How to qualify for junior nationals
- make sure you are born into a family where your older sister and brother are swimmers so that you have no choice whether you will swim. your mom will promise to let you quit as soon as they graduate from high school.
- make sure your own natural talents have nothing to do with swimming. drawing and writing stories are good choices. you can draw and write a lot at all those swim meets where you’ll just be sitting around because you are too young or too slow to be swimming with the other kids.
- make sure you have a twin sister with a special talent for swimming. she needs to be much better than you are.
- make sure you swim with your twin sister so that everyone can compare you and see how much faster and better she is. it’s even better if a lady walks up to your mom in the bleachers and asks for the names of the “fast twin” and the “slow twin.”
- make sure you get disqualified many, many times in backstroke because your turns are illegal. make sure you practice that terrible illegal turn at every meet so that you get disqualified as often as possible. note that your talented twin sister is too nervous to do the turn and avoids it.
- make sure you get disqualified in the butterfly every single time you race it. make sure your coach is so frustrated, she ties your feet together at practice. make sure the moms in the bleachers are watching horrified, as you try not to drown.
- make sure your mom (who can’t even freestyle one length of the pool) is so worried about you drowning during butterfly practice that she works with you on butterfly every day. your mom thinks your butterfly is beautiful.
- make sure you have no cuts for championships and that your twin has all the cuts. even better, make sure your twin is bringing home medals. during championships, your mom lets you play in the water park next door because you have nothing to do.
- make sure you are assigned to the slowest possible lane at practice. make sure the girls in that lane take advantage of how slow you are. make sure they say mean things.
- make sure you ask your mom if you can have some private lessons so that you can get better. make sure you take what you learned during those lessons and apply them to practice.
- make sure you keep trying to make cuts for the meets your twin sister goes to. when you don’t succeed, keep trying. when you still don’t succeed, request a time trial, even if it annoys the coach. if you fail at the time trial, try again the next day.
- when you start making a few cuts, make sure you aren’t fast enough for the relays. make sure your twin sister is on all the relays.
- make sure your technique remains mediocre, and make sure you keep asking for frequent private lessons.
- make sure you happily agree to swim the distance freestyle events that your twin sister (and everyone else) loathes.
- make sure you follow all the advice and instruction that you’re given by the coaches, because what have you got to lose? it’s not like you’re fast or anything.
- make sure you are consistently several inches shorter than your more talented twin sister.
- make sure you annoy your coach by trying to sneak into a faster lane at practice.
- make sure you are ignored and unnoticed when the “fast kids” from other teams on deck approach your twin sister and make conversation.
- make sure you always have a good book to read on deck, just in case no one feels like talking to you.
- make sure you always remember that when you have bad swims, or an entire meet of bad swims, that you never accepted being defined by your seeming lack of talent and all of the bad swims in your past. you aren’t going to start now. hold out for those good swims. you never know when they’ll happen.
In the end, it was the bits and pieces of this rocky experience that pulled together into one fast race. It was fast enough to catapult this girl past her sister and past a lot of other people. It wasn’t about talent, and it wasn’t even about hard work. It wasn’t about any one thing. But when you’ve worked and failed repeatedly for years, and nonetheless have continued to assume that the work itself was worth doing no matter the result–this is determination. It’s the mental state that comes with not being defined by either your successes or your failures, and the acceptance of all that comes with the territory when you do difficult things.
The video above is a two minute clip of the beginning of her qualifying race. She is in a turquoise suit and yellow cap. Whenever she races I still remember the little girl with no cuts and a string of disqualified races.