Little girls in pajama pants and dripping swim caps, the insides of their arms marked with Sharpie charts – Event | Heat | Lane – play UNO and eat nachos on the floor. They giggle and dance and grab each other’s wrists to read the numbers when the loudspeaker announces “Event 57, Girls 10 and under 200 yard Freestyle, Heat 1.” They’re looking out for each other, making sure nobody misses her event, taking care that they get back over to the pool in time to line up for their races. I missed this yesterday, the first day of the meet. I’m glad I came today.
“Don’t be discouraged about her place,” the text from my husband read. “She’s one of only 2-3 7 year olds out of 30-50 swimmers in each event, going up against 10 year olds.” I read this from the sidelines of our son’s soccer field on Saturday, when we had to divide and conquer to get our kids to their sporting events: our son to a soccer festival 2 hours south in Martinsville, VA and our daughter 2 hours in the opposite direction to her very first USA Swimming sanctioned meet, the season opener, in Lynchburg.
I wrote back, “It might be hard on her now, but wow, by the time she’s 10…”
The YMCA gymnasium is a chaos of camp chairs, coolers, blankets, swim caps, towels. I scan the staging area and follow a trail of kid-sized wet footprints, spatters of water flung out in front of the big toe, to a huge semicircle of about 20 maroon and orange Virginia Tech camp (tailgating) chairs. I walk over to the closest parent, smile, and say, “I’m guessing this is the H2Okie Aquatics team?” I set up my chair and stick out my hand, “I’m Andrea. This is our first meet.”
His eyes light up and he says, “Ours too.”
My phone vibrated in my back pocket. “Coach just used AB to show the girls how to do breast in warmups :-)” I shoved the phone back into my jeans and smiled into the rain, clapping and hollering for our son out on the field.
My new dad friend tells me about the body marking. “We’ve been writing their events on their arms so they don’t lose track of where they need to be.” I borrow a green Sharpie from a seasoned 8 year old – she’s got an assortment of purple, black, red, and green fine points in her monogrammed swim bag – and write our daughter’s numbers on her skin. “You’re in the first even today – are you excited?” She showed me a mouthful of teeth and shook her head up and down.
I introduced myself to a new-to-me mom on the soccer team. She has four kids. “How do you get them to all their separate sports?!” I asked.
She smiled big. “You make friends.” I told her about later in the year, when our son has a tournament in Richmond, our daughter has a swim meet in Blacksburg, and my husband will be out of town at a conference. “I’d be happy to help out,” she said. “We can get your son to Richmond.”
My phone buzzed again. “On our way home,” my husband wrote. “You guys staying dry? We just got soaked.”
“Yes,” I tapped out, my flip-flopped feet covered in wet grass clippings. “Chrissy brought a tent, thank goodness. She left but I’m bringing the tent home. We need to get it back to her Tuesday at practice.” I watched the field from our dry spot under the team canopy. I stood next to my new friend.
After our daughter’s first two events, we have an hour and a half to kill in the gymnasium. The semicircle of VT chairs is in a continual state of transition as kids leave to swim an event, and others return with towels draped over their shoulders like robes, leaving trails of wet footprints. Goggles are propped on swim-capped heads, and these 8, 9, and 10 year old swimmers rub their eyes with terrycloth corners as they replay the races with their parents and teammates.
A quilt of blankets and towels covers the center of our team circle. There’s a My Little Pony salon on the green and blue tartan flannel (with a Barbie in one of the chairs), muffin crumbs and UNO cards on the cream cotton weave, and a unicorn Pillow Pet on the maroon fleece. Monogrammed Speedo backpacks loaded with Gatorade bottles lay abandoned, some upright, some on their sides, like book bags dumped in the hallway when kids burst through the door at the end of the school day.
Our daughter plays cards with a new friend and eats a banana. Her friend pulls out a nachos Lunchables and holds it out to our daughter, “You want some? We can share it.” They still wear their swim caps, though our daughter has donned fuschia sweatpants and a matching hoodie, and they laugh and munch among the swim meet detritus – half eaten apples, empty Gu packets, still-wet goggles, and sodden towels slumped at their knees. Janitors mop the trails of wet footprints that lead into the gym, and then stop at the edge of the chair/blanket/wet towel chaos. They don’t lean on their mops and shake their heads, but I imagine they want to.
The dad next to me checks his watch. “Girls, you want to go warm up again? You’ve been sitting out for a long time.”
I make eyes at our daughter – “You want to?”
“YEAH!” She strips off her hoodie and sweat pants before I even stand up from my chair.
“AB is in the warmup pool and she makes me so happy,” I texted my husband on Sunday. “She’s just grinning and swimming.” She hung on the wall after each lap, giggling with her teammates. “She loves it.”
On the pool deck, all the parents carry our kids’ towels and our highlighted heat sheets. We check and recheck for lane assignments, make sure the children are where they need to be, cheer for each other’s swimmers. I see lots of H2Okie Aquatics shirts. I want one. I thought about how sweet the soccer parents were, offering to take our son to Richmond, leaving their tent so other parents could stay dry. I thought about the swim parents who helped us with body marking, whose kids shared toys, blankets, and snacks, and the excitement we shared with our children at their first meet. I didn’t play rec sports when I was a kid. I wasn’t on the volleyball squad in high school. I didn’t swim or play soccer or basketball. I like this feeling of camaraderie. I like being part of something bigger.
I like being part of a team.