99. Racing Back

99. Racing Back

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Racing Back

What you fear is that which requires action to overcome.
 ~Byron Pulsifer

“I’m going to sign up for the triathlon,” Tammy said over coffee.

“The Splash, Pedal and Gasp?” I put my mug down and stared at her, “The one on Mother’s Day?”

“That’s the one. I’m going to sign up with you and Heather.”

“But you don’t know how to swim.”

Tammy shrugged, “Well, I guess I better learn.”

Tammy, Heather and I had been working out together for a few years, and needing a bigger challenge for our workouts, we’d recently set the goal of completing individual triathlons. The only problem with this plan was Tammy didn’t know how to swim. Before she was born, her uncle had died in a tragic drowning accident and her mother wouldn’t let her near the water. Now as an adult Tammy faced the daunting task of overcoming her own fear of water.

Our friend Todd happened to be the coach for the masters swim club in town, and with a little prodding, we signed up for coaching sessions. Twice a week, while Todd corrected my stroke, and I splashed my way down the length of the pool trying to whip myself into shape, Tammy would be in the lane next to me, quietly struggling with the basics that I took for granted.

With a float around her waist, Tammy slowly learned to put her face underwater, blowing bubbles without panicking. Eventually, the float was gone, and Tammy was working her way down the lane. Todd celebrated every small achievement by calling over to me, “Elena, look. She’s kicking.” Or, “Elena, she’s not using fins.”

In a few short weeks, Todd had her working on her backstroke, until one night he stopped me at the end of my lane bursting with pride, “Elena, check it out! She’s swimming, she’s swimming.”

I hopped onto the pool deck to watch Tammy swim the length of the pool on her back. Later, in the hot tub, we celebrated her success.

“Tammy, that’s awesome. You were swimming!”

“Yeah, on my back.”

“Who cares if it was on your back?”

“It’s backstroke. I need to learn front stroke.”

“Tammy, you were swimming. That’s huge.”

“Thanks, Elena. But I can’t swim a race on my back.”

I looked her in the eyes and said, “Why not?”

For the next few weeks, the three of us would run and cycle together, training for the upcoming race. But Monday and Wednesday nights would find us back in the pool. Tammy painstakingly worked on the basics of the crawl. With every stroke she took, she fought her fears and confronted her nemesis.

Finally, the weekend of the race was upon us. We loaded up our gear and our families and made the trip two hours south to the University of Lethbridge, my alma mater. We left the husbands in charge of the children at the hotel and Heather, Tammy and I went to check out the venue and pick up our race packages.

Excitement filled the air as I checked out all the changes to the school I hadn’t been to in almost a decade. Heather pointed out the similarities in the Olympic length pool to those she used to race in. Only Tammy was suspiciously quiet. She sat in the risers, looking over the pool, studying it. Taking in the cool blue of the water, the colorful lane markers, but most importantly, the 25-meter length difference from the pool at home that we’d trained in. She didn’t say much for the rest of the night, retreating into her private world of reflection.

On race day, the stands were full of spectators, our families included. We watched in anticipation as the athletes racing in the Olympic and sprint length triathlons started. We were registered for the shorter, introductory distance of a super-sprint. Finally, it was our turn. We hugged each other before jumping into the pool in our assigned lanes to warm up and take our marks. From my spot in the water, I looked over at Tammy still on the pool deck and silently willed her to get in the water, not to back out, not to give in to her fears. She got in.

After the whistle blew, I didn’t see Tammy again until after the turn around on the bike portion of the race. When I saw her light blue jersey, I cheered and called out, the sting of tears coming to my eyes because I knew she’d done it. She swam.

Our finishing times didn’t matter. As we each came across the finish line to hugs and cheers from our husbands and children, we all knew what mattered that day. Over a celebratory lunch, we recapped the events and learned that Tammy’s swim hadn’t gone as smoothly as we’d hoped. In the flurry of swimmers, arms and legs flailing, she’d experienced a moment of panic. A moment where she considered quitting, pulling herself out of the pool and not finishing the race. She didn’t. She flipped to her back and completed the race doing backstroke. All three of us accomplished a physical challenge, but my best friend taught me a valuable lesson that day. No matter what your fears are, if you can dream it — you can do it. And as it turns out, you can do backstroke in a race!

~Elena Aitken

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