Michael Phelps, Dara Torres, Aquaman and me, by Martha Thomases
Watching the Olympics, like so many other things, reminds me of super-heroes.
Not that I watch a lot of the Olympics. The jingoistic nationalism of the coverage disturbs me. While I admire the perseverance and determination and hard work of the athletes, I don’t find it particularly heroic. Heroism, I think, involves putting yourself out for the benefit of others. Competing in the Olympics may be a way to test oneself, to try to attain an ideal of physical perfection and international harmony, but it doesn’t benefit others. Unless, that is, your idea of benefiting others is enriching the corporate coffers of the sponsors, the networks, and the governments that use their victories for propaganda purposes.
But I digress …
To look at me, you would not think that there was a time when I could have been an Olympic-level athlete.
And you’d be right.
However, I was on a swim team for most of a decade. From the time I was five until I aged out of the league at 15, I swam every summer for a local league, and every winter for the YMCA. This meant hours and hours every week, swimming laps until my eyes were red from chlorine (this was before racing goggles) and my lips were blue.
I loved being able to hold my breath for a long time, and I loved the way my body felt when I was slicing through the water. My body made sense, hips powerful enough to keep my torso level while I kicked. I loved wearing a racing tank, sleek and fast, like a superhero costume. Of course, I thought I was Atlantean, like Aquaman. It would be so much cooler if I could breathe underwater, like he could.
Writers complain that it’s hard to write stories for Aquaman, that his only powers are that he can breathe underwater and communicate with fish. Some examine the possibilities of the strength he must have to live under water, and how tough he must be to withstand the cold of the ocean. I think there’s an entire world to explore on the ocean floor, and that a character who can breathe water and air is inherently more versatile than one who can breathe only air.
Watch the best swimmers, and see how they are different from other kinds of athletes. They use their arms and legs together, and have to streamline their strokes to be able to breathe. They develop muscles, but don’t bulk up.
It would be lovely if I could tell you that, as a result of my training and hard work, I achieved victories and acclaim. I didn’t. Instead, I was decidedly mediocre, scoring regular second-place finishes in the 50-meter backstroke, which was my event. The girls relay team I was on when I was 13 and 14 was undefeated, so I had some blue ribbons to go with my reds.
Really, I wasn’t dedicated enough. I only worked out when we had team practice, and that wasn’t every day. I didn’t watch what I ate, and I didn’t focus on my swimming, instead choosing to goof around with my friends. However, I did learn to love swimming laps. It stretches out the kinks in my back, and it lets my mind empty. It’s something I can still do, more than 40 years later, and for that, I’m grateful.
Dara Torres, now 41, was just a baby when I stopped competing. Now at an age when most women are worried about wrinkles, maybe starting Botox, she continues to train and, amazingly, sets world records. When I watch Michael Phelps, I understand how he feels, how exciting it is to watch a teammate win the relay. It’s exciting to imagine what it must feel like to be them, to inhabit one’s body so fully, to push one’s limits to go faster and faster.
If only they could use their powers for good, and go fix Sichuan province. Or New Orleans.
Martha Thomases, ComicMix’ resident Media Goddess, promises to use her swimming powers only for good.