We awakened Saturday to low, gray clouds and air ripe with moisture. Parents arrived with coffees and picnic baskets and blankets; the more enterprising pitched tents, knowing the meet would take half the day. Our young swimmers came dressed in their black Tiger Shark suits, the girls’ hair stuffed under caps, the boys with goggles perched on unlined foreheads.
There were five teams competing in our district meet, all of us small, private swim clubs. All season we’d lost. Half-way through the first meet I turned to another parent and said, “’Wow, we’re getting our butts kicked.”
“We’re a young club,” she said. “This is only our second year as a team.”
Regardless of our losses, all spring and summer the kids worked on their strokes, and their starts and stops. Day after day they swam from one end of the pool to the other.
Despite their hard work, we continued to lose. Our coaches, all college swimmers, emphasized improving individual scores, which the children did. And I never heard any of the kids acknowledge that we never won. I never heard one complaint or criticism of a fellow teammate or any of the other teams. They were good sports. They had fun. They showed up.
And then something amazing happened.
On Saturday, at the end of this long district meet (67 events) came the freestyle relays: four swimmers teamed up together – each child to swim a 50 meter leg before handing it off to their teammate.
First, our little girls won (7 and 8 year olds). Then our little boys won and then and our middle-sized girls (9 and 10 year olds) and middle-sized boys. Our team of swimmers and parents were beside themselves, whooping and hollering and cheering. I shed several tears behind my dark sunglasses, an ache in my chest filled with pride and amazement and love. I thought our head coach might fall in the pool she was jumping so high.
It was especially sweet because the victories were in teams.
Before their relay race, Ella’s team of 9 and 10 year-old girls conferred in the staging area. “Let’s swim our hearts out,” Ella said, as they all agreed, clasping hands. “This is our last event of the year – let’s push it as hard as we can.”
And they did. All four of them swam like we’d never seen them swim before. They shaved 28 seconds off their previous time. 28 seconds! They lapped the team that beat them earlier in the season.
And the crowd went wild.
I can only imagine what the other team’s parents thought of us acting like our children just won an Olympic race. But they don’t know how far we’ve come.
Both Ella and I were wondering whether or not she’d continue swimming next summer. Western Washington is so cold in the late spring and early summer that practices and meets are often miserable. And it seems clear she won’t be going to the Olympics. It also seems clear she is an artist not an athlete. That said – were the evening practices worth it? Were the early morning practices during summer vacation worth it? Were the hours and hours of swim meets worth it?
Yes they were.
After Saturday we both understood on a visceral level why this experience mattered so very much. I already knew that exercise, in any form, is fantastic, especially if habits are started early. I already knew that being on a team builds skills one needs in life. But there’s a deeper message from our swim team experience, one that I continue to learn again and again in my own life and work.
Doing something you’re not necessarily good at the first time, or even the fiftieth time, can be humbling and frustrating and disheartening. But if you keep at it, despite setbacks and difficulties, you improve. And that is something these kids can take with them into careers and parenting and citizens of the world.
Try, try again. Do not give up. Ever. On Saturday we watched our little ones transform before our very eyes. They became swimmers. Swimmers with big, brave, tenacious hearts. I can’t wait to see what they do next year.