I Was A National Champion Swimmer, Now I'm At My Son's First Swim Meet

by Nancy Bercaw
Originally Published: 
A big swimming pool with clean water and teal tiles.

Somehow—seconds, minutes and years in the blink of an eye—I went from being a national champion swimmer and collegiate swim coach to being the mother of an 11-year-old swim team kid.

I used to beat the clock; now it’s beating me.

When David first started swim lessons at the Burlington, Vermont, YMCA at age 2, he swore to never ever join the swim team. No racing, he said. He repeated this vow every year, as he moved through the swim program ranks at a snail’s pace. Last year, while we lived in Abu Dhabi, David continued his tortoise-like progress with the Gulf Swim School while maintaining his anti-race stance.

David has been a non-racer since birth—taking nearly 36 hours to emerge from the womb into the world. I told my team at James Madison University, where I was coaching in 2004, that the sprinter had produced a distance athlete.

But just before we left Abu Dhabi in mid June, David decided apropos of nothing that he wanted to join the swim team as soon as we returned home to Vermont. As fast as the words emerged from his mouth, I signed him up on the YMCA website.

“BOOM! You’re in kid,” I said, restraining the urge to lift up my laptop like a trophy.

© Courtesy Nancy Bercaw

I watched David’s first practice sessions in awe, surprised by his innate endurance. He managed to do lap after lap even when he appeared fatigued. He never sped up; he never slowed down. He never complained, never faulted. He did crash into the lane line and into other swimmers a half dozen times, but shrugged it off. He practiced diving from the starting blocks, which paid off with belly flops and goggle drops. Not exactly at home in the water, but not entirely at odds with it either.

And then, on the evening of June 23, 2015, what I’d waited for—never expecting it to come—actually arrived. David was poised to swim in his first swim meet. He had a tiny little smile on his face as he pulled himself toward the starting block for the 50-yard backstroke. I wiped away the wave of tears suddenly pouring down my face. I had two jobs to do: be David’s mom and be a timer for the meet.

The other YMCA team parents have no idea about my swimming history—Florida State High School Champion, National Record Holder, Olympic Trials Qualifier. When the head timer showed me how to operate a stopwatch, I just listened. I didn’t want to go into the details of how I lived and died by that goddamned thing for 20 years.

David’s strokes were even and steady. He managed to stay in the center of the lane, for the most part. He did turn from his back to his stomach at the halfway mark, and was immediately disqualified for the maneuver. A fact lost on David.

I toyed with the idea of beating the shit out of the official for DQing my son in his very first race. But I reminded myself about the nature of this sport. Unforgiving—just like life on land. And then I choked up again, thinking how the lessons of the pool have served me well and how they may do the same for David.

David went on to swim the 50-yard breaststroke, which may be one of his best events and certainly was one of mine. He was beaming throughout the race despite finishing last. At the end, he shook hands with the racers in the lanes on either side of him. I was glad to see that they had waited for David to finish before getting out of the pool. Sadly (only for me), my son was disqualified again for not touching the wall with both hands simultaneously as one must do in breaststroke.

© Courtesy Nancy Bercaw

I cried a little more for his satisfaction with his pace and himself regardless of the outcome. I shed a few tears for my parents who managed to endure two decades of highs and lows while I was racing.

More tears spilled out for my mom in particular who took me to 5 a.m. workouts and then again to 4 p.m. workouts, as well as swim meets across the state and country—all while working a full-time job and running our household.

I wept in memory of my neurologist father, who could remember every single one of my times and records. He’s gone now—complications from Alzheimer’s disease—and now I’m standing in his place. Committing my child’s times to memory, hoping my recollections endure.

For his final race, David took on the 50-yard freestyle, which was my big event. This is the great pool sprint, akin to the 50-meter dash on land—winners decided by a hair length. I’d devoted years to whittling away tenths of seconds to become one of the best in the state and country. As he walked up to the block, David calmly stopped to tell me that he was ready for a hot dog. Despite this, he raced with very good form for a next-to-last finish. No disqualification this time.

I hugged him, and said repeatedly, “I am so proud of you. So proud of you.” More tears, again. I’d forgotten to get the time of the competitor in my lane, and used the incident to recuse myself. Another parent stepped in.

David shrugged off my praise and made his way to the snack bar. I took all the money I had out of my wallet, which included six quarters and one Rupee. Before coming home, David and I had taken a short trip from the UAE to India to see the Taj Mahal—the greatest ode to love ever built. I was happy to see the currency from that place and time from the point of view of this place and time—a pool deck in rural Vermont. I laughed at the absurdity of our foibles whether here or there, then or now.

Fortunately, $1.50 was enough for one hot dog. I left the rupee for a tip. David laughed.

Jeez, I asked myself, who cries so much at a kids’ swim meet? But I already knew the answer: someone whose entire young life was devoted to speed and water, now seeing her child dip his toes into those same rough yet rewarding waters.

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