We had everything stacked against us. We barely had enough people to form a swim team at all, and only achieved that by allowing all classes to join, rather than just the juniors and seniors as was typical. We were a rough school in a poor neighborhood, and so had no easy access to a pool. The coach managed to talk the local YMCA into opening theirs for us to practice in for two hours, starting at 5am. None of us swam competitively before, and a few of us could only swim in the technical sense.
The biggest obstacle we had, though, was football. You see, we were a football school. Basketball had some respect as an acceptable break from football. Weightlifting was not a sport, it was part of football training. Swimming confused people, but it had nothing to do with football and looked sufficiently sissified so that we were targets of generous amounts of scorn.
When we went to the state championships, almost everyone was surprised. The football team became uneasy when we won many of the matches there, and became downright angry when the team started wearing letterman jackets bearing a swimming patch instead of a football patch. Most of the students didn’t realize that other kinds of patches even existed.
Inevitably, things came to a head. Turf had been threatened, and it had to be made right.
“Swimming isn’t a sport. Hell, it’s not even hard,” The team’s quarterback taunted me.
“Have you ever done it?”
“I swim all the time, man. You can’t tell me it’s as hard as football. You guys don’t even get beat up. You even have chicks on your team.”
I laughed, “That’s the best part, man. I get to look at hot chicks in swimsuits every morning. What do you get to look at?”
“Fuck you, you guys are wimps.”
I hadn’t seen our coach come up behind me. Her Voice of Authority rang out. “Eric, don’t you think you should walk the walk before you talk the talk?”
“What do you mean?”
“Come to practice with us.”
“No, man, we’re not gonna to do that.”
“Shit no, we’re not afraid.” He looked around at his teammates, meeting a couple of half-hearted nods.
“OK, we’ll come and see your stuff.”
“No, you have to swim, same as the wimps here. I’m fair. It won’t be any harder for you than it is for them.”
He sneered. “Sure, we’ll swim.”
“We practice at 5am. Don’t be late.” Before he could answer, she had turned and strode down the hall.
The following morning, three of the guys actually showed up. Sleep had muted their ego and belligerence a bit. In the locker room, one of the players quietly asked me “you swim this early every morning?” I nodded solemnly.
The football players did alright. By that I mean they didn’t quit. Nobody really expected them to last the whole practice session, but they gained some respect with us by doing just that. I was a bit disappointed afterwards that they didn’t let on that they hurt, but I could tell by the way they walked. Swimming uses very different muscles than football.
It was that afternoon that Eric approached me in the hall and said loudly, as a kind of Public Pronouncement, “You guys did our school proud at state. Good job.”
My face flushed with anger at the irrationality of it all. I knew what he was doing. His announcement meant we would be treated with respect. But we had sacrificed for our accomplishments, we had earned them without even the help of tradition. We didn’t need anyone coronating us to make us Official Athletes. We already were, in a way that this joker will never be.
“Just don’t swat me on the ass,” I said.