[Soundtrack for this post: Can't Stop the Rock by Apollo 440, which was on our team "Psych-Up CD" for the 2002 Quebec Swimming Championships.]
On Monday night’s Daily Show, Jon Stewart joked to his guest Shaquille O’Neal that he wasn’t sure how to tell his Jewish son that he’ll probably never make it in the NBA.
To which the 7’1” All-Star responded, “Tell him Uncle Shaq said baruch hashem (Hebrew for “good luck;”) and he can make it.”
I used to have my own giant-sized athletic dreams. I was convinced I would go to the Olympics one day. I figured my best bet was 1996, because I would turn 20 the summer of 2000 and, to me, that sounded a little old.
In 1992, as I watched Team USA gymnast Kerri Strug and her bescrunchied teammates, I whined to my mom – why hadn’t she kept me in gymnastics? I could have been one of them! She frowned at me. “Beth, those girls are so shrimpy. Look at you. You’re a foot and a half taller than them. You would have hit your head on the bars.”
I scowled and refocused my Olympic dreams on swimming.
After all, I’d been a competitive swimmer since I was five. My parents had trekked my siblings and I all over the state for swim meets, enduring many Saturdays on hard metal bleachers in humid natatoriums. They dutifully wrote our events on our hands with Bic pens and shooed us down to the starting blocks every forty minutes or so. I developed a collection of colorful ribbons and a powerful chlorine smell that wouldn’t fade until my early twenties By fourteen, I was swimming for two hours twice a day and lifting weights.
By the time I joined the high school swim team, I was strong and fast. My sister, a senior, was the team’s best breaststroker, and I was incredibly proud to be on the team with her. We swam in the elite Lane Six with the other fast girls.
But then one day, my coach said offhand, “You’re a really good swimmer. I mean, you’re not going to the Olympics or anything, but…” Which is when he gave me a puzzled look in response to my puzzled look. “You do know that, right?”
I nodded, oh yeah, yeah, like I’d always known that.
But nope, until that moment, I had still been hoping. It was right then that I realized that 1996 was right around the corner and nobody had yet handed me my Golden Ticket. My Olympic flame was snuffed.
I did qualify for the State Championships each year, and was named an All-American swimmer with my fellow hot shots, Gracie, Anne, and Katie.
I was lucky enough to continue swimming at McGill University, where I consistently made it to Canadian Nationals. There, I finally shared a pool with with some Olympians – the Canadian variety – but even though they were legendary to me, even the best of them never held a candle to any American Olympian, least of all the likes of Americans Amy Van Dyken or Michael Phelps. I finally understood how distinctly in their own league those incredible athletes really were.
But I was also finally okay with it. I had enjoyed a long swimming career that had formed the basis of my identity and my social life. As a shy and awkward teenager, high school probably would have been a lot lonelier without a whole team of girls looking up to me. And though, in college, I had to go to bed sometimes when others were just going out to the bars, I had a whole team of buddies with whom I spent some of the best years of my life.
So I’m with Shaq – there’s no need to squelch the boy’s basketball dreams. Yet. Let him figure it out for himself one day, and until then, have a lot of fun.
About this blog
I'll use this space to write about movies, bikes, communications trends, pop culture, and my adventures as a new New Yorker.