I push the big silver button on the dryer. Hot and noisy, I endure the noise for the sake of the heat. My hair is wet, it’s cold outside, and I’ve ridden my bike. It only makes sense to turn my head toward the nozzle and see my thin, fine hair fly in all directions. It’s like a whirlwind of dust on a hot dry day, so it will take only one cycle to do the job. Immediately, the blast of hot air transports me back to the Deseret Gym, a skinny nine-year-old girl trying to get my boyish, short hair dry before my dad picks me up from swimming. I’m swimming year-round, though no other girls are. Someone thinks I have talent, maybe it’s my mom or my dad or my coaches. I don’t know. We never talk about it. I’ve had a good couple of summer seasons – all blue ribbons and gold medals. But this is Utah, and there’s little serious competition. Even in the summer, let alone the winter, most little girls in Utah are learning to sew and make cookies while I’m putting in the laps either in the summer sun or in the bowels of the old, dark, moldy Deseret Gym. I must admit, though, I love everything about being a swimmer. That’s who I am. I love my coach, Rozwell. He’s tall and thin and sweet. Sure, he says, “Ready, set, go,” and he means the “go” part. And he makes me do really hard calisthenics on the deck, but his face is always defined by a smile, his words always encouraging. But mostly it’s about the water. The water feels good. It’s smooth and fits snugly around my body. My arms are strong; they pull me through the water, make me fly. I can do a whole length under water and glide to the top, weightlessly rising at the end of the pool for the big breath. When I finish a freestyle set, my arms reach out for the final stroke and I feel the wall meet me – the energy carried through to the end of my toes. The water also makes amazing sounds. They’re muffled, but the little flutter from my kick, the bubbles rising from my breath, the gurgles from my strokes, and even the splat when my little body lands in the lane at the beginning of a race, all make me feel as though this is my liquid world. I am a swimmer. The water loves me back. I delight in somersaulting, watching the light filter through the water and the bubble patterns as my body completes the curve and my back sinks to the bottom of the pool. I can do all sorts of things in the water that dry land thwarts, like walking on my hands, easily, supported by the water. My body, from top to bottom, and all my senses are engaged with the medium.
Winning isn’t bad either, though it ended abruptly. Turns out there were girls in California and Hawaii and other places who were working out much harder than I was and had more talent too. But the swimming went on. Now, at 62, I am still the little girl amidst the bubbles, finding the joy of strength and the sensation of flying, somersaulting and competing, even if there are no blue ribbons or gold medals. There’s always someone in the next lane or the clock on the wall. And I’d like to beat them both. The push to win is still there, especially if it means swimming just a bit faster than the younger man in the adjacent lane… even if only for a few laps.