I think of myself as an avid swimmer, but somehow I let sixteen months lapse between laps. When the pool in town closed for summer maintenance in July 2010, I filled the void with jogging and cycling. Then I got consumed with work and comforted myself with a few too many Starbucks scones. You think horizontal stripes make you look fat? Try strutting by the pool in a Speedo. I stayed away.
I’m back down to my ideal weight and decided to get back in the pool today. As I drove into town, I prepped myself with positive self talk. You’re gonna suck. But you’re supposed to suck. That’s what happens when you lounge for a year and a half. Those scones aren’t even tasty! Okay, well, that’s as cheery as I could muster. I fell back into every sports scenario of my childhood.
Long before the confusion over my sexual identity chipped away at my self-esteem, my athletic shortcomings tormented me. (For many of us, there seems to be a link.) Dreams of becoming an NHL hockey star were put on ice after two seasons in which I scored a single goal—one of those flukes for which we berate Luongo—and had learned nothing other than remembering to take off my skate guards before stepping onto the rink.
My father tried to teach me how to throw a football, but I whined too much. “Why do they make it so hard to hold? Did they really kill a pig for this?”
Baseball was okay, I suppose, until they took away the t-ball stand and got a harder ball. You’re throwing that awfully close to where I’m standing. I’m going to duck. I did learn to hit the ball over the fence, but I had the wrong sport...tennis, not baseball. (I loved running off to search for the tennis ball, getting sidetracked by chestnuts and clover patches. Heck, if I ever found a four-leafer, all my luck would turn around.)
In P.E., we always lined up against the wall for picking teams. Even though I knew the drill, I wilted a little more each time the final picks came down to me and Mary Novakovich. I’m not religious, but I feel compelled to say God bless Mary. Without her, there wouldn’t have been any suspense. Or hope.
I tried to rationalize my athletic ineptitude. I skipped a grade and, due to a late birthday, was nearly two years younger than many classmates. Of course, the argument proved faulty when we stuck around after school to play soccer with the younger kids. I was picked dead last every time. I don’t remember, but I’m guessing Mary had piano lessons...or a macramé project to finish.
Eventually, my sports deficiencies collided with my awkwardness toward the same sex and locker rooms and gyms became my personal hell. Moving to Texas, where every school had an athletic director and a sizable stadium with lights, things only got worse. There was a hierarchy: football, basketball, baseball, track,...and, not that it mattered but, everything else. I spent two weeks in regular P.E. with guys who’d failed a few grades and didn’t own sneakers. Escaped by signing up for the swim team. I sucked, but it was an individual sport so, as long as the coach kept me off the relays—and, yes, she did—I didn’t have to worry about letting other people down.
Still, I get anxious whenever I walk into a new gym and even when I sign up for a gay sports program. The past is hard to shake. Jumping back in the pool today was important. There were three fit men my age and we had two lanes to share. When I used to swim regularly, I often had a lane to myself. I certainly didn’t want company as I struggled with my form and endurance.
Fortunately, the other cardio work I’ve been doing helped. I took a few extra breaks, but I swam three kilometers and lapped the other swimmers many times. The stranger part was that one of the men chatted with me after the swim. Oh, he’s one of those talkers who probably converses with the microwave when his wife heads out for groceries. But the topic of conversation threw me. He talked to me like I was a jock. He thought I should be doing triathlons, asked me about running distances and then recommended that I try a cycling track in Burnaby.
One part of the above bears repeating: He talked to me like I was a jock. Me?! There was no sarcasm in his voice, no audience in the background to snicker. I flashed back to fourth grade, Mary folding her arms, glaring at the captains through her thick glasses. On that day, she was second to last. I glanced down at my untied shoelace, waiting that infinite second before Steven Miller begrudgingly called my name. Yes, I’d be the clear weak spot for Red Rover. The memory sticks even when circumstances change.