50 & 100 freestyle, 100 & 200 back, and 100 fly. Those were my events – my calling card – and for a long time, the only things about me that seemed important to anyone. I have a special fondness for these events (distance and breaststroke be damned), a decade after giving up on the Olympics and eight years after giving up on swimming completely.
Now, understand, when I say that I gave up on the Olympics, I didn’t completely give up. Not in my head. It didn’t solidify until I watched the opening ceremonies in Beijing from my living room. 2008 was supposed to have been my debut year. In 2012, I’d be in my prime. 2016, I’d likely be swimming my final races. That’s what was drilled into my head from the moment I first got scouted.
Back then, most people knew me as Charly. I was lanky; the tallest girl in my grade, and I was anxious to get a trilogy of books called Harry Potter for Christmas. I was excited to go into second grade, and was having yet another day of swim practice at the pool with my dad. It’s what we did all summer. That day, my dad had invited some swim coaches over to watch him coach me – a sort of tryout for him to be an assistant coach. Daddy wasn’t expecting them to be more interested in me than him. I thought it was normal for kids to grow up watching stroke conditioning videos; to have a sport that just came easily to them. I’d never raced anyone. I saw an older guy (who turned out to be the local high school coach) time me on his stopwatch for a 25 fly, then go pale when I stopped. “Oh, great,” I thought, “I did something seriously wrong with my stroke.” I wrung my hands under the water waiting for a lecture on arm positioning, when he said “She just beat the state record for her age group.”
After that, I went from stroke conditioning videos to meeting coaches and joining teams, having an at-home gym I was supposed to use but not tell anyone about, and a strict diet of whatever my dad decided was okay that day (hint: it was never enough calories). And we made the plan: I was going to be a distance swimmer in free, fly, and back.
I got fast. Really fast. But I was never fast enough. I couldn’t build enough muscle to work through the water well, and couldn’t put enough fat on my body to feed any muscle that was there. Instead of having an Olympic body, I had some muscle that was often confused for fat.
Distance was scrapped and my dad settled for sprinting, which I enjoyed more anyway. It was about this time that I learned my dad made it on the ’72 Olympic swim team and was supposed to have had two of Mark Spitz’ medals. When I asked why he didn’t, he’d say “a fight with my coach” and shoot me a look that said that the conversation was over.
2004 came and went, and I barely had enough muscle to compete at the state level. I was constantly yelled at and told I was letting the team down. Swimming was exhausting. A fellow coach who had been to the Olympics said “Chris, let her quit, she’s burnt out.” My dad refused to listen. I joined a major competition team when I moved states, but my shoulders gave out. I had to stop competing fiercely, and the Olympic Dream was closed.
I swam on my high school team until I was fed up, mainly to keep my dad happy with me. I was sick of practice, sick of not being where I wanted, and done with coaches trying to tell me what they thought was best. When my dad showed up to my sixteenth birthday and I couldn’t manage to eat a bite of food, I knew my relationship with him was messed up. When my doctor said “Quit now or we’ll wheel you into shoulder surgery next summer,” I decided that my ties with swimming were gone.
In my mind, though, I hadn’t totally severed them. I watched Team USA come out with the flag in Beijing, and held back fiery, angry tears. That’s supposed to be me. Why am I not good enough? Why did I have to fail everyone? I forced myself to keep watching, rubbing salt in the wound. I forced myself to watch every DVR’d heat, making sure I knew good and damn well that I’d failed. Natalie Coughlin won gold with a time of 58.96 in the 100m back; my specialty. My projected time when I was young was a 57.50. I cried myself to sleep that night.
London came around right before I was headed back to college for my fourth year. I was already a depressed mess, and yet I made myself watch again. Somehow, it didn’t hurt as badly. I’d been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and had come to accept that being in the games would have been incredibly painful, if possible at all. It still felt a bit strange. A bit wrong. But I was at Vanderbilt, who was I to complain?
This year for the Rio games, I’m engaged. I’m a college dropout with a certification in aesthetics, I’m between jobs, and living a hellaciously busy life. This year? This year, it’s been rewarding. Watching the heats has actually been fun. I’ve been able to laugh at Katie Ledecky’s bobble head stroke, knowing I’d never have gotten away with it and happy that she makes it work. I’ve beamed with pride for Sarah Sjostrom, Sweden’s first female gold Olympian. I’ve nodded and smiled as Phelps hops on the block to conquer yet another race. This year is giving me closure. Finally. I know that I’ll find myself every glued four years to the Olympic coverage, critiquing strokes. Amazed at the records being shattered. In awe of the sheer power of the athletes.
There’s a small part of me that will be bitter; the part that wishes people had let me just enjoy the sport and not critique how I looked, because I might have been there with them. But mostly? I’m grateful. I’m glad for the athletes we have. I’m proud of USA Swimming for making sure swimmers who don’t deserve to be there don’t touch the blocks. I’m relieved that I don’t have to deal with the media. I’m proud of their times, their hard work, their sportsmanship and grace. I’ll always have some chlorine in my DNA. I’ll always feel that pull to watch when I hear the timer go off. I’ll always analyze their kicks and strokes, and I’ll celebrate every win.
Image Credits: Charlotte Fraser, personal collection