When I touched the wall at 150m, I could hear the crowd shouting as the other girls finished the race. I took a few more breathes and contemplated quitting there and then. But instead I turned, kicked off and started the last lap. My arms could barely lift out of the water, and my legs were slanting 45 degrees down; I had to switch to breast stroke kick. It was torture swimming that last lap alone while I could feel all eyes on me. My face was red and I was crying into the pool. I heard my team-mates shouting encouragement between giggles, but they soon lost interest. I tried not to look at the far wall (so far away!), but concentrated on the lane marking at the bottom of the pool, taking one stroke at a time. Finally, I was 5 strokes away, then 4, then 3, then 2, then 1 and then touch the wall with both hands. There was a smattering of applause.
The results were delayed, and when Coach ran back to tell me someone was going to be disqualified in my race, I thought it was me because I took too long to finish or did something wrong. It was several minutes before I understood what he really meant. Someone else was going to be disqualified and I was going to get the bronze for just finishing!
I think the lesson here is that the best swimmers don’t necessarily end up with the medals. There were several girls better than me who were entered but pulled out because they thought they had no chance for a medal. Sometimes the rewards go to those who doggedly hang on and don’t give up. My mom and Coach are like that, they don’t give up, and they didn’t let me. A very important lesson in life.