Guts and a Few Strokes

 /   /  By Emma Birches
Stone Soup Magazine
March/April 2002

By Eve Asher, Illustrated by Alicia Betancourt

Stroke. Stroke. Breathe left. Straight legs, follow through with the arms. These are usually my thoughts while swimming the hundred-meter freestyle. For those of you who don’t know, that’s two laps. I can do it in about a minute and twenty seconds, sometimes more, sometimes less. Oh, and my name is Sophia, been swimming for five years in that very pool, been on the team for three years. Had I been going more slowly and looking ahead, I would have noticed that the seemingly endless deep blue of the chlorinated water was lightening into white. I would have noticed that I could no longer see the stems of sunlight poking through the water like sprouts poking through the air. This time, all I noticed was the green line on the bottom of the pool which would mean I would do a flip turn and start on another length if I wasn’t on my last one. I knew what to expect. I felt the warm sunlit wall under my hand. Done!

You know, when I’m underwater, I can’t hear or see the rest of the world. I’ve escaped to what I call Blueland. In Blueland, I don’t have a meet in two days, I’m not stressing over fraction homework, I’m not watching whatever I eat because I’m allergic to peanuts, I’m just floating in blue and relaxing. Everything fades away into the blue.

But, unfortunately, I’m not in Blueland now and I wasn’t then. Coach Morris called us together. “Did you notice how Sophia’s arms came out of the water straight? That’s following through. Keep that in mind. Remember, not only do swimmers with correct strokes go faster, they also don’t get disqualified. That’s practice for today, so dry off and go home.” Every practice ended with “dry off and go home.” It signaled us to disperse, which we did. Always.

Guts and a Few Strokes practice with coach

“That’s practice for today, so dry off and go home”

Later, while gossiping in the locker room, Maggie, whom we trusted to know the most about the pool (no one knew why), gave us startling news. “The pool’s getting a new manager and they might fire Coach Morris,” she said, amazingly calm. Out came a scream from all of us of, “What!” We were all in pure shock. The more I thought about it, the more I wished I didn’t know.

Lo and behold, the next day at practice there was a young man with smooth blond hair and eerily blank green eyes. He, as we later found out, I don’t remember how, was the new coach, Coach Brown. I could barely hold back tears. Coach Morris had been the coach as long as I could remember, and now he was leaving, and some blondie was taking his place. This blondie better be good, I thought. If he’s not, he’s going down!

“Now,” he smiled, revealing teeth that were so white and perfect they scared me. “It’s tryouts all over again. Now, Coach Morris would choose you if you had the potential to get good. I will choose you if you are good and have the potential to get better. A length of each, freestyle, backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke, no rest, go!” he shouted.

It was a snap, except for backstroke, of course. Toward the middle, I pulled a muscle, and it hurt. Butterfly hurt more, but I could rest it after. I just endured, like I do far too often.

Just before Coach Brown announced who made the team, something struck me as odd. He had decided right then. You’d think he’d need some time to think, but not Brown. Brown knew in an instant who the “better swimmers” were. My best friend Amy and I crossed our fingers. Here goes nothing!

“Peter!” he read. What was going on? Peter couldn’t even manage to practice five days a week.

“Harold!” he read. Coach Brown must be crazy. Harold bent his legs when he did the backstroke, every single time. Sheesh!

“David!” he read. That I could understand. David had the best butterfly on the team.

“Ian!” he read. By now I’d noticed the lack of girls. It went on like that, too.

“Alfred!”

“Craig!”

“Joseph!”

All boys! Even Shawna hadn’t made the team, and her backstroke was nearly perfect. Finally, Maggie called out, “What about the girls? It’s a boys and girls team in the Boys and Girls 8 through 12 Division, Coach Brown!” The last words sounded almost mocking.

Guts and a Few Strokes girls talking

Hey, you guys, we oughta show Brown what we’re made of!”

Coach Brown motioned for her to follow him, and, in turn, Maggie motioned us girls to follow her. We huddled in a corner like a football team. I glanced at the boys, who had moved to our spots on the bleachers, where we had been a minute ago. It was hot that day, really hot, and so humid I could barely breathe. The sun went behind one of those rare perfect cotton-candy-marshmallow-fluff white clouds, leaving us a lot cooler. Coach Brown began. “The boys and girls division includes girls. No one much likes to watch girls do things meant for boys, like swim in races. That’s because no matter how hard you girls try, you’ll just never have the same natural athletic ability boys have. If you must swim, try synchronized water-ballet. That is for girls. Boys are just better at real sports; as much as we try to cover it up, deep in our hearts, we know it’s true. Now scat! The pool’s for team practice only right now. Toodle-oo!” And he waved us off like mice.

Everything boiled inside me. I could have punched him; no, I could have killed him right then. Normally, I’m a rather quiet kid, but something just popped. It was almost like I’d filled a balloon with screams, adding some whenever I got mad, and then this was the final one. I felt like my balloon had popped, and now all those screams fell out of my mouth. “YOU JERK! YOU DON’T THINK I’M AS GOOD AS THE BOYS!? You don’t think Shawna can whip the swimsuit off anyone who dares challenge her at the backstroke!? You don’t think Maggie could do the fastest freestyle she can for thirty whole lengths without rest!? Don’t ya!? Do you think Amy’s butterfly isn’t fit for the Olympic Games!? No, you don’t, because we’re girls, right? Right? You sexist freak . . .” Maggie and Amy restrained me before it got out of hand. Right then, all I could call him was “Mmmmm!”

That night, Coach Brown called Mom and Dad and told them what I had done. I got off surprisingly easy. Mom took my side and said I’d been provoked, which was a hundred percent true, and Dad sympathized and told me I couldn’t watch TV for a week. That was OK, because about the only show I watch is “As Told by Ginger,” and according to Amy it was all reruns that week.

Amy, Shawna, Maggie and I were riding our bikes to the pool the next day when I said, “Hey, you guys, we oughta show Brown what we’re made of! I don’t know about you, but I’m doing the hundred-meter freestyle, permission or none!” This would be the most gutsy thing I had ever done. Normally, this sort of thing would come out of anyone else’s mouth, and I would hesitate, then go along with it. This was different. This was when some blondie told me I wasn’t good enough, told girls all over the world we weren’t good enough. And now my fiery anger was sizzling, maybe burning. And I had to put out the fire within me, douse it with the pool.

Shawna called out, “Hear, hear!”

Maggie called out, “Johnny Stone is going down!” Johnny Stone is a competitor in the Individual Medley, and he and Maggie always seemed to end up in a dead tie. With this determination, Johnny Stone was going down!

Amy called out, “Brown can’t break up Team Dolphin!” Each team had an animal mascot, and ours was the dolphin.

The next few minutes flew by, and, before I knew it, Maggie and Shawna had already gone, and Johnny Stone had gone down. I couldn’t believe myself, but I’d already pushed Craig aside and gotten on the springboard. Coach Brown was babbling like an idiot at the referee, who didn’t seem to care. We hadn’t transferred to the boys’ division yet, and—000h, I couldn’t believe my luck—the pool manager was watching.

The horn! (Oh, how annoying.)

I dove. I later found out I had been racing, completely coincidentally, against only boys. I tore through the water, but speed wasn’t what I concentrated on. I thought about each stroke, making it as good as I could. It was different from a normal race, oh so different. Now I wasn’t winning pride for my team, I was winning dignity for girls around the world. At least I thought so.

After exactly 62.84 seconds, I took my last stroke, pushed off the pool’s smooth bottom, and pulled myself out of the pool. The manager, a redheaded woman with round features, was talking to Coach Brown. “Your team is phenomenal! Did you see those four girls? Most endurance I’ve ever seen. You’ve really motivated them. I must say I’m very impressed,” she raved.

Maggie, Shawna and Amy came over. I smiled. No doubt about it, with guts and a few strokes, we showed him.

Eve Asher Guts and a Few Strokes

Eve Asher, 10
Auburndale, Massachusetts

Guts and a Few Strokes Alicia Betancourt

Alicia Betancourt, 13
Silver Spring, Maryland

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