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Dead Last MAG
My new swim team coach was aghast. I was ahead of my entire team in the lap pool, but I swam slowly and with terrible form. As it turned out, I only appeared to be ahead of my team for a short while. One by one, my teammates tapped my foot to let me know that they were passing me. The others were exactly a lap ahead of me. But my parents were not surprised; they joked that I was always dead last.
As their kicking feet faded away, I realized the pack had left me in the bubbles of their wake, and I told myself I would work hard until I was at least in the middle of the pack. As the sound of their splashes faded, I chose my method of execution: butterfly.
The butterfly stroke was something that everybody found difficult. When we swam laps with other strokes, the difference between the fastest and the slowest (me) was like the Pacific, stretching on and on and disappointingly on. But when we swam butterfly, that gap was a stream. I was still considerably slower, but the difference was workable.
I asked my father to take me to our neighborhood pool, and this eventually became a weekend routine. I would spend an hour or two at the pool, practicing the butterfly stroke. “Swim faster,” my dad would call. “We’re not here so you can be lazy.” By the end of my meager laps I would be gasping for air, my arms two long pool noodles.
Swim competition after competition passed, and I was never invited by my team to participate. But the team had to give everyone a chance; at the final meet of the year, I was asked to join. Immediately, I signed up to swim butterfly in the individual and team relay events, but on the day of the meet, I was taken off of the team relay event.
As the clock ticked down to the start time of the events, my coaches fussed over the other members of the team. They tightened, loosened, and re-tightened the goggles of the other members. They warmed the team up until I assumed the water was about to boil. But they didn’t help me. To them, I was invisible.
As I walked up for the individual butterfly, I put on my goggles. I stepped onto the cold concrete ledge.
“Swimmers on your marks …” I put my right foot in front of my left, as they had shown me. Or was it my left foot in front of my right?
“Three …” I closed my eyes and leaned on my back foot. The slow countdown and the breathing of the other swimmers absorbed into the background, I can’t be last, I told myself. Then I jumped.
The splash of water put a shudder in my bones, and I was sailing downward. I pulled up and began to windmill my arms wildly, weaving in and out of the pool like Athena and her loom.
Then my hand touched the metal plate at the end of the lane, and I came up, gasping for air, water spilling out of my mouth like a grotesque European water fountain. I wasn’t last, I realized. At least I wasn’t last.
“Alex, come here,” one of the instructors said. “I have your results. Here’s your ribbon.”
I went to show my father. “Fifth place! Good job!” he exclaimed.
“It’s out of eight,” I explained.
He laughed. “Better luck next time.”
I didn’t need better luck, because I’d already come far enough: I was dead middle.