I’ve loved the Olympics for as long as I can remember. Whether it’s the Summer Games or the Winter, it’s astonishing to see people level-up to superhero status while executing incredible feats of strength or endurance or artistry; things regular folks like me could never do.
The first Olympics I remember was when I was eight years old. The 1992 Winter Games were in Albertville that year and my gym teacher, Mrs. Dobecka, brought the competition to life at Austin Elementary. In a school-wide sporting extravaganza, each class competed in various “Olympic events” in an attempt to medal. I’m sure there was a pizza party attached to the first place finish because when you’re in elementary school, pizza parties are incentivized for most things. We rolled between an orange cone-lined course in luges made from refrigerator boxes, “speed skated” around the basketball court wearing shoe boxes so we’d glide like Dan Jansen, and “cross country skied” across the gym floor wearing long, thin cardboard boxes over our shoes. No gym class before or since has ever been as fun as the day we competed in the Olympics.
I’ve been somewhat of an Olympics junkie ever since and though I’ve gravitated toward various sports with varied levels of interest over time, I’ve never lost the wonder of seeing people, from America or otherwise, be extraordinary. I’ve also never lost the desire to go to the Olympics as a spectator. When I spent the summer in London as a part of grad school, I was two years too early for the Games that would take place there but I gobbled up as much of the merch as I could so I could at least feel a part of them.
It’s been nine years since that summer abroad and when given the opportunity to spend a day and a half in London en route to Israel this month, I was excited to again wander through a city for which I have such an affinity. However, as I was preparing for the trip, I also worried about something I’ve never once in my life worried about: not being able to swim laps.
Swimming as exercise has become routine for me this summer and over the past three months, I’ve gone nearly every day on my lunch break from work. It’s challenging, I enjoy it, and I can see and feel the results. I feel stronger physically and mentally but it’s also injected a new purpose into my routine. As my friend Lindsay Katt says, “Doing the thing is the thing.” I love doing it. I love accomplishing something that, a year ago, would’ve been an alien concept.
So with this new routine, I, for the first time, worried about not being able to swim for 10 days. I’ve made tremendous personal progress and worried I’d be set back, what with all the scones and Ben’s Cookies and hummus and Aroma iced coffees I planned on enjoying during my trip. I looked up our hotel’s pool but it wasn’t big enough to really swim in the way I’ve become accustomed but about a week before I was set to leave, I had a thought mid-lap in my gym’s pool. There is a lap pool in London. A big one. It’s the pool from the 2012 Olympics. The pool where Michael Phelps won four gold and two silver medals. By the time I returned to my office, I had a lane booked for first thing Friday morning.
I was equal parts excited and terrified as I got my confirmation email mostly because the pool is twice as big as the one I’ve become used to swimming in at my gym. It’s Manhattan, there’s not exactly a ton of space for a full-sized Olympic pool between 51st and 52nd streets, but my pool with its four lanes and two people per lane suits me just fine. So, in preparation for having to swim laps that would be twice as long as what I was used to, I spent the week before I flew across the pond conditioning myself so my system wouldn’t be in shock.
Arriving at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park early Friday morning felt big. It felt big and important. Not only had I built this place up in my mind for so many years and mythologized the swimming heroes who’d made it so emblematic of the sport, but it was the first time I’d ever been to the site of an Olympic games. It felt almost hallowed. The ArcelorMittal Orbit, a tall red structure that’s part city sky view, part art installation, and part carnival attraction was featured in much of the NBC promotions that summer and as it came into view, tall and proud in the morning light next to the Olympic stadium and the oh-so-impressively designed Aquatic center, my heart got caught in my throat. I couldn’t believe I was there and on top of that, I couldn’t believe I was actually there to swim and not to just take somewhat tilted photos to post on Instagram. As I neared the Aquatic Center entrance, that bigness gradually took up more and more space in my head, so much so that as I entered the building, I have myself a pep talk. Just go and do what you do every day. It’s water and you can swim and you do this so just go do it. It’s totally fine and not a big deal.
Then I walked into the pool area.
Ten lanes, each teaming with swimmers. Whereas I was used to possibly sharing a lane with one other person, each of these lanes already had four or five swimmers in them, swimming in a clockwise rotation, all seemingly going for the gold. I was a fish out of water. A big fish compared to the rest of the uber-fit, competition-ready swimmers who ducked in and out of the pool. This wasn’t just my insecurities talking either. The swimmers who made the trek to swim at the Olympic pool that early in the morning were there for a reason: they were serious about swimming and it showed in their physiques.
I’ve contended with this to some degree at my pool, sharing a lane with someone who’s clearly been swimming competitively since college, but I’ve been surprisingly good about focusing solely on me. It’s not a race, it’s not a competition, it’s not a comparison. They are there for their reasons and I am there for mine. And you know what? I’m also serious about swimming and it’s also (gradually) showing in my physique so if you really think about it, I’m not that different from them. So who cares what anyone else looks like, right?
Nope. All of that crap went straight out the window as I looked out over what I saw as an army of Sports Illustrated cover-ready swimmers. I was so thrown by it, I had to ask the lifeguard what to do.
Hi there. Uh…this is my first time, well, it’s not my first time to swim, it’s my first time to swim here. Do I just pick a lane or do I need to wait my turn or what do I do exactly?
The lifeguard, a college-aged boy with kind eyes and untamed hair, said to just pick a lane and go for it. He smiled which I interpreted to mean “you can do this.” So that’s what I did. With my goggles on and my swim cap pulled tight, I dropped into the lane where I knew Michael Phelps won the gold and quickly began swimming my first lap.
About 8 seconds later, I realized I was swimming in a lane labeled as a “fast lane.”
Of course I was, this was the Phelps Lane (a name literally no one has ever used but me), but I was already in too deep, pun intended, so I had no choice but to pick up the pace and keep up with the other five swimmers ahead and behind me. They were coming whether I was ready or not and I wasn’t about to become poolside roadkill, bludgeoned by the breast stroke of a more capable swimmer. But something odd happened as I pushed myself to keep up: Nothing. Nothing happened. No gulps of water, no cries for help, no muscle cramps, no flashbacks to running laps on the seventh grade football field and crying through my helmet begging God to either end practice or end me. No, I just kept up, on pace, and touched the wall like a champ. A slightly out-of-breath champ, but a champ nonetheless. I realized, I can do this.
It was a big win for a Junior Asparagus swimmer like me (cue the lyrics to “Big Things, Too” by Veggie Tales) but I also had enough self-awareness to know I wouldn’t be able to do this in that fast lane for the duration of my swim so I gently shifted to the medium speed lane next to me where it felt far more comfortable. It still wasn’t easy, but I showed up to work out and that’s what I did. I just did so knowing I wouldn’t be in anyone’s way if my pace slowed a bit.
Back and forth I went. As I swam, I looked through my goggles at the tiled floor at the bottom of the pool. It’s three or four times the depth of my home pool so it felt invigorating to be out of my depth (another pun intended) and to have this new experience. Not only did I look down, but I also caught glimpses of the stands that lined the pool. I remember parents and coaches and fans packed in the seats like pickles, cheering for Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Missy Franklin as they raced toward gold, and I imagined every person who has cheered me on in this underwater fitness adventure sat there as well.
Maya Angelou said when she gave a speech, she brought everyone she ever met with her. “I bring everyone who has ever been kind to me with me. Black, white, Asian, Spanish-speaking, Native American, gay, straight, everybody. I said, ‘Come on with me. I’m going on the stage.’” So I did the same, marshaling every bit of support in my life and imagining they were there rooting for me. I know they were. With my imaginary-yet-entirely-real cheering section on my side, I pushed through my laps. Again, it wasn’t easy, but I pulled a Dory and just kept swimming.
As I approached the final lap, my thighs were burning and so were my arms. I have a habit of making my last lap my strongest, meaning I swim as if there’s a giant squid behind me and I have to make it out of the pool. Looking down the lane, it appeared about four times longer than it had before. Perhaps it stretched when I wasn’t looking. I told myself, aloud and apathetic to whoever might hear it, Just go for it. Get out of your head and get under the water. So I did.
Recipe for success: Breast stroke – breast stroke – breast stroke – breast stroke – breath. Repeat until you conquer.
As I touched the side of the pool at the end of the lane, half existing inside my daydream as an Olympic swimmer and half inside my non-Olympian-body gasping for breath because damn that was hard, I realized this wasn’t something I could never do. In the same pool where Michael Phelps overcame his opponents and pumped his fists when he won the gold, I overcame as well. I overcame every doubt about my ability, every fear about not measuring up to the other swimmers, and somewhere between lap seven and eight, I drowned every last gremlin of self-depreciation for not looking like the other swimmers. No one cared and I stopped caring too.
As I caught my breath and readied myself to get out of the pool, a jingle from the Gatorade commercials in the 90s that featured Michael Jordan popped into my head. In it, kids sang, “Like Mike, wanna be like Mike, I wanna be, I wanna be like Mike.” It was a jingle everyone in the country knew very well. “Like Mike.” I’m not an Olympic swimmer like Michael Phelps, but for one morning, I swam in the same lanes like Mike. And I won too.