I’ve been fortunate in many regards and aspect of my life. I’ve been generally healthy and often happy. I get to work in a field I enjoy, largely with people that are good people to know and work with. I have and have had wonderful relationships that I enjoy and appreciate, some of which since I was a kid. But, like everyone, I’ve had my share of embarrassing things to deal with, some little, some that seemed catastrophic at the time. This is the story of what seemed one of the most embarrassing events in my life, at least at the time.
I swam from a young age. My mom made sure we all had swim lessons as soon as we could and after that, we found a local pool at the Salvation Army that had a swim team. That meant we always had somewhere to be in the water and burn off energy, but it was also my primary sport until I turned 16 and started working more and didn’t make time to swim any more. But, from the age of about 10 to 16 or so, I was in the Salvation Army Swim Team, led by our coach, Gary Johnson.
Gary was a great coach, always trying to get the most out of us. He was a very dedicated and patient coach, despite the challenges of working with a whole group of kids with an inability to focus and an active desire to not work too hard.
Workouts were usually a combination of warmups followed by distance and sprinting. Often we also worked on technique for starts and turns. Gary was wise enough and experienced enough to also throw in plenty of free time and we would also play games so it wasn’t by any means all work. But, we often went home tired and felt the workout in our arms the next day.
One of the idiosyncrasies of our home pool was that it wasn’t actually built for a swim team. By that I mean it was not a regulation length. Instead of the expected 25 yards (or even meters), our pool was short of that, something like 22 yards or so. One of the side-effects of that was we would learn to swim lengths in that short pool then we would often have a tough time adjusting to a “normal” pool because it was an additional few strokes before the turn. This could really mess up your swim because you would count, whether consciously or not, on a given number of strokes for the distance. This fact cost me an important city-wide race one year in the 100 yard Backstroke. I had the lead in the race and near the end I was thrown off by the longer distance and at the last moment rolled from my back to my front to make the touch for the turn. At that time, that was illegal (the rule has since changed) and I was disqualified despite being the fastest swimmer in that race.
Because we always had the goal to swim as fast as we could and because we swam as a team, every summer we would get the new swim team swim suit, which was a form-fitting racing suit. That particular year, I think we had a maroon and gold speedo. At 14 I was still a very thin and wiry kid with no body hair to speak of, so the speedo was tiny. After a race, you could take it off in the shower to rinse it out, squeeze out the excess water and the thing could easily compress inside a closed fist. I think I may still have that suit in a box somewhere. It’s a tiny suit.
This story took place when I was 14 during the summertime. That’s when we would have meets with other teams. One of the effects of getting older in swim team is that by the time I was 14, there weren’t necessarily a lot of other 14-16 year old boys to swim against because they had started to join other sports, find girls or begin working. As a result, it was entirely possible that for a given event in my age bracket, there might not be a lot of people participating. In fact, on our team, I was often the only boy participating in Backstroke and Freestyle which were my best strokes. I could compete in the IM (individual Medley), but my friend Mike was better at breaststroke and my butterfly was, as described by my coach, more of a “dying moth” than a butterfly. I could keep from drowning and went generally forward, but there was neither art nor skill in my butterfly.
At this particular meet, which took place at an outside pool hosted by another team, it turned out there were not any other boys to swim the 100 yard freestyle, which was my best and fastest event.
As a result, all I had to do to collect my blue ribbon was to swim the race because they wouldn’t just hand it to me. So, just line up, wait for the gun, swim the race and collect the ribbon.
I’ve never been a fan of being the center of attention and that persists to this day. But, this is what had to happen so they could proceed on to other events. Fine.
My brain was entirely focused on trying to tuck my chin in to my chest at the start because I’d been having trouble hitting the dive correctly and would end up flipping my goggles off and flooding my eyes which makes for an irritating and embarrassing race, especially as the only one racing.
I readied myself for the gun (or the horn, I don’t recall) and when it went off I sprung from the block and nailed my dive.
It was at this point that things went badly.
With all my focus on my goggles, making sure they were tightened and seated on my eyes properly, apparently I’d neglected to make sure my suit was secure.
As I entered the water, my suit slipped right off my mid-section and made it’s way to my knees as everyone watched. Now if this were the only issue and if I’d had the presence of mind, it should have just been a momentary pause for me to grab the suit and pull it back up over my nearly non-existent hips and continue. At that point I was three or feet under water and there was probably a cloud of bubbles around me.
Unfortunately for me, that’s not the path my panicked brain took.
For reasons I can’t begin to explain to this day, my brain thought the appropriate thing to do at that moment was to continue to rise up to the surface and, this is where it gets good, roll over on my back to pull up my suit as I breached the surface of the water.
To this day, what I imagine is a scene out of a submarine movie as the sub breaches and the first thing you see is the periscope followed by the main part of the sub. In this case, in my imagination, the very tiny, very terrified periscope.
The suit did come back on but it was only at that point that the critical thinking part of my brain re-engaged to scream in to my ear “What the hell are you doing!!”.
This race should have been four simple lengths of me killing time. Instead I swam to the end but was so embarrassed that I got out of the pool with what felt like my face on fire from the embarrassment and walked with my head bowed to where my team was gathered, grabbed my towel and put it over my head and wished desperately to die right there and then before I had to talk to anyone ever again.
I’m pretty sure there was laughing as I exited the pool. I probably didn’t make that up.
I often imagine if I’d had the confidence and the presence of mind, I would have simply pulled up my suit with or without the belly roll to the surface, completed the race and exited the pool with my head held high not caring what anyone thought. Sadly, that’s not who I was at 14 and I’m not entirely sure I’d do much better as an adult. There really is such a thing as caring too much about what other people think.
I also wish I could look back and see that as a turning point where I chose to stop caring so much about what people think or recognized some other valuable life lesson. But, I can’t. I did a silly thing and I was embarrassed. I didn’t have enough confidence to just own my actions or the outcome so I just hid in a corner until I thought I could face the world once again.
It’s taken over 30 years and at least I’ve accepted it and it’s not something that causes the embarrassment to rise up and make me want to climb in to a dark corner any more, so I guess that’s some progress.
Oh, my god. Why couldn’t I have just not rolled over on my back as I reached the surface. Sigh.
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