It makes me cry if I let myself think too much about it. It rushes back, like a flood. You would think the warning would be enough but it’s not. It starts small by just covering the feet before immediately overwhelming you and before you know it, you are submerged. The mental ping-pong is constant: stay in the present, be rushed to the past, deep breath to calm down and brace for the impact of repeat. Sort all the feelings as fast as possible without letting your face show all the countless moments of pain. But it is painful, so much of it is painful.
The rush of regret is what I wish was controllable. My mind screams at me, “Do your job,” but the past wins almost every tiny battle for control of the psyche. As a swimmer, I was a headcase. How she ever coached me for all those years and still seems to love me is a wonder. The energy I must have consumed from her… But generosity is her cape and her kryptonite. It was the beginning of her career as well as mine and we needed each other back then. I was late to the game and so balanced the blessing of hunger unencumbered by burnout with the curse of a distinct lack of experience. “You needed more years to be really great,” she would tell me some time later after the clock had long since expired.
How I got here is because of her. How I got anywhere is because of her. She was the third person ever to believe in me. My mom was number one, and I mean number one, always and forever. Larry was number two and he believed in the possibility after he couldn’t believe how I survived the early days. And then Larry convinced her to be number three. No one showed up for lunch the first day of my recruit trip and she was mortified. I remember standing on Bruin Walk when it was just a walk, with her constantly turning head, scanning the faces, praying a recognizable one would appear and save her the embarrassment. With a shrug of the shoulders and a dismissal of the insult enough so that I didn’t notice it, off we went to have lunch anyway. The weekend was a bad call because there was a big volleyball tournament, a.k.a. huge party in Santa Barbara and just about all of UCLA was there. It was so bad, I went home a day early. Funny how I don’t remember the disappointment. Next was USC, of course. And the weekend was a blast! I went home with a t-shirt I bought myself and was set on being a Trojan. But the coach was more of a salesman than man to me, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought about the short, blond assistant who was just there for me, already. Even though it was clear, at eighteen, it was still perfectly unclear. I remember asking my dad if he knew where he wanted me to go. “Of course,” he smirked. When I asked him to tell me, “Of course not,” he smirked bigger. “You need to do this one, honey. But look to see where you see yourself and that is your answer.” I saw myself under her wing. And so, I went. And it was the best decision of my life.
Today I am at the national championships with her, again, trying to help her with her wingspan. Another coach asked me if I work with any other teams and I shook my head as if he should already know that I wouldn’t do this for anyone else. See, it makes it all rush back, all day, and for some goddamn reason, it still hurts. Perhaps she brought me back to finally get some closure on this thirty-year-old open wound that she knew needed healing. And here I am, in the final lap, still fighting for air. My time is running out to close this. As I watch the fast ones, I wonder what they think. What do they think and then feel and then master as they do what I feel like I never was able to do? Why can’t I remember what I thought and felt and failed to do that left me feeling so less-than now? What is the key, the answer, the secret that separates those hundredths of a second from each other? How does it all come together, mix, gel to create a win? Why, with as much as I won, do I feel like I never won in the right way? I was almost great, great for my short time line, but not great-great. And this is what rushes back, the unanswerable question of why not.
A professor once told me that each issue we have continues to grow until we resolve it, so you had better get to work. Today, I feel the full force of this physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. What is the issue? The surface is all ego, being great or being the best. It is the innate, competitive drive to win that feeds the need to be recognized as such. When perspective is in control, the obviousness of this trait, pre-wired in each of us, elicits compassion. How hard we all work to be noticed, to be good enough, to be accepted. Understanding and experiencing this in others gives me some space for my own need, but not enough. As I dive below the surface over the years, what becomes more and more clear is a deep desire to contribute. Sounds campy but isn’t. The thought of not being able to help is like death to me and drives me crazy. When I feel the best is when I am helping another. The gift of this is twofold, not only does the other feel and do better, but I get to disappear into it while it happens. The problem is the transitory way this moment comes and goes. It is my “Crack,” always trying to get back to that wonder.
Why now? Well, I am working at a swim meet that defines past, present, and future, if you let it…and while I was swimming, I let it. Heck, I still do. And being here now, for perhaps the last time, I watch all the defining happening in front of my eyes. I am desperate to help them avoid this huge pitfall and skip the painful step of failure…or even success. “It does NOT define you!” I want to scream, but actually it does. It all does. However, what has become more and more visible this week is where I put that definition and whether I allow it to strengthen or weaken me. What a moment this is.
We sat in the stands watching the races last night as our swimmers failed to take the opportunities that needed a little bigger fight. Her perspective is clear, as always. The door is there, and you get to knock it down or sit and stare at the lock. Either way, it is up to you. The lesson is life-long and more powerful than a twenty-year-old can fathom but she has been doing this long enough to know how it turns out. I was one of the first and she has watched me struggle and lose and struggle and win, and so my lessons have turned out to be a contribution. Go figure. We chatted and mused at the “upsets” of the meet and tried to explain the unexplainable through how they trained or prepared for this competition. The desire to ask her if I was good enough was nearly uncontrollable. As I wondered what it would matter, regardless of her answer, some clarity appeared. She would tell me I was great. And it wouldn’t matter that she believed it, only that I would. I might not have been the best, but only one person gets to be, and, on that day, it wasn’t me. In the pool. But now, I get to be great next to the pool and for one more time without her really knowing it, be under her wing.
One of the seniors swam her last race ever and the bitter-sweet concoction of emotion was visible on her face as she approached the coach for her last post-race chat. “You will be surprised at what you remember from this meet,” said the coach. “Everyone keeps telling me that,” said the now former swimmer. A chuckle surprised my chest and then a smile overtook my face. I have spent all week suppressing the wonderful emotions this kind of competition creates and blesses you with. And so, in that moment, I let it all rush back, submerging me in the passion, the power, the love, the memories of the relationships, how hard we worked, how hard we played, and how important it was. Tears again flood my eyes but this time, they are different. They are full of gratitude and love for this sport and especially this woman, who I describe as the one who gave me my life. Miraculously and almost secretly, the regret of thirty years dissolves into the air, freeing me from some silly burden I insisted upon carrying. Cyndi Gallagher has been head coach at UCLA since 1988. A full circle for me to be here with her, next to her on deck, my wing tips touching hers to cover whoever needs the shelter. Thank you Cyndi.