My last season swimming as an Athena made me realize a lot of things about myself. It made me look back seriously at my entire career, starting from my decision to start swimming again, to the very last race.
For the last three years, SCIACs were always held in Long Beach, at the Belmont Plaza pool, which is cavernous and a shade too dark, like being in the stomach of a whale. There was space; a lot of it. You could sit wherever you wanted. There were bleachers behind the blocks where teams squished up tight next to one another and screamed their hearts out every night. This year, it was held in a neighborhood right next to Compton, in a small community pool that had swimmers exploding out of the back. This literally happened: tents with space heaters were put up outside the pool’s large sliding acess doors and swimmers huddled in there, damp in their parkas. The whole thing felt off.
Most of the time was spent trying to figure out how to best adapt to the place: that there was water in every lane, that the pool was swimmable. The other part was simply understanding that this was the very last time that I would get to do this. The whole four years had boiled down to three days in the armpit of February, and I was now sitting with my tapered arms, legs, body, to see if what I wanted so badly to have was something that I could now have the chance to achieve.
My junior season was the best season of all: my parents flew out from home to come watch me swim; I dropped time unexpectedly. I remember bursting into tears after I slammed into the wall after my 100 yard breaststroke final. I looked up at the scoreboard and saw the completely unexpected: I had crushed 2 seconds off of my best time. I remember sobbing, yelling, hugging my teammate right next to me. The fact that I had touched in fourth again didn’t register with me. I looked up to find my parents in the stands. My mom had run down to take pictures, and in the chaos of getting out of the pool, hyperventilating from the race, I found her.
This year I wanted to qualify for NCAAs. Ah, it seemed so simple. Every single person in my graduating class had either gone or qualified. I was about half a second away from both my events from achieving a B cut. Did I think I had the potential? Absolutely. Had I put in all the work necessary, found the depths during practice times, where only the most focused of the least talented trained to become great? I wasn’t sure. I was a taper swimmer, a race swimmer. I hated practicing, hated making the small changes day in and day out to snip miliseconds to make the time needed. But I had experienced greatness, if not in a collectively regarded way, but in a way that spread up from my solar plexus and into the tips of my fingers. I understood what greatness meant for me, and it was achieving something I never was quite sure I wanted in the first place. It turned out that it was something that I needed.
There were three particularly defining moments for me that weekend. The first was when I qualified in lane 5 for the big final for the 100 yard breaststroke. The whole season I had owned that race, splitting a program top-10 time in a relay during one of the dual meets, going a season best the same day in the regular event. I was completely jazzed and unprepared for being in the spotlight. All season long I had struggled with being one of the fastest in the conference. I began to see myself as someone who belonged with the seniors in my class: those men and women I had recuscitated my career with, to see them come in as freshmen ready to take blood, to our senior season now, where all of us had a chance to head to Indianapolis. I stood behind the blocks and completely forgot who I was, whose race I was swimming, what I wanted from myself. I touched in half a second slower than the morning and in fourth place. It’s funny how being left out on the podium both times can have such a significant difference with a year in between, and a completely different athlete having achieved this result. The aftermath lasted an hour. I remember sobbing, not in the usual headachey, eyes screwed up way, but numb. I felt myself gasping for breath, I felt the tears running down my face, I felt myself bend over to try and catch breath. But I could not understand what had happened. The race, now, is still foggy, ungathered, harried, and not mine. It did not feel triumphant, or planned, or swum. That was the end of the second night, with the 200 yard breaststroke left to go on the last day.
The next morning, I woke up and ran through my normal warm up routine. When I was a freshman, I had dreaded the 200-yard breaststroke. To me, it still remains the most physically demanding race that I have swum throughout my career. The 200 IM was always a warm up race for me, something to get my feet wet in order to focus on the next two days. The 200 breaststroke though; I dreaded every 50, because it would bring me to the next one, and the next one, and god, one more. There’s nothing like the heavy leaden feeling in my legs during the third 50, and the turn heading into the final two lengths still make me feel like I only have one lung.
The morning pace was effortlessly fast. I was slippery, methodical, almost emotionless. I didn’t feel like there was a need to get pumped up about this race. I was there to execute and finish. Gone was the passion and heart that I had put into the 100 race yesterday. I wasn’t tingling, I was just ready to close.
I had a nice, clean start. Then, the moment I hit the first wall at the end of that 25, I caught a glimpse of the girl next to me turning at exactly the same time. Maybe it was being seeded in lane four that morning, knowing that there was no one in that heat who could possibly be joining me in the final night swim. So in my head, someone keeping up with me on the first 25 seemed so massively improbable that I took off like a gun, splitting the 100 with a blind rage that made me feel like a bull in a china shop. I doubt that I swam in a straight line for most of that race; by the time the third 50 came around, I was incredibly light-headed. I came home dribbling in a 1:20, gasping for breath but still touching within two seconds of my best time.
“You’re swimming like you have something to prove,” noted my coach as he gathered me close in for my post race swim.
“That can’t happen again. You need to pace yourself and swim a 200 race, Ching.”
That was moment No. 2. The understanding that I had fallen last night, but everything I had was competing for more, and I got up and raced, even when I didn’t know how or wanted to. That snap decision that my body made for me at that turn, when I knew I was faster and better than everyone else in that heat, so I had to go out there and swim like I was - it made all the difference.
I laughed about the morning race to a couple of teammates, but it took another breaststroker to really point me in the right direction.
“Take as few strokes as you can that first 100,” he said. “You’re going to be gliding like you’re drilling, but that’s what you need.”
I didn’t take an ice bath that afternoon. I had slipped into the night heat quietly, landing a nice outside lane. The lead up to the swim was remarkably calm in my head, given that it was senior recognition before the night races started. I was emotional and moved by all the cheering and the fanfare, but somehow it made the night even more clear to me. It was an achievement to have made it this far already. The journey had been unexpected, rewarding, tough, and completely blessed. I had grown into not just a swimmer, but a college senior completing four years of training, racing, and competing. Along the way, I had found myself, not even in the slightest fully formed or ready for adulthood, but filled with an unconditional love for life.
The swim was smooth. It was silky good, and I knew what I was doing. The water was fast and friendly, and every stroke got me to exactly where I needed to go. I saw the girl in lane four grip it and rip it, like we all knew she was going to do. She would end up finishing the race a good six seconds ahead the rest of the field. That wasn’t something I was concerned about. I was here to celebrate my achievements, so I went ahead and swam my own race.
I touched in nice and easy on the 100 split, and then I knew it was go time. It was the first third 50 that I’d ever swam that felt strong and effortful. I choose that word because I felt that I worked hard and I got further with every snap. By the last 50, I was feeling the pain as usual, but I stayed underwater and made sure I was swimming the way that I had always imagined, and using what I knew was going to get me the furthest. The last 15 meters I remember thinking, “This is the very last race of your career, and you will never forget this moment.”
The lunge for the wall was spectacular. I knew I had swam my most perfect race even before I looked at the board. When I did, it didn’t even matter that I was half-second slower than my personal best, or that I wasn’t going to nationals because it was not a qualifying time. I had touched in second, but more importantly so, I had finished my career not the way I had wanted to go, but in exactly the right way it was supposed to end, all along.
Every swim of my college career has taught me something important about myself, but every swimmer knows that greatness is not measured in races and in times. It is measured in tenacity, perserverance, drive, and heart. All of the greatest swimmers I have known have not necessarily been the fastest. In fact, I find the most inspiration in those who swim with an unnerving focus on being the best they can possibly be. And that is a lesson that you can only truly learn when you find yourself among athletes of character and honor.
They’ll not be the quickest, have the soundest technique, or the prettiest strokes. But damned if they’re not going to be the ones who trust in the yardage, who grit their teeth through the pain, and power through those sets where you’re certain your shoulder sockets are going to wear through.
So there’s my salvo for all the swimmers and swammers out there. To all those who are in college right now, I’m not going to tell you to enjoy it while it lasts, or make the most of it. I am going to tell you to find the people that inspire you, and that hopefully, you become an inspiration in your own right. Find the right attitude to celebrate what you have and what you are working towards. Never think that your goals are less than what they are, just because they won’t get you to a conference or national meet.
And if you still can’t justify how good you are by something other than a time, that’s ok too. There’s nothing grander and more inspiring than seeing someone go after something hard with everything they’ve got. Actually, there is - being that grand and inspiring person. No excuses now. Get out there and find the greatness that’s yours to take.