This was the year I was supposed to go to the Olympics.
I started swimming competitively when I was nine years old. It was the only sport I could do well, with my flat feet and lack of running skills and hand-eye coordination. I became as dedicated as any swimmer could get. I was the first one in the pool, last one out, before school, after school, weight lifting. Never skipped a set or a lap. (Ok, rarely skipped.) I distinctly remember one of my old coaches sitting down with me to discuss my future in swimming. He asked what my goals were, whether it was getting a better time, beating a certain person, or going to the Olympics. I looked at him, all confused, and said, “Doesn’t every swimmer want to go to the Olympics?”
I calculated my age and the years that the summer Olympics were held and decided that I would probably be at my peak when I was 22 years old, for the 2012 Olympics. I figured I wasn’t going to be a Michael Phelps at age 15, but by 22, I should have it in the bag.
So, yes, this was the year I should have gone to the Olympics.
I would never have come close to the fast times that these Olympians are going. I would have been drowning in their wake as they swam circles around me. I was never, ever on track to swim that fast. I had the most drive and motivation a coach could ever want in an athlete, but you have to have more than that to be the absolute best. You have to have some kind of innate talent and ability that cannot be taught or learned. These Olympians are naturals to the point of having super powers. But children should have dreams. The goal of every young athlete should be to go to the Olympics. It’s what teaches them to work hard, never give up, shake off mistakes and learn to work even harder.
The Olympians, not just those competing in London right now, but all of the past and future Olympic athletes, are heroes and role models to so many people, especially children. I looked with awe and wonder at the massive shoulders of my heroes competing on television and I watched them break records and I wanted to be in their shoes someday. And that is where I learned my dedication and commitment and my drive.
I had posters of swimmers covering my bedroom walls when I was younger. I meticulously cut pictures out of magazines, even tiny pictures that were barely three inches wide. So many you could hardly see the wall. Pictures of Dara Torres, Aaron Piersol, Dana Munz, Misty Hyman, Natalie Coughlin, Brendan Hansen, Michael Phelps. When I took them down sometime in high school, I’m pretty sure I saved them, because I couldn’t bear to throw away my childhood idols. These athletes were the ones that kept me in the pool, made me go to practice, and helped me with my stroke. I imagined I was one of them when I practiced and raced. I watched videos about how Michael Phelps swims his butterfly, and I tried to emulate him. These athletes were and still are my heroes and convince me every day that great things can be achieved, with hard work and a dream.
Every kid in sports needs that. Every adult not in sports needs that. We need to be able to believe that impossible is possible, that dreams can come true. We can see it on the athletes’ faces– the smiles as they touch the wall, score the last point, finish the race– that this is the moment they prepared for all their lives, and we’re living that moment with them. Because those moments are our moments. Those were our dreams too and we might not be the ones competing in London, but that was our goal, that was supposed to be our Olympics. So we’re left to live vicariously through the ones who were lucky enough to be born with the natural talent that we didn’t get, the monstrous shoulders, the massive legs, the precise stroke, the better coaching and more pool time. It’s not difficult to see why we didn’t go, so we’ll settle. We’ll let them swim our races, let them win the medals. We’ll cheer with them and cry for them and our hearts will break for them, in their successes and failures. These are our heroes, representing the United States, representing all of the young athletes whose dream it is to get there, representing all the non-athletes who can still find joy in their triumph.
I will let them swim my races. Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, Dana Vollmer, Missy Franklin, Allison Schmitt, Cullen Jones…I guess they’re pretty good, they probably worked pretty hard. But by God, they better swim well. Because that was supposed to be me there.
(image from time.com)