The summer Olympics having been and gone, of course the joys of competitive swimming have faded slightly from the collective memory, by now. Six months ago, twitter was buzzing with Phelps vs. Lochte, Missy Franklin’s triumphs, and “Oh my god who is that adorable Nathan Adrian on the relay team?” For about a month every four years, swimmers get to take their rightful place among sports royalty–not just in the US, though obviously that’d be my team to support–and all is right in my world.
Swimming is one of those rare sports where the athlete is truly their own worst competition. Of course it feels amazing to come out on top of a race, to slam your hand into the wall and glance up at the board and see that you touched .1 seconds before anyone else. But even when that doesn’t happen, it still feels good to slam into the wall, look up at the board, and see you’re .1 seconds faster than you’ve ever been before, regardless of who beat you there. And it’s crushing to swim less than your absolute best time–because you have no one to blame but yourself.
Hence, swimmers tend to be a passionate lot. Yes, there’s definitely a drive to beat the guy in the next lane, cross-team rivalries, even rivalries on the same team (see again the furor over Phelps vs. Lochte). But unlike team sports, it’s all on the individual. Even in a relay situation, you’re responsible for your own leg–and if you lose the race for all four of the team, then you know it was your fault, believe me.
The kind of dedication it takes to get to that point is somewhat played down by interviews, scandals, etc. that come with that one month of Olympic glory. Ryan Lochte’s closet full of ridiculous shoes, Natalie Coughlin in body paint for Sports Illustrated, and Michael Phelps in his hot-ass Louis Vuitton ad get a lot of press, but belie the amount of time, the sheer level of dedication–no, obsession–it takes to be a swimmer at that level.
Or at any level. It was the big joke with me in college that if I had answered the endless recruitment calls from my university team (and ftr: I was nowhere near that good at all ever–plus I’m way too short!), I would’ve never been able to have any fun. You hear about Michael Phelps getting high one time and the world freaks out… I don’t know, man, I was kinda proud of him for actually finding the time to grab a normal adolescent experience like the rest of us. Might explain why things get so wild in the Olympic Village, really. Someone let the tunnel-vision athletes out of their cages.
It’s a rare thing, having the drive to go down that road without the promise of fame and fortune like a football, soccer, baseball, hockey, whatever star. Why do they want it so bad? (I sure as hell didn’t.) What are they trying to prove? Do they ever wish they’d done things differently? Are they addicted to that heart-pounding moment of silence on the block just before the buzzer goes? The breathless one when they stretch out that final pull and hit the wall to stop the clock? Or is there really just nowhere else in the whole world they’d rather be than in the water?
I don’t know about you, but just thinking about it makes me want to write about ten more books with swimmer lead characters. Because there is nothing hotter than that kind of passion. Especially when it’s wet.
Katey Hawthorne was a swimmer once upon a time, but now mainly writes books. By the River–a copy of which is available in the big Jock Week Giveaway!–contains her first swimmer leading hero, Leith.