I used to think starting blocks were the only constant: slippery, unsteady blocks that have lost their traction, having been worn away from years of wet, bare feet and clinging toes.
When you shoot up over five inches in less than a year (with most of it in your legs) it can be difficult to remain steady even on dry land, let alone a 2’ by 2’ raised block upon which you must somehow wedge your feet and then spring off without slipping or injuring yourself. It makes sense that the block has always been my nemesis, in that it stands in direct opposition to the concentrated tranquility I experience in the water. Yet through battling this adversary, I have come to understand that even the most intimidating external discomforts can be overcome with intrinsic confidence.
Each two-hour swim practice mirrors every other: my mind is always buzzing about the daily minutiae leading up to practice. Yet, as I dive in, the roar of thoughts careening through my head somehow clears in the enveloping silence underwater. With this piercing clarity I propel myself forward, reaching ever farther with each stroke, pulling more water towards me and pushing myself to the limit. Swimming has very little to do with any opponents: there is always someone faster than me, and there always will be. But that is not important. In this way, swimming is unlike most other sports, a constant drive to shave off just a couple tenths of a second. Even in failure, there is success. Dropping time is more important than winning a heat, so my competition is not the swimmers around me; it is the clock, and my previous best times. So I cheer on fellow swimmers, and am truly happy for them when they achieve their personal goals. This mentality is addictive, and is what pulls me out of bed at five in the morning for practice. Yet despite feeling focused and confident in the water, it was always at meets that my enemy—the block—reared its ugly head.
I never would have guessed that the moment in which I would conquer my foe would occur during the most prestigious meet I had faced to date. In the spring of 2012, at a championship meet for the fastest high school swimmers in Southern California, despite not being highly ranked, I had been placed in the fastest heat because of championship seating. This meant I was up against the most elite swimmers in California—the fastest swimming state in the nation. As I climbed onto the block, my nerves took hold of my body as always, and worse yet, I was in lane one, widely known to be the slowest lane. I shuffled my feet, slipping a little on the slick surface. As I glanced to my left, my eyes running down the line of other swimmers, seemingly out of nowhere the catch-22 nature of it all hit me—a notion that had somehow eluded me for eight years of two-hour practices, six days a week, year-round, and thirty meets each year. When I was younger, the blocks were of poor quality at smaller, less distinguished meets, and I really didn’t fit.
Now, the block was slightly sturdier and more state of the art. But I still didn’t fit, and suddenly it didn’t matter. Reaching this point required overcoming my fears, improving despite the blocks, and gaining confidence even on unstable ground. It required relentless intensity. Standing next to the most gifted athletes I had ever faced, I finally internalized that it didn’t matter if my feet fit. And it never did. I fit here, with these men. I realized how much I am solely my own motivator; the unwavering drive to better myself had brought me this far. I crouched down, my feet firm and confident. With the sound, the block was history.