I won the California state championships in the 100-meter breaststroke when I was ten. I remember the race well: the other girls towered above me, smirking as we’d waited to get on the blocks. Then the shot of the starting gun, the swimming, and finally the touch of the wall and victory — a feeling sweeter than any I’d ever known in my decade of life. I could smell it in the air. I still can, even now.
But in the year after I struggled to bring my time down at all. Then I was assigned a new swim coach from Germany. The first time I saw Silke she was standing at the edge of the pool, a towering silhouette in front of a fading, orange sky. I studied her face; I’d never seen another quite like it. Her skin was coarse, tanned, and hairless. Freckles dotted her arms and legs, and multiplied on her cheeks, which from far away gave the effect of an additional set of eyes below the real ones — which were like two living creatures, a green so intense I flinched whenever I looked straight into them. I guessed she didn’t own a hairbrush since her cropped, blond fringe was always unkempt. When she looked at me I saw anger, accusation, expectation.
“Everyone in the water!” she shouted, her voice a medley of breathy sounds. I’d been told she was a former Olympian, and a breaststroker just like me. Looking up at her muscular body and enormous shoulders, I couldn’t wait to see her swim. Her legs were like tree trunks; her skin clung tightly to the rise and fall of rippling muscle.
“You will swim until I say stop. You will not slow down. You will not hang on the side like a baby. GO!” She waved her arms in the air as she spoke, or rather yelled, in a guttural voice.
I’ll never forget the water — the feeling of it as I dove in, and the slap of cold, which gripped my entire body and then gradually softened and warmed. Underneath its surface I was at ease, powerful, swift. The rules of gravity no longer applied. I could glide in any direction and hold air in my chest without pain for long periods of time. My body, which had seemed gangly and misshapen as I’d waited at the pool’s edge, was now a perfectly designed machine, and I reveled in its presence. Traversing the pool, my arms pushed the water down then back, my legs a perfect sequence of bent and straight, short and long. I focused on breathing: the quick intake of air, the stretched exhale of bubbles tapping my cheeks on their way up. The beat never ceased — the rhythm of breath and fluid — only interrupted by the sudden surprise of the wall. Then the flip, and I was an arrow gliding through the water again — pulling, kicking, breathing. I could have gone on forever.
It didn’t take long for Silke to single me out. I was the fastest breaststroker on the team but also the one with the strangest stroke. I was barely over four feet, and petite — not the usual body type for a breaststroker. My arms were short, and I’d developed a stroke over the years that involved reaching forward and making a shallow circle in the water, my palms parallel to the surface as if washing a window. It wasn’t a movement I consciously created, but it seemed to work for me.
“You! Get out!” Silke was yelling again, this time at me. I jumped out of the pool in one quick movement, and found myself side by side with her giant form. I couldn’t look at her, instead I stared back at the water where I still longed to be.
“Heather, right?” she gently touched my wet chin and turned it up toward her. I nodded. “You are a talented swimmer. You know that?” She waited while I prayed that I wouldn’t pee right there in my swimsuit. I looked back down at her surprisingly dainty toes.
“Do you?” she asked again. I nodded.
“Good,” she said. “But we need to change your stroke. I’ll show you now.” Within seconds, Silke had peeled off her shorts and t-shirt and was in the water. “Come on!” she yelled to me from the side lane.
That day was the beginning of months of frustration. Silke was insistent that my stroke was all wrong — it had gotten me this far, but it wouldn’t get me any farther. I didn’t want to agree, but I had to admit that in the months since the championship, I hadn’t gotten any faster.
My new stroke was arduous and slow, and my times were terrible. I had to increase the circumference of my arms substantially, circling my hands all the way from above my head down to my thighs. It required a lot more upper body strength, since my hands had to pull the water down and back. “Sometimes you have to take a step back before you can step forward,” Silke told me over and over. “Don’t worry about your speed, your body needs time to accept the change.”
I didn’t believe her.
I lay in my bed each night, furious. Who did she think she was? I was the one who’d worked so hard, for so many years, to get where I was. From the age of six, I’d been swimming for hours each day, riding my bike to workouts before and after school with my brother Duncan. He was fast like me, his specialty butterfly — a stroke I loved to watch but hated to swim.
“What should I do?” I asked Duncan one day on our way home from workout. He stopped pedaling, gliding along next to me on the sidewalk.
“About Silke?” he asked, already knowing exactly what I was talking about. I looked up at the San Gabriel Mountains. As close as they were, they were barely visible through the Los Angeles smog.
“I think she’s right,” he said. I opened my mouth to object.
“Heather, wait. You’re an awesome breaststroker. I don’t think anyone else could have gotten as far as you have with your old stroke. But it can’t get you where you want to go.”
I had to hear it from my brother to know that it was true.
By the next day I’d resolved to never use my old stroke again. It was harder than I had imagined, but I never let myself go back. It took almost a year to get my speed back to where it had been, and then even faster. When I’d finally mastered the new stroke, I could feel the difference. As I moved across the pool, the water rushed behind me instead of merely gliding by. I was faster and stronger.
Silke had been right, and I almost hadn’t listened.