My mother vowed that her children would be able to swim before they could walk. Twelve years of straw-like, chlorinated hair, 5000-plus calorie a day diets, 5 am alarms, and dozens of weekends sitting on lawn chairs in a crowded, sweaty pool: that’s the glamorous life of a competitive swimmer. So you can imagine that when I stepped off the bus for the conference championships and felt the icy crunch of the road salt underneath my sandals for the last time it was a surreal feeling. I walked through the locker room and gripped each doorknob a little bit tighter. I adjusted my goggles for a little bit longer. I rubbed my fingers through my 65% nylon, 35% spandex suit. As I stepped on deck the sea of green, red, purple, and blue enlivened me. It was just as I imagined it as a kid. No, better. I felt the fans’ breaths beating down on me. Individual faces fused into globs of color. As quickly as I saw the inspiring crowd my eyes focused attention to the towering, six foot something-a-lot-taller-than-me men. And these were men. I always knew I was small and should definitely never take my chances in any type of physical fight, but these guys looked like they could punt me if they wanted. Nevertheless, no one was ever as intimidating as what I soon approached.
As I shuffled through the crowd of competitors and coaches I eventually had to reach the omnipresent record board that had Conrad littered all over it. W. Conrad, that is. Today, however, I ducked my head at the board, ignored the failed whispers of “Is that Conrad’s little brother?” and made my way over to the rest of my teammates. Now don’t get me wrong, I love my brother, but his accolades, records, and scholarships make it almost impossible for me to be anything more than “Conrad’s little bro” in the swimming world. But I marched over to the 6-inch slab of wood Deerfield High School claimed to call our bench and sat with the rest of my teammates. I slipped on my usual sweatpants and started to feel my knees quiver. The hairs on the back of my neck and arms stuck straight up amidst the 80-degree pool deck. I knew that—in order for me to perform—I had to find my inner calm somewhere among the chaos.
All swim meets are essentially the same. Warm up, national anthem, relays, individual events, a diving break, some more relays, a few more individual events, and then, you guessed it, more relays. Every aquatic center has the pool in the middle with seats around. This being my first conference championship, however, I could barely remember where I left my swim bag, let alone where I could find my lane assignments. After minutes of awkward searching I finally found the heat sheet. It monotonously lists with its computer code-like font the lane assignment for each swimmer for each event. Ben Conrad. 100 yard freestyle. Heat 2 Lane 3. This would be the last time I would ever check that compact, convoluted sheet that to a swimmer is the word of God. It was a surreal moment because I felt that sometimes if I looked close enough at the back of my hand I could still see my lane assignments tattooed in Sharpie from my swim coach when I was eight. I did not want to look away because it terrified me that I would never be back. Soon, however, a petty heat sheet would be the least of my worries.
When I finally made it back to the bench the meet began to blur and my nerves built up. The national anthem. Heat 2 Lane 3. Sweat formed on the inside of my palms making it difficult to grip my water bottle. 200 Medley Relay. Heat 2 Lane 3. My eyes continued to fixate on the competitors, wondering if I should ask to see their birth certificates. Diving break. Heat 2 Lane 3. My leg started tapping the ground faster than bees flap their wings. Somehow I managed to rise from the bench without keeling over and shuffled over to the starting blocks to prepare myself for the moment I never truly believed I would ever experience. Deep down I knew this moment, my last swim race, would eventually come, but over time I suppressed this idea. All the hard work, early practices, and crazy diets forces outsiders to believe swimmers are crazy but the friendships, bonds, and accomplishments I’ve had along the way made up for the suffering tenfold.
I looked over the glass-like water through my tinted goggles. Expectations raced through my mind. Expectations by teammates and coach. Expectations to live up to the Conrad name. But most importantly, expectations I had of myself. While these thoughts ran through my head, I lost focus at the task at hand until my coach gripped my shoulders and whispered, “Just do your thing.” What “my thing” was I did not know, but for some reason his comment spoke to me and provided the antidote for my nabbing nervousness. Before I could even begin to feel confident *whistle whistle whistle* signaled for us to climb the blocks. As I leaned over in preparation for the start, a single pellet of sweat beaded from my forehead *swimmers take your mark* rolled down my nose and just as it dripped *beep*. As my outstretched body dove into the water a rush of adrenaline coursed through my muscles and with each breath I received a refueling jolt of energy from the booming crowd. Coming out of the final flip turn, 25 yards separated me from the imminent final wall I had been working twelve years to reach. Normally at this point I would worry if the guy next to me would catch me or how I would compare to my brother. This time, however, I tucked my head, cleared my mind, and pushed out the final sixteen strokes. As my outstretched fingertips clicked the touch pad, I came up from underwater. With two exhaustive exhales I turned my head to see the scoreboard I knew I would never forget. A thin smile crawled across my face.
View my graded draft here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/115681346