Courtesy of Delaney Clifford
January, 2012. Huntersville, North Carolina.
The Southeastern 4A Swim & Dive Regional Competition. I had earned a ranking spot in the competition for the Men’s 50-Meter Freestyle, and it was my first big swim.
I was losing my mind. I spent the entire morning grinding my teeth, just wanting to get it over and done with. My stomach completely turned, I practically ran back out of the doors when they called my event.
Reluctantly, I walked to the block and took my place.
I’m sure that every swimmer will know the following sensations: my heart pounding out of my chest, my knees threatening to buckle at any second, and the absolute silence before the signal, I waited, and I waited, and I waited.
“Stand up,” rang from the bullhorn.
You’ve got to be kidding me, I thought. A timing system error.
Unshaken, we got back into position, and the next thing I can remember is the cold chill down my spine as I dove in. Seconds felt like hours, and before I knew it, I touched down, completely exhausted. All that hard work and training had earned me an eighth place finish. That was it; it was over for me.
I hung my head in shame until my coach shouted at me to look back at the scoreboard. I had somehow landed myself in an exact three-way tie. My nerves felt crushed under the weight of the next words I heard over the loudspeaker…
A tie-breaker. I had to do it all over again.
We took fifteen minutes to regroup, and as I felt that sickening feeling walking to the block, I realized that there was only one other opponent at the start with me.
The third swimmer took another ten minutes to join us, and as he nonchalantly swaggered to the block, all I could think was. “Please, just let me beat him.”
We took our positions, and I inhaled one last time before the signal. I could hear my entire team screaming as I dove in.
In those moments, I don’t remember exactly what happened. Perhaps muscle memory and proper technique took hold, but I seemed to lose all real control of my body. I was just moving through the water, breathing in and out, in and out. One last stretch, and I was finished.
I could barely focus enough to read the time board with the deafening noise filling the stands. I finished first, beating my previous time by two whole seconds.
I rejoined the embrace of my team, unsure of exactly what had just happened. Call it good training, good luck, or the good grace of God, but it was over. Two seconds made the difference between a third place finish and an eighth place finish. Two seconds allowed me to compete in the State competition two weeks later. Two seconds made all the difference in my last year of high school swimming. Two seconds were the seconds that counted.