After years upon years of practice, training, tapering, tournaments, championships, ribbons, and riotous celebrations at season’s end, once it’s all said and done, how long do we wear the badge of “athlete”?
I wondered this yesterday, when a woman at the Marblehead Y asked me where I “learned to swim like that.” She was completing her workout in the lane next to mine, and, while I was taking a break between sets, she leaned over and told me I had a “lovely stroke,” and, yes, where had I learned to swim so?
Without really considering her question and eager to get back to my workout, I replied quickly, “I used to be a swimmer. I used to play water polo, too.”
The woman nodded. ”Oh, that’s nice.” We both leaned against the deck, silent for a second. Then, she said, “What do you do now?”
Relatively simple question, right? But, I stood there, dripping, chilled, scrunching my goggles in my hand, briefly at a loss for words.
“I…well, I practice yoga,” I said, then quickly adding, “And I’m training for a triathlon. So, you know, I’m swimming and running, and I need to start biking…”
The woman and I chatted a few minutes more before she pushed off the wall to begin her series of laps again.
As I slipped beneath the water line and started my own slow swim down the pool, I kept thinking how strange it had felt to not really know how to identify myself. Athletics-wise, I mean. Because I have always considered myself an athlete of some sort, be it yoga, swimming, water polo, horse-back riding, running. These days, though, no one sport can claim me. Sure, I still practice yoga, but I’m down to one to three classes a week, if I’m lucky. And I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a runner, considering I am hitting the pavement just two or three times a week. And I am even further from tagging myself as a swimmer, given I have now logged all of two visits to the pool in the past week.
But, the woman’s question lingered with me throughout the rest of my workout. And my own determination to answer it, decisively, acted like a crop I kept swishing across my own flank.
Each time my arms turned leadened, I chided myself with a quick, “Come on. You used to bust out 5,000-yard workouts. You can finish a couple of 200s.” And after every flip turn, as I forced my legs to kick strong and hard to propel me off the wall, I reminded myself of how many hours I used to spend with just a kickboard and a sidekick swimmer to keep me company during those seemingly endless morning practices all those years ago. And even though my lungs burned, thanks to the fast 30-minute run I’d gone on before I’d jumped into the pool, I told myself I had weathered practices and polo games far, far worse than the relatively mundane, mid-day workout I was pushing my way through.
I can’t say I felt better afterward—truth be told, getting back into swimming shape is brutally exhausting, frustrating, and painful. But, a sense of accomplishment and relief (read: I didn’t drown) carried me out of the water and across the deck, as I returned my paddles and kickboard.
And, then, I saw it. Buried at the back of the equipment cage. The bright, promising yellow of a newly inflated, barely used water polo ball.
More than four years have passed since the last time I picked up a water polo ball. Prior to this past Sunday, nearly a year had passed since I last pulled my body across the cool, still silence of a pool or pond or ocean.
But without a moment’s hesitation, I reached into that cage, grabbed that ball, turned around and strode confidently back across that deck, and dove right into the deep end of the pool, the ball tucked safely under my arm. For the next 15 minutes, I just played. Sprinting a few, quick laps of head-up freestyle, the ball buoyed on the wave of water in front of me. Batting the ball back and forth between my hands. Holding it above my head for a series of 30-second intervals to test my leg strength. Laying on my back and, using the tips of my toes, flipping the ball up into my awaiting hand.
It is truly incredible what the body remembers, almost instinctively.
Sure, my movements felt a little clumsy at times, and I dropped the ball more than I’d like to admit. But, for those 15 minutes, I remembered how much I used to love my old sport, how good I used to be, how assured I’d felt in my skills, my instinct, my knowledge of the game.
I finally hopped up out of the water, gathering my cap and goggles and locker room key, then picking up the polo ball and spinning it round and round in my palm to get the water off. After dropping it back into the cage, I headed toward the locker room, suddenly aware of the time and anxious to get going. The lifeguard gave me a little wave and called out, “That was fun to watch!” as I passed beneath his stand.
Later, the smell of chlorine lingered all over my skin. Each time I reached up to tuck a strand of hair back into its ponytail, my shoulders twinged and tingled, aching, a pleasant reminder. When I went to toss Grace one of her birthday balloons, I almost palmed it like a water polo ball.
There is a certain danger in returning to what’s familiar, to what you’ve once let go. I know this danger. I am someone who often goes back, again and again, to moments and men, to friends, to patterns and behaviors that are not good or healthy. It is the optimist in me who believes, sometimes incorrectly, that upon my return, everything will be different.
I have feared returning to the water. I thought I did not have a place there anymore. I thought it would not serve me well. All I remembered were the injuries, the emotional baggage, the poison of poor competitors and bad sportsmanship, the overwhelming emptiness of feeling completely burnt out from a beloved sport.
I am ecstatic to discover I was wrong. Very wrong indeed. A swimmer—and a water polo player—lives within me still. An athlete does, too.
Today, my bag is already packed, with neatly folded towels and swim suits. It is waiting, ready, patient, promising, by my front door, eager to begin again.