Saturday March 3, 2012, 7:20 p.m.
Equipped with an old laptop that somehow only has a battery life of an hour, an iPod touch that won’t connect to the internet, homework that I know I won’t do and seven hours of time to waste, my plane took off from Charlotte, heading for London, Gatwick. For the next few days, I will be staying in my hometown of Hastings with my mum and dad before heading up to London to swim the 50-meter freestyle at the Olympic Trials — my last race as a competitive swimmer before I officially retire. Before I start with anything else, some background information could be helpful. So here’s the short version of my story:
-I’m a 21-year-old senior at the University of Richmond, majoring in English and journalism.
-I have been swimming since I was 4 years old, and I am by no means coordinated on land.
-My family moved to Pennsylvania when I was 8 years old when my dad got transferred. I have managed to keep my accent all these years later and am excited for it to become unrecognizably strong in the next week.
-I’m a Pisces. Fitting.
So far into my trip, very little excitement has occurred: I started my travels at 11 this morning, so I’m already tired, and we haven’t even been in the air that long. Dinner is being served, and everyone knows how much a swimmer loves food, so that might be good for right now. More exciting things are sure to happen later on in the week (or at least, I hope so…).
Sunday March 4, 2012, 12:00 p.m.
Hello, England! We finally landed at Gatwick around six this morning after a pretty turbulent and uncomfortable flight. The baby in front of me managed to cry for the entire flight, and I literally didn’t fall asleep at all — both of which are extremely skillful acts when on a flight for that long. Barely functioning, we rented a car and my dad, (who hasn’t driven in England for four years now), drove an hour to get to the place we used to call home.
Hastings is a little, historical town that is about 60 miles south of London and is a stone’s throw from the beach (complete with pebbles instead of sand that make it oh-so-painful when you foolishly decide to run to the water). Having been born and raised here for part of my life, I have nothing but fond memories of these early years. Coming back, years later, still gives me chills. To me, nothing has changed from when I was 8 years old, and I still very much consider Hastings to be my home, even though I have lived in the States for the past 14 years.
I have never been a particularly confident person. At the beginning of my senior year in high school, my coach, Bill Kennedy, told me that he knew I could win states in the 50 freestyle, and I stared at him as if he had an extra head growing out of the side of his neck. He was the same person who took me aside the summer after my junior year at Richmond and flat out told me that I could make Olympic Trials in the 50, and I reacted much the same way, except this time, I laughed. Even after the reaction that I gave him, he worked with me every day for the next three months to help me achieve that goal, and he was the first person that I called, almost in tears, to tell that I had made the cut. I thanked him for all that he had done for me. Had it not been for his support and his belief that I could do something amazing, even when I didn’t believe it myself, I would not have taken the risks necessary to be where I am today. I also have to take the time to thank my coach from Richmond, Matt Barany, for putting up with me for the past four years because I couldn’t have achieved half the stuff that I have done in the pool without his constant support.
From the first week in May to the last week in August of 2011, swimming was my full-time job. Because I had finally accepted that I could actually make Trials, I also had to accept the fact that I wouldn’t have enough time to train to achieve that goal and work at the same time. It was a struggle at times. I would wake up every day before seven to swim for three hours in an unheated pool, and would come back four hours later and do another practice. I was the oldest person at those practices by four years, and I couldn’t help but be jealous of all the fun my friends from school were having while I swam back and forth in a pool that was definitely colder than it was let on to be. I swam three meets over the course of the summer, but had no clue if my times were good enough, as the cuts for the British Trials weren’t even out yet. My last meet for the summer was Super Sectionals at the University of Pittsburgh, the pool I have been swimming in since we first arrived in this country. At this point, I was basically a big ball of stress because I knew that this was my last chance to make it. I guess that worked in my favor because, in prelims of the 50 free, I went 26.72, when the fastest I had ever gone before was 27.05 –two years before that. It was really frustrating not knowing whether I had gone fast enough and, by the time that I returned to school at the end of the month, I had almost given up on it.
One day in late September, I was rudely woken up from a nap by my phone ringing, so I had to run outside in order to answer it (because people with Virgin Mobile have absolutely no service in Virginia; bad choice on my part) before I missed it. All I heard from the other end of the line was my mother screaming “YOU MADE IT! YOU MADE IT!” even though, in my discombobulated stupor, I had no idea what she was referring to, and all I was thinking about was how to get her off the phone so I could go back to bed. Given a couple more seconds to wake up, she told me that the British cuts were finally published, and the cut for the 50 free was 26.88. While simultaneously tearing up, jumping up and down and making weird noises, I sprint-walked to my coach’s office to tell him the good news. After excitedly talking about it for a few seconds, he added, matter of factly, that he figured I would need a coach to go over there with me, and we started planning almost right away.
The weeks leading up to Trials were …odd. As more people found out, their first question was always how excited I was. Of course I was excited, but I had a conference meet to think about beforehand. Our team had won the Atlantic 10 Conference Championship for nine of the past 10 years, and we were looking to add another win to the stack. As a week full of happiness, cheers, a few upsets, a bunch of smiles, a lot of tears from the seniors on the last day and the addition of a tenth win, I figured it was finally time for me to start thinking about my trip. Which is when my heart rate shot up, and I got so excited/nervous that I couldn’t sleep for the week that led up to my departure.
And now, here I am. Sitting on the floor of my grandpa’s two-room flat, listening to the rain hit the window, (seriously, it hasn’t stopped since we got here. I did not sign up for this), making this blog post a lot longer than I initially wanted it to be. Who knows what’s going to happen in my swim next week? I don’t. But what I do know is that I couldn’t have asked for a better way to finish my swimming career.
Tuesday March 6, 2012, 2:45 p.m.
Missed a day. Oops. Yesterday was busy. I had my first swim practice in foreign waters yesterday. That was an experience. I didn’t know anyone there, and ohhh did I stick out like a sore thumb. While everyone else was wearing a white cap with ‘Hastings’ on one side and a picture of a seagull on the other, I’m wearing a bright red one with a giant spider on the side. After being told that they all had to try at practice because “someone who actually likes swimming is here,” even the 6-foot-tall boys wanted me to lead the lane, but I just decided to go at the end for now. At the end of an 800 front crawl (as they call freestyle over here), I had gone from 7th in the lane to 1st. There’s one other girl from Seagulls that is going to Trials, so we were given our own lane to do our own thing while everyone else was shoved into one lane. Funny thing is, Hannah Keen is also going in the 50 free, and her time is 26.73, one one-hundredth of a second slower than what I am seeded with, putting us next to each other in the seedings. Swimming short-course metres was a little weird at first, because I haven’t done that in years, but that was easy to get used to. The waves were NOT easy to adapt to, though; lane ropes apparently don’t exist over here, leaving just a thin piece of jaggedy twine between each lane, sending me flying every time I passed someone. Disclaimer: swimming down the other side of the lane for two hours is difficult. Apart from that, training went pretty well, which I’m happy about after having spent so much time on a plane recently. After that, I stayed up until 10 looking through old pictures that we had been storing at a friend’s house when my grandpa moved to a flat. Considering I went to bed at 8:30 the night before, 10 was pretty impressive for me. But now, I’ve become almost completely accustomed to England, and no longer on American time, which is good for now, but bad when we fly back on Sunday. I have also gotten used to driving on the other side of the road and might actually try my hand at driving the car myself by the end of the week. AND when talking to a friend on the phone today, one who always points out that I sound more and more American every time we talk and has taken it upon himself to teach me English English, he said that I am back to sounding like a true English person in just three short days, which I think is very impressive. It’s funny how quickly I can adapt back to a life that I haven’t lived for so long now. I will never get used to the weather, though. I have been in this country for 72 hours, and I don’t think I have been warm since leaving Charlotte. It rains at least once every day, and the sun has been out for about four of those 72 hours. (World record, I’d guess). Because we are staying about 15 seconds from the sea, the wind is ridiculous and biting, and I haven’t taken my North Face off in probably two days now. I don’t think the weather is any different than when we used to live here, but I have become acclimated to Southern weather, (if you consider Richmond to be in the South, that is), where it is probably 70 degrees as we speak. I’m not going to know what to do with myself when I go back and I have to deal with actual sunlight.
Today, I had to wake up at 7:30 (which is really off-putting when you look at your American phone and it says 2:30 and all you want to do is go back to sleep), to go to an assembly at Little Ridge Primary School. This year, the students have been learning about the Olympics and the characteristics they believe go along with it, such as determination, courage, etc. My friend’s mum works there and brought up that I was going to Olympic Trials, and the headmaster asked if I would come in for a short Q&A session with the students. They had me sit at the front of the gym on a chair in front of the 7-11 year olds who stared at me oddly because I was wearing a shirt with a giant spider on it instead of a uniform with a little red building on it. Luckily, all I had to do was answer questions and not give an entire speech, because that would not have gone well. Being English, I’m shy, nervous and awkward and more than one person looking at me at a time makes it near impossible to get any constructive words out of my mouth. Afterwards, all of the kids that were on a swim team (only about 5, unfortunately), came up to meet me, take a group picture, take individual pictures and then ask questions. Then the headmaster and I talked for quite a while about swimming and America and other random bits and bobs. What really struck me was his, and everyone else’s, enthusiasm about Olympic Trials. In America, it almost seems taken for granted, because the country as a whole is much faster than England. In my journalism class, we looked up how many gold medals American swimmers have won in the Olympics as opposed to how many English swimmers have won. England has won fewer than 10, whereas America has more than 100. Coming back here has taught me how special it is, in other people’s eyes, that I am doing this. Today, I met the tenants of our house for the first time. When we moved, we rented out our house, giving us the option of coming back over here at any point. Going back to that house for the first time in more than 10 years was strange, but that is a story for a different time. Jean and Ron, 60-somethings who have been living in the house for the past seven years, were so excited when they heard that I was going to be swimming in the Olympic pool and both took turns asking me questions, even though I’m sure neither of them knew much about swimming. When we left, Jean said she wished me the best and said her fingers would be crossed from now until Friday afternoon. I thought it was sweet that they could be so interested in this when they had only just met me. What’s more, my grandmother’s 70-year-old sister and her husband are traveling down from Surrey by train to watch me swim, even though I don’t even remember what they look like, as I haven’t seen them since I was probably four years old. I’m happy that my swimming at Trials is bringing some of the family back together again after having not seen each other for so long.
I went for another swim today, and that went a lot better than the night before. Hannah and I were given our own lane again, but she got an hour long massage instead, so I enjoyed a wave-free lane all to myself. Then we went to my aunt’s house, and I caught up on some Facebooking while watching the Inbetweeners. If you have never seen it, Google it instantly. It is probably the funniest television series that I have ever seen, and I’m not just saying that because it’s English. I love going on Facebook and seeing a few more good luck messages from my teammates in Richmond. I wish that they could have been here with me to celebrate my last swim ever, but I know that they are cheering me on from 4,000 miles away. What means a lot to me, though, is going on Facebook once or twice a day and seeing tons of new messages each time from someone wishing me good luck. It is nice to see just how interested everyone is, whether they are a swimmer or not, even when they are on the other side of the Atlantic.
Wednesday March 7, 2012, 10:15 a.m.
Oh look, it’s raining. Weird. That never happens in England.
Today’s practice was a bit of a disaster. Because Seagulls doesn’t have an organized practice on Wednesdays, I had to go during free swim. In my lane was a middle-of-the-lane dweller and two breaststrokers going particularly slowly. Needless to say, I didn’t stay too long.
Afterwards, we went to Sainsbury’s to do our chocolate shopping, (you think I’m kidding but I’m not). After having grown up on English chocolate, I refuse to eat any other brand so when I come over here, I always buy an unnecessary amount of chocolate. I made sure that my suitcase was nice and empty on the way over — no joke — so there was plenty of room for my delicious purchases on the way home. I do wish I had used that space a little more wisely, though, and had packed more hoodies. I stupidly only brought one and a couple of long sleeved shirts, and now I’m definitely paying for it.
Tomorrow we’re finally heading up to London! We’re leaving early on the train because, even though it is only 60 miles away, it takes over two hours on the train, which I totally do not understand. That is one thing that I miss about America. Driving somewhere that would take about five minutes in America takes more than half an hour here. Since there is only one main road that runs through Hastings, the entire world and their mother is trying to get somewhere when you are, and it doesn’t end well. Once we get to London, we’re going to the Olympic pool for one warm-up after prelims and then another one before finals so I can get used to the pool. My coach from Richmond, who kindly accompanied me all the way over here, has been in London since we arrived on Sunday and has already been to the pool and has sent me some pictures, so I am very excited to get there myself. When there, we will be staying in a hotel in a mall built specifically for the Olympics. If you know England at all, you know that shopping malls do not exist. But now we can do a bit of shopping in our free time. I’m excited to see what everything looks like and finally swim; the suspense and build-up is starting to kill me. But until then, we are going to dinner with my dad’s two brothers and a few cousins that I haven’t seen since we moved to America, so that will be a nice little family reunion. Until tomorrow, then, when I continue my blogs from Olympic Park!
Saturday, March 10, 2012, 8:30 a.m.
So ‘tomorrow’ turned into three days later. Let’s see if I can remember everything that has happened over the last few days … Probably not; I’m getting old now.
My parents and I left Hastings early on Thursday morning and went right to the pool after getting off the train in London just after 11. I met up with my coach easily and, although I had to settle for the warm-up pool instead of the actual Olympic pool, it was still nicer than basically any other long-course pool I’ve ever been in. Four hours later, we came back for another warm up, this time in the actual pool, and there is no other word to describe that pool other than amazing. Everything in that building was pristine and white. The pool glistened under the bright lights. When I jumped in for the first time, I could see clear down to the other wall, which is hardly ever the case, cause the water is never usually that clear. Swimming long course was weird after having not done that for three months, but I soon got used to it. One wouldn’t expect to run into people you knew when you were so far away from home, but I was surprised at how many people I knew. When I was 17, my mum (somehow) organized for me to spend two weeks at Loughborough University, a few hours north of Hastings, training with their squad. I was way out of my league, being so young compared to them, but it was a great experience. Going through the heat sheet yesterday, every other name was someone from Loughborough, and one of the guys that I trained with won the 200 IM and is now going to the Olympics, which was fantastic to watch. Even though I know I’ve changed a good deal since I last saw him, the coach recognized me immediately and gave me a huge hug, as if five years hadn’t passed since we had last seen each other. It felt good to be remembered. After doing warm up, I practiced a few starts. When I say that starts aren’t my strong point, that is an understatement. My arms get stuck before they can make it to a streamline, which, 95% of the time, results in me diving in with my arms wide apart, a huge disadvantage for someone who swims a race that is over in the blink of an eye. Add these fancy blocks with a moveable fin at the back, and I was sufficiently thrown off. Turns out, however, that they weren’t as bad as I thought they would be. That was an experience in itself. After that, my parents and I went out to dinner with a family friend and her son, who I haven’t seen since we moved to America, and then I went to bed. Eventful.
The next morning, I had to wake up at 6:00 to get to the pool in time for warm up. In America, when we showed up three hours before the meet started, there were still a handful of people there wanting to get in early before the pool got too packed. Not the case in England. Apparently people prize sleep over a longer warm up, because I was the only person there for a good 15 minutes, which was strange, but I can now say that, not only have I swum in the Olympic pool, but I got to swim in the Olympic pool by myself. There was a cameraman sitting in the glass room in the lane that I was in, so I made funny faces at it while I swam by to keep myself entertained. My parents will be so proud (sarcasm) if those somehow end up on the internet. Funny story: before leaving Richmond, my coach was going through the rules and guidelines, and he came across a part that said parents and friends could send in pictures and good luck messages to the swimmers that would show up on the jumbo screen outside the venue. Normal people would do just that and would send in a nice swimming picture saying ‘good luck, go fast, kick butt,’ but not my team. He texted one of our freshmen, Allison, and asked her to cat effect the worst picture of me that she could find and send that in. I hope everyone knows what cat effects are. It’s an iPhone app that is literally only used to spruce up pictures by putting ugly cats all over the place. We had quite a lot of fun doing that at A10s when Allison was wrong-number texted a number of pictures from a family reunion and sent them back with cats flying all over the place. THAT is how we prepare to swim fast. So, anyway, if that picture of me surrounded by cats sitting on my shoulders appeared somewhere in London, I will be quite mortified. But obviously, everyone will get a good laugh out of it.
The meet started at nine, and I was in the first event (heat 5, lane 6), and I was officially done at 9:15. We all had to go back to a ready room with our passes so we could check in and have our suits checked to make sure they were legal and that we didn’t have anything stuffed in the straps (not sure how that would help you go faster but, hey, I guess they had to think of everything. Maybe they were looking for my hidden jetpack. Luckily I left that at home). My knees started to shake once we got on the blocks cause the nerves were just now setting in, which probably didn’t help in the long run. And I saw Hannah fly past me right from the beginning — also something that didn’t help. I started to struggle a bit when I was within the last 15 metres of the wall and took three breaths within the course of the 50 — probably one more than I needed. I finished at 26.87, my second best time, and Hannah touched at 26.21, her best by half a second. She went on to being seeded 5th in the semi finals that night, and Kevin and Michelle (former Seagulls swimmers who had come to London to watch prelims) talked me into staying to watch her swim at night. She finished at 26.20 and was 9th by .08, narrowly missing the chance to be in finals, which is such an honor, but disappointing at the time. Being almost 26, she was one of the older athletes there. Even I was older than the majority of my competition. The youngest person at the meet was born in 1999 …
After the race was done, we all had to swim under the ropes to get out using the ladder on the side of the pool. Having just held our breath for most of a 50, going under eight lane ropes really wasn’t that much fun.
I was really happy for Hannah and made sure that she knew that, but I was a bit disappointed with my swim. Not that a second-best time is anything to be upset about, but I had wanted a bit more out of the race. It was such an expensive trip, and I wanted to make sure that it was worth it. I said this to my coach after I went over to him for feedback, and he told me that it had been worthwhile for him and that I should be happy with what I had accomplished. Hugging him later and going through my past four years as a Spider, I was close to tears when I remembered that I had just completed my final race and (probably) never again would experience all that I had accomplished in my 17-year swimming career. I couldn’t have possibly asked for a better college experience and now, after a day of reflection, I can say that I am so proud that I could finish this great chapter of my life in the Olympic pool. It’s an experience many people will never get, and I know that I will remember this forever.
This morning, I went to one last swim practice with Kevin. He swam; I most definitely did not. I had some good chats with the coaches. Mark Parris used to be the head coach, but handed it over to James Nock, who is just a little bit older than me, a few weeks before Trials so, sadly, Mark wasn’t able to be in London with us. He was always the one that organized me coming and training with Seagulls ever since I was 17, so I have quite a good relationship with him. He asked why I wasn’t in the water, and I said that I’m officially retired, and now that Trials is done, what do I have left to do in terms of swimming? He said that someone with as much talent as I have does not simply give up something that they are good at. I know for a fact that I need a break from the pool, at least for a little while, anyway. In any given year, I would get a grand total of four weeks out of the pool, and that has been going on since I was 13 or so. What I think I need is to stay away for a bit and, in time, I will miss it. I have been swimming for too long, and I have put too much time, energy, commitment, pain and hard work into that pool to walk away and never turn back. I just need a bit of separation to see if that love comes back. Then, who knows? I might just join a master’s team and keep swimming until I die. I joked with Mark and said that I would be one of those 80-year-olds that is setting world records. Could happen. After I was done talking to Mark, James came over, and we talked for a bit about my retirement. Like Mark, he found it so strange that I was walking away from the sport so easily, but I knew this day was coming right from freshman year, so it was not exactly a surprise. Anything after this would seem anticlimactic. I have set records, won Atlantic 10 gold medals, been part of amazing record-setting relays that leave tears in your eyes afterwards, have been all across the States because of swimming and I ended my career in a perfect way. I’m happy with how it went. No regrets. James then thanked me for how I acted yesterday. He said that he could tell I was upset after my race, but I put on a brave race around him and Matt and was encouraging to Hannah, and I stuck around in London and sat in a shopping centre for six hours instead of going back to Hastings with my parents just so I could see Hannah swim, and he appreciated how much of a good sport I was. Honestly, it came naturally. Over the past four years, it has been instilled in us that the team comes before the individual. You have to be selfless and think of others before yourself if the team is going to be successful. Congratulating Hannah for the amazing feat she accomplished and giving her a hug and genuinely being so happy for her wasn’t an act. I hadn’t done what I had wanted, but that didn’t mean that I was bitter and wished that she was in the same position as me. I am currently ranked 22ish in the entire country of Great Britain (small as that may be), so I guess that’s pretty good. It was nice being told that someone noticed what I had done for a teammate, even if she was only a teammate for five days.
So, who knows what’s going to happen? Right now, I’m going to focus on finishing up the last two months of school and having as much fun as I can with my teammates, while simultaneously looking for a job, which is the tough part … But, I am excited about what the future can hold. Whatever happens happens, but I know for a fact that swimming and being part of this amazing team has molded me into someone that I can be proud of.
On the way back to Richmond on Sunday, I was behind someone with one of the passes hanging off his bag when walking to my gate at Charlotte, so I went up to him and asked him what he swam — something I never would have done before. Turns out that he was from Israel, and Trials was just a warm-up for the Olympic. (Yea, me too…). He told me his name, but it was something long and complicated, and I forgot it instantly, but we had a good talk while we walked. It’s interesting the people you will meet through these things, even when you leave the country, because you have an instant bond. After that, I took my pass out of my bag and put it on the outside in case there was another swimmer somewhere in North Carolina with whom I could strike up a conversation.
Overall, I have really enjoyed writing this blog. It will be something that I can look back at for years to come to remember every single little detail about my journey to the Olympic Trials — something that I would never want to forget.
Table of Contents: Speaking English English 101
Now that I have been over here for a grand total of 6 days, I have started using English slang that no one in America would understand. In order to avoid weird looks when I start talking to people, here’s a cheat sheet so everyone isn’t completely lost (I heard the majority of these all within a twenty minute span, so they are said on a daily basis):
-Chuffed to bits: pleased
-Skive: cheat or avoid
-All right?: equivalent to the American “how are you?”
-Starkers: naked (random)
-Cheeky sod: this is actually really hard to define. It’s one of those phrases that you use and then
can’t really say what it means. Sarcastic? Naughty? Silly? All rolled into one?