Before I signed Sarah Kate up for SWAT, I was concerned that it would be too competitive for her. I knew that the kids who swim year round are the more competitive group, and I just wasn’t sure that they would be all that welcoming of a kid with a disability who always finished last in summer league. Coach Rich was very encouraging, though, so I signed her up and she’s been practicing twice a week for a couple of months now. She participated in the intrasquad meets held in September and October, but we had skipped the other meets. This past weekend, however, she was scheduled to swim at the CMSA Vance Rose Invitational. Teams came from as far away as Birmingham and Memphis, so we were going to be in uncharted territory. I decided to spare her the torment of the butterfly and breaststroke this time, and signed her up for freestyle and backstroke only.
A few days before the meet, I checked the schedule and saw that she was entered into the 100 yard medley relay. (What? That can’t be right!) I talked to Coach Rich, and he confirmed it was correct – there were only four girls entered in the meet in the 8-and-under bracket, so he had entered Sarah Kate in the relay – swimming freestyle. (Um, really?) The crawl isn’t her best stroke, and freestyle is also the last leg of the relay (and I’m pretty sure, based on years of watching the Olympics on TV, it’s usually reserved for the stronger swimmers. Um, okay.)
Saturday morning arrived and we packed up the whole family and all of our stuff into the Toyota for the drive over. She had to be there at 6:30 a.m. – the time we usually are getting up on a weekday – so that pretty well set the tone for the day. About three hours after she finished warming up, it was time for her first event. Mr. Andi was getting antsy and the place was crazy-crowded (I shudder to think what would have happened if the fire marshall had come in). I deposited Sarah Kate with her coach, told him the right event and heat but wrong lane number (I had to remember two things in seven hours and still got one of them wrong), and then positioned myself near the finish to cheer her on.
The event was 25 yard freestyle, and there was a delay before the heat so that the timers could move to the other end of the pool. Sarah Kate was primed and ready to jump in, standing next to the block in a slight crouch with one hand on the block to steady herself. One of the officials blew a whistle really loudly, which caused her to startle in anticipation of the heat start, and she lost her balance and fell in. A chorus of “Bless Her Heart”s echoed around me. Sigh. Coach Dean fished her out of the water, and the horn went off for real. She was much slower than the other girls in the heat – slower, even, than her typically slow pace – and I was painfully aware of my lone voice calling encouragement to her as she made her way down the lane. It was one of the most difficult heats to watch so far – even that first summer meet was more enjoyable, because I felt that the spectators that day really offered encouragement. The silence I perceived around me at this meet, however, spoke only one sentiment to me: why is this child here?
By the time her second event rolled around, we had been at the pool for about seven hours with only a few small snacks. Mr. Andi and I were both ready to go. I mean, really ready. Like, I thought my head would explode if I had to sit there much longer. Even Sarah Kate had asked to leave, but I put on a happy face and told her we couldn’t leave because she hadn’t done her best event yet! Mr. Andi and I had listened to other parents criticize their kids’ performances (keep in mind, the session we attended was all 12-and-unders), watched as a mom seated near us gave her nine-year-old Gu before his heat, and just generally felt out of place in this black hole of competitive swimming. I truly felt like an alien in a foreign land, but some small part of me got a little bit of satisfaction in comparing their actions to my own flawed parenting skills (kind of similar to the way I feel after watching an episode of “Toddlers and Tiaras”). It wasn’t that all of the parents there were ultra-competitive – it’s just that we’d been spared that type of thing previously.
Sarah Kate’s second event was the 25 yard backstroke. She was seeded slowest again, of course, but the times of the other girls in her heat were much closer to her seed time than they had been in the 25 yard freestyle. This heat was less stressful, because she started in the water (so no awkward delay due to falling in), and it was a better stroke for her. She pushed and did pretty well – she didn’t beat her previous best, but swam her second best all-time, so I was pleased. Then we booked it out of there and headed toward home and lunch. Mr. Andi and I agreed that in the future, we’d probably limit competitions to intrasquad and summer league. The meet was a two-day event…but day one was now behind us.