May 31 2009 I ran my first triathlon. It was a sprint distance. I signed up in February and started training right away. I searched online and found a good schedule I could follow. I joined the rehab gym near my house so I could use the pool and get my swimming in. I spent many hours running outside in the cold and rain. I bought a bike and I built up my speed and distance and somehow figured out the gears. I converted to clipless pedals and shoes so I could lock onto the bike and paid the price a number of times when I forgot to unclip and fell right-the-hell down with my bike. I got in matches with the Queen of the Pool – some crazy octogenarian who tried many times to tell me where to swim. I bought bags and bags of ice and kept my knee wrapped up and frozen. I spent hundreds of dollars on the right shorts and tops and other equipment. And then, on that day, I got up, donned my gear, waded into the water and when the gun went off … there I went.
The Hub was there – of course. Momme flew in from Florida to watch. My friend Julie came out and cheered me on. Together they took about 200 pictures of the event. I called my sister immediately afterwards. I texted friends. I posted a video. And for about 2 months I told anyone who would listen about the event. It was awesome. It was fabulous. It was totally great. But … you wanna know a secret? It really wasn't that big of a deal. The event itself, I mean. I was in the water for 15 minutes. I was on my bike for 30 minutes. I was running for – well, forever – but that's a whole different story.
The whole thing took me less than 90 minutes to complete. I've watched infomercials longer than that. In many ways, it was the equivalent of a long workout. Although it was a challenge and although not everyone does it, it really wasn't hard. I mean, it was … but … you know. Not really.
During spring break this past year I spent a lot of time watching The Kid swim in my mom's pool. She's a good swimmer and the pool isn't huge so I watched not because I was concerned she'd drown, but because I was amazed. I called out over and over to her how great she was doing. I watched her freestyle from one end of the pool to the other. I watched her swim underwater while looking for dive toys. I watched her tuck under and do handstands. Watched her jump, paddle, dive and kick and all the while I shouted "great job!" and "wow!" and "Kid, you are doing REALLY WELL!"
And then, for some reason, I stepped back – not literally, but in my head. I took a step back and watched her – really watched her … objectively. Watched her swim. Squinted my eyes and examined her stroke. Carefully evaluated her paddle and kick. And I realized something. Something significant.
She's really not that good of a swimmer.
Wait! Don't get me wrong. I mean, That Kid can swim! She's really good at it – but she's not … you know … Olympic caliber. She's just swimming. The way any 10 year old would swim. There's nothing extraordinary about her swimming. It's just … you know … swimming. It gets the job done. It is exactly what it should be – no more and no less.
Five or six summers ago, we took The Kid to a pool with a diving board and a deep end. Up to this point, I'm not sure she'd been exposed to either. This was back when her bathing suits were the size of tic-tacs and her entire body could be covered in sunscreen with one lotiony pass. She had grown out of any baby-fat she'd had (and really, she never had much) and out of that puppy-round toddler belly and grown into a Daddy Long Legs. She was running around on pixie-stix and I could span her waist with my hands. She was a tiny thing not yet eye-to-eye with my belly button and still small enough to get away with footie pjs and pigtails. In short, she was a little girl going for a swim.
Only, she couldn't swim. I mean not at all. She could sort of doggie paddle and when she did, she looked just as desperate as a dog does – eyes darting and pulling up up up … neck craning with muscles taut … little hands moving like hummingbird wings and legs kicking like a frantic colt trying to keep her little wet head above the waterline.
And, for some reason, I thought it would be a good idea to get her to go off the diving board straight into the deep end.
It wasn't easy to convince her. It was a scary proposition for a 5 year old. I'm sure it felt like I was asking her to jump into a pit of bees or the mouth of a lion, not into a deliciously cool pool. But it was so important. I so wanted her to experience the thrill of taking a little risk and succeeding. I so wanted to see her face when she realized she conquered a fear. I knew all she felt was the tiny boiling bubbling of terror but I could feel the thrill. And so I keep urging her. Kept nodding, kept smiling. It took a looooooooooong time and looooooooooooots of encouragement, but inch by inch she climbed up onto the board and millimeter by millimeter she shuffled to the end. Awesome! I said. Fantastic! I smiled. You are doing great! I encouraged all the while treading water in the deep end. Tread tread tread Go Kid! Tread tread tread You can do this! Tread tread tread I will catch you! Tread, Now just take a deep breath and JUMP!
She stood there. She took a deep breath. And she froze. I saw her little fingers ball up into fists. I swam a little closer. I lowered my voice. I paddled right up under the board and looked up at her. Hey, I said. Hey! When she looked at me, she had desperation in her eyes. She was begging me with her knitted brows and trembling pink lips to let her off the hook. I smiled up. Hey, I said, you can do this. And then I turned and swam back a few feet. You've got this! I said. And I sent up a little prayer.
She was trembling. And her little eyes were welling up. And just when I began to think maybe I was pushing her too hard, and just when I thought this is why step-mothers get such a bad rap, and just when I mentally began saving for her therapy that she surely would need after today, she jumped.
Right onto my head.
We both came up sputtering and laughing and cheering. YOU DID IT! I yelled as I swam to the side with her turtle-shelled up on my back. Once we hit the edge, she scurried up out of the water and into her Daddy's arms. Who immediately suggested we celebrate with some ice cream. Shocker. We instead spent the rest of the day taking turns catching her as she plunged into the water again and again. Each time she hesitated and each time one of us assured her she would be okay, she would survive, we would catch her, everyone would cheer.
Fast forward a few years and I sit watching a kid fearless. She swims, she dives, she jumps. She encourages others to go off the high dive. She looks like she was born swimming. Like she's half fish. Like she was made for it. She makes it look easy. But every time I see her jump in, dive, swim, I can't help but remember that day she stood shivering and alone on that very long board hovering over a very scary deep end. Whenever I watch her sink and catfish along the bottom of the pool I think of her balled up fists and watery eyes. Each time she calls to me to watch her dive I hear her little tinny 5 year old voice whimpering and worrying. And I guess I'll always see her through those eyes. Eyes that remember where she started. Eyes that brightened and smiled strong enough to outshine her fears. Eyes that will never forget how far she's come.
It isn't the now that's so amazing. It's the distance she's traveled to get here.
May 31, 2009. 188 people went into the water. About half of them came out before I did. A lot them were off their bikes before I was. A scant few were running longer than I did. Only one found a lump on her collarbone 3 years prior. Only one had her neck sliced open and biopsied. Only one fought the urge to abandon her family and fight it alone. Only one tasted the poison designed to save her not once or twice but 12 times. Only one had bones that felt like glass and skin that ached and a stomach that burned and heaved and lungs that filled and choked. Only one contemplated stopping it all more than once. Only one cried late into the night at what cancer was taking from her. Only one was in my skin, feeling my fears, living my doubts and doing it anyhow. Only one athlete that day had once been as weak and discouraged; dried up and afraid as I was.
… As I was.
A sprint distance triathlon. It really isn't that far. But look how very far I've come.