She was tall and tanned with that easy lanky gate of nature. Her brown feet met the earth differently than anyone else’s in my world. They connected with ease to the grass and even the concrete surrounding the pool. My mom said, “She walks like a man,” and warned me not to do likewise. “It’s so unbecoming.” But to me, Janice walked like a goddess. She was the coach, my coach. I worshipped her. Everything about her was what I wanted to be — six feet tall, browned, spending her summers in a straw hat watching over the pool, her pool, our summer home.
Early in June of 1960, my dad suggested I might like to be on the swim team. I did, I wanted to. I was just seven. And though I could swim across the pool without help, something I had finally mastered two summers before, near the end of the season, I couldn’t do much more. It wasn’t pretty. My breathing was ragged. As I rolled over, almost onto my back, the sound I made gasping for air, terrified my mom. She thought surely I was dying and yelled at my dad that way she always did, “Jack! Do you really think that child should be in the deep end alone?” But then Janice transformed me. The skinny, ragged breather became a champion swimmer.
I slept in my swimming suit and hung my towel on the bed post. That made it easy to get to early morning workouts on time. Inching into the cold water, doing the laps, it surely helped. But Janice made me a winner. “Ready, set, go!” Janice yelled it a million times that summer. And I would take off, trying to get that little belly to flop a little farther out into the lane, trying to get those arms to turn over a little faster, trying to be a little smoother when I gasped for air. Janice always encouraged me. Her calm coolness and unwavering support made me want to go faster. She was always there at the end of the race with a hand to pull me out of the pool. “Way to go, Suey!” There was no critique, no discouragement, no, “Good job, but…” It was always just, “Way to go!”
Amazingly, I won races. Perhaps it was my height that gave me just enough of an edge over the other seven and eight-year olds. Perhaps it was because I was gutty enough to go the whole length of the pool without breathing when I had to. Perhaps the other talented would-be swimmers my age in Salt Lake City were busy with embroidery and cooking – the preferred activities of the culture. Maybe it was just luck. But it felt good when I rolled those blue ribbons in my wet towel at the end of the meets. And I loved making Janice smile.
I didn’t make it to Janice’s six feet, though I came pretty close. And the next time Janice came into my world, I was glad I hadn’t. I was in ninth grade – an awkward time for an awkward girl who had moved in the middle of eighth grade after living her whole life in the same house. It was seventh period, and there she was, Mrs. Stevens, the gym teacher with her system of points. Points for an ironed gym uniform, points for a neatly embroidered name on your gym socks, points for being straight in your line when you shouted your number in roll call. Janice was older, paler, worn down by a school system that didn’t allow straw hats. And I wasn’t a winner. Raw energy didn’t count. Playing the system did. And I wasn’t good at that. I hated to iron and so did my mom. I was lousy at embroidery from lack of practice, and sometimes I even forgot to wash my uniform or left it at home on Monday, a mildewing clump in the laundry basket.
Life made a lot less sense in 1967 than it did in 1960, summering at the pool. In the pool, it was all about work. Now, out of the pool, everything was arbitrary and pointless. A former Utah state swimming champ, could get a “C” in gym, even though I’d never had a “C” in my life. I could fall desperately in love and be dumped for Heidi, who was such a self-righteous woos. My family could move to a different part of town, and no one would invite me to have lunch at her table. I could get cool John Lennon glasses only to hear the handsome boy sitting in front of me in geography ask, “Did your mother make you buy those because they were cheaper?” I just didn’t get it. Janice walked like a man and added up points.