Somehow I managed to get out of bed today at 3 a.m. to make it to the airport on time. I think I've been surviving on caffeine and adrenaline alone today, which is not a good thing considering the biggest races I've ever competed in are coming up in the next three days.
After we landed in St. Louis, we headed to the NAIA banquet, where all the teams were introduced, awards were given out, and we learned more about the organization and the upcoming competition. We sat down to dinner and to listen to the speakers. I knew what to expect from last year, and was ready to go after all the awards had been handed out. We learned that our team was selected by the NAIA to receive the inagural _____ Champion of Character award, based on our qualities of leadership, sports (wo)manship, academics and community service. We went up in front of the whole room to accept our trophy (we got a trophy!) and be recognized.
Being on the first team to ever receive this prestigious award that so perfectly summarizes my experience over the past three years is wonderful. It's such a great way to end my swimming "career," by receiving an award that recognizes all the hard work my friends, coaches, and teammates put into this team to become something great. I just can't believe it's almost over. When we return on Sunday, I'll actually be finished with swimming.
Our race today was amazing. We took five seconds off a two-minute race and finished 13th after being seeded last, in 16th place. It was a great way to start the meet.
The 200-yard medley relay was the only race of the day, so we headed back to the hotel. We decided to take it easy again that afternoon; I think all of us wanted to nap more than anything else. Shayna, Chrissy, Neil, Bridget and I did a little bit of exploring around St. Peters. We learned that there wasn't much to explore besides strip malls and bars, so we ended up in a sports store for an hour or so before heading back to the pool to watch some of the finalist heats and awards ceremonies.
The speaker last night really got me thinking about what it means to be a swimmer. I remember my first year on the swim team, when I wandered into a sandwich shop after a meet at California Baptist University to get a bite to eat before heading back to the hotel. Standing in line was a guy wearing CBU warm-ups with tousled hair; we recognized each other from the meet we had just finished. He asked me what I thought of the meet.
"It was fun," I replied. "I got a best time, which was super exciting. How'd you do?"
"Terrible," he replied with a groan, "I slipped on one of my starts and coach got mad."
I thanked him for hosting the event, wished him good luck at Championships and headed out the door. His team had beaten mine two-hundred-and-something to ten at the meet. That was fine by me, I had gotten used to losing my races. But I always thought that the teams who were winning at our expense were having a great time. Apparently not, if this guy's coach got angry about a start that seems to me so insignificant in the long run.
Today, our first day of competition, the CBU national team gathered at the edge of the pool for some stern words from one of their coaches. The boy who I met in the sandwich shop three years ago took 1st place in the 50-yard freestyle. Meanwhile, the five of us sat on deck while we waited for our next race, snacking, chatting and laughing. I can't imagine that swimming is such a big deal to some people. Actually, I should rephrase that. Swimming is a huge deal to me, but in such a different way; it has shaped who I am and almost every aspect of my experience these past three years at Mills. But just because my foot slips on a start doesn't mean I didn't do my best. I can measure success in so many other ways that seem to be overlooked on most teams.
We made it past preliminaries! Chrissy swam her fastest time since starting at Mills in the 100-yard breaststroke and made it to consolation finals. Our 400-yard medley relay team also made it to the next heat by taking six seconds off the school record we set last month.
It was a long day, though, with the 200-yard freestyle relay in the morning (which we also set a school record in), Chrissy's event, and then the medley relay. So we decided to go back to the hotel to rest before going back to the pool.
It was so hard to get back in the water. My body is really starting to feel it. To me, it's so hard to get warmed up, swim, cool down, warm up, swim, cool down, etc. And then to do it again at night? The swimmers who have been doing this every day impress me to no end. I got in and warmed up with enough time to watch Chrissy swim again (she did great), and then it was time for our event.
There was something different about our relay team tonight. We could barely contain ourselves when we headed to the "bullpen," which was really just a converted women's restroom, to wait for the race to start. The other 5 teams who waited with us may not have understood our giddiness, but I'm not sure they truly understood what this meant to us. This was a first for each and every one of us, and a goal our school had been waiting to realize for as long as I've been alive. It's something I cannot just take for granted.
A little kid carrying a sign that read "400-yard Medley Relay" paraded us out to the starting blocks to the classic "Hip Hop Hooray" by Naughty by Nature. Apparently there were cheers but all I remember was thinking about how everyone in the stands was looking at our little yellow caps and our name in bold letters up on the scoreboard. It sounds cheesy, but it really felt like we had made it – we had proven ourselves to everyone in attendance. But there was no pressure; because we were in 12th place, we had nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up. So we just had fun.
Shayna and Chrissy had great swims, and Catherine's butterfly looked strong when I was getting ready to finish off the race. But it still looked like we were going to stay in 12th place, so I knew I would be racing only for myself and to set a school record. The 100-yard freestyle is not my favorite or fastest event – in fact, I've been going the same time for three years. The swim is a blur, but when I touched I knew I had out-raced myself. A look at the score board and saw that finally – finally! – I had taken a full second off my personal best time.
I'm so thrilled that we finally scored points tonight. We put our name on the scoreboard, for the first time in Mills swimming history, with three points (for a frame of reference, the winning teams scored in the hundreds). So far, we've set new school records in every event we've participated in, and haven't lost a race.
Today's race was hard. We broke our streak of school records by swimming a couple tenths of a second too slow in the 400-yard freestyle relay. Chrissy and Catherine swam the 200-yard breaststroke before the relay, and I got to count for Catherine's mile afterwards. I wish I had tried harder to qualify to race that event; it's my favorite and I really wanted to be in the water with her.
Chrissy made first alternate for the 200-yard breaststroke, so we headed back to the RecPlex tonight. There were presentations for Academic All Americans and graduating seniors. I thought I was off the hook because I missed earning Academic All American by one 100th of a grade point this year, but I forgot about senior awards. Having to accept the award from my coach, parade around the pool, and have my picture taken was a weird experience. It's really true. This is over now. I'm just glad I didn't have to swim tonight, or else I would have really been a mess.
I think it probably sounds like I'm painting a rosy picture of this trip and of the past three years, but this is really an accurate picture of how amazing my experience has been. With only a few small exceptions, swimming for Mills has been nothing short of perfect. It's been so wonderful to see my team grow and change; I started out a new swimmer on a struggling team and became a national competitor on a cohesive, fun loving, competitive team. I've born witness to something really great that will only continue after I've left. Now if only I was ready to let go…
We're home today and I can't think of much else to say. Except that I'll be back in the pool tomorrow.