Despite deep reservations over my body's capabilities and a busy family schedule I flew to Phoenix last weekend to compete in the US Master's Swimming Nationals. Over 2,000 swimmers from age 18 to 97 gathered from across the country to brave the 100 degree heat, dubious air quality and perilously high starting blocks. Fellowship and inspiration made the trip worthwhile even before I swam my best times in 13 years. An international meet at Stanford in 2006 was the last time I competed seriously, and since then my autoimmune illness laid me low.
In 2012 a dear friend came over to help me cook dinner and reassured me, as I slumped on the kitchen counter in despair, having lost fifteen pounds and all my strength, that one day we would be able to walk around the neighborhood again. Her words stuck in my head, even as I began to walk (lifting my water bottle for a weight), swim, and cautiously re-embark on a weight training regimen. I swore off competition at the height of my illness, since my addiction to exercise, fueled by competition, had nearly killed me. But engaging with my Masters teammates, finding my comfort zone in shorter workouts, more rest days, and a new attitude, brought me back to competition seven years later.
It's hard to say who was more inspiring, Olympian Matt Grevers sprinting a 21 (seconds) in the 50 -yard backstroke, the 97-year - old woman wearing a fast compression suit and swimming the 200 freestyle, or my teammates - fellow "turbo mermaids" in the words of my friend, Suzy - winning their races and dropping more time than any other team. The starting blocks were so high that they required two steps to climb up, and a permanent "fin" was anchored to the back to provide a track start. The fin worked well when you finally stepped over it and onto the precariously slanted surface. I admit that my heart raced crazily when I got up there the first time, but a 79-year-old man next to me flew off in a practice start and motivated me to take the (very high) plunge. All over the deck volunteers were letting us use their shoulders, hands or heads to climb up and stay balanced, and the shade tent poles were also handy and much coveted for their assistance.
I placed third in the 100 free and fifth (by .04!) in the 50 free with times that were not so far off what I did at Stanford oh those many years ago. To be clear, I didn't think I could even finish a fast 100 free, since here (at altitude) my lungs give way to seeing black and wanting to pee my pants after I turn at the 75. Maybe going down to sea level was the trick, maybe just being brave enough to try was most important. I always tell the kids, "Your passion must be stronger than your fear," and I had not followed the mantra myself until this past weekend. The residual grip of the illness and my doubts about fitness had lingered beyond their past-due date, and I was relieved and full of gratitude that I could finally drown them in the pool.