The swim meet took place at the University of Utah swimming pool (which should have been my first clue that this would not be a dinky meet). When I passed the building on my way to the elevators I could see through the windows that there were tons of people both in the audience and in the pool. It was crowded and busy, and there were close to no lanes available to even warm-up in.
In the other meet I went to in California, I was one of many disabled swimmers. Some were in wheelchairs, others had birth defects or lost limbs, but all were different than your average swimmer. Even at this event where I was among other athletes who understood what I was going through, it was hard for me to see myself as a disabled athlete. So you can imagine how much more I felt that way being among fully capable athletes
I should preface this whole story by explaining that the couple of days leading up to this meet were tough. October 30th was my ten month mark and Halloween was the day after. These days were a harsh reminder of what has happened, and as the year mark draws closer each 30th grows more painful. Above anything else, the pervading feeling that I inevitably feel is hopelessness. No matter what I try to do to feel lasting hope, it always seems to elude me. This feeling of hopelessness waxes and wanes of course, but it is almost always present. I recognize that I have improved in some areas, but in terms of real spinal cord recovery, I am simply dissatisfied (that's an understatement).
These experiences and feelings all rolled over into the day of the swim meet. I was feeling discouraged and very, very sad. I got to the meet and slowly made my way over to the least occupied area of the swimming pool. I watched the swimmers warming up, observing the starts, flip turns, and drills that I am so well acquainted with. I looked for a lane that had few enough swimmers for me to warm up, since I knew I would slow down anyone else in the lane with me. My mom was on deck at this point and helped encourage me to get in the water and get moving. I said over and over, "I don't want to be here. This is the last place I want to be."
I took off my shirt and shorts and rolled over to the edge of the pool, goggles on, aware that everyone around me was staring and probably wondering what I thought I was doing at the meet. I let myself down into the cold pool water. After a few moments of muscle spasticity, I began to try and warm up but only after a lap or two, my emotions got the best of me and I had to let out a few sobs under the water before trying to continue.
After warming up sufficiently, I got out of the pool, dried off, and began the wait until my first event, 50 m butterfly. While I was looking over the meet schedule, my coach walked over with her arm around a young girl wearing a swim cap and goggles with very red eyes. She was introduced to me, and it was explained that it was her very first meet and she was very nervous about it. I explained to her that it was my first meet too, and that I had been crying just like her only a second ago ( My coach looked up and asked, "You were!?") I told her that the first one was the worst, and that it would be easier the next time. I said, "I bet you every other kid in the pool is nervous too." It was good to know I wasn't the only one worried about swimming.
When I was signing up for this swim meet, I thought that a 50 m butterfly would be a good challenge for me. I hadn't actually finished a full 50 m butterfly before without stopping, but thought that it would work out... it didn't turn out the way I had hoped. The 50 m butterfly is only swam amongst the younger swimmers so I had to swim against the 10 year olds. The time arrived and I went over to lane 8, got in the water and took off at the start buzzer. I swam the first 25 m relatively well, but started dying near the end at the wall. I turned around, got slightly caught on my legs in the shallow water and tried to take off again to get some momentum. In normal butterfly I can breathe every stroke if I get tired, but now that I can't keep the rest of my body up, if I lift my head to breathe the rest of me sinks. That being the case, I really have to breathe every other stroke if I want to get anywhere in the water, but at this point I was depleted of oxygen and was forced to take a breath every stroke. It was a long, grueling remaining 25 m to the end, consisting of me trying to get my arms out of the water, sometimes very unsuccessfully. I had to modify my stroke to breathe, just so I could finish the race.
As I finished, the crowd was cheering and screaming and I was absolutely humiliated... I have never been so embarrassed. I work hard to not only be and feel capable and in control, but to appear capable and in control. Swimming makes me feel more exposed than normal, but swimming that event was another thing entirely. I felt like I left the last bit of dignity I was trying to hold on to in the pool. I made my way back to the family and kept my head down to avoid making eye contact with anyone. I had about forty-five minutes between the next two event, and I seriously asked myself if I could or even should finish this meet. It was one of the first times in my life that I felt defeated by something.There was something about that race that I felt destroyed by... I felt like I had been beaten emotionally by that event (which I was actually disqualified in because I had to modify the stroke... to breathe) and wondered if I could possibly do that two more times. I decided that I would stay and finish. I'm happy to say that while the other events were hard still, they were at least better than the first.
I enjoyed watching the other swimmers compete at first, but realized that it slowly made me feel very sad and realized where much of my emotional turmoil was coming from. Not only was I having a hard time looking so disabled in front of tons of people, I was simply longing to feel the glide and the speed through the water again. Here I had to watch people do so well, the very thing I was missing so much. I watched the finals to the mens 100 butterfly and while fly was not my most competitive stroke, I would have competed in the final heat and been in the top three. The contrast of what I was experiencing was nearly overwhelming to me. I was fighting tears most of the meet because of the deep sorrow for what has happened. It still seems unbelievable to me at times.
|Leaving the meet|
In retrospect I asked why the whole event was so difficult for me, and why I felt defeated when in reality, I had improved on all of my times. It was physically very hard to finish that first race of course, but it was by far more difficult mentally. I kept thinking of dignity and feeling like I had lost it. A lot has happened since my injury, and at this point I've been naked in front of most of my friends, been catheterized by nurses (also in front of my family and friends), I've pooped my pants, peed my pants and thrown up on other people. That's a lot to feel embarrassed about, but for some reason none of it compared to what I felt at that meet. I felt like Edgar from Once Upon a Forest when he is caught by the humans. I'm assuming there will be few who know what I'm talking about so I'll briefly relate the story to you.
The context of the story is really unimportant, but Edgar is a little mole that is trying to stay alive with his friends and avoid human contact. At one point as he is running away from the humans, he trips and his glasses are knocked off and then a branch catches his coat and rips it off. He runs around naked, blind, and bumping into everything around him as he tries desperately to make an escape. I remember watching as a little kid and thinking that he looked so exposed and vulnerable.
|Edgar with his clothes and glasses on|
It's funny that twenty years later, that is the story that comes to mind as I try to find a way to describe how I felt at a swim meet! Exposed and vulnerable... and embarrassed. The fact that I swam before definitely makes this all trickier since I can easily compare everything I'm experiencing.
So, I took a small break from swimming to recalibrate and I believe it's time to get back on the horse. It was all definitely a learning experience, and I while I'm still not convinced that swimming at this meet was a good thing for me to do at this stage, it did provide me with an experience to draw from in the future, if nothing else. I will also know to make sure that any other "normal" meets I go to in the future are at least much smaller!