My timing partner stood slowly, stopwatch in hand, and stared at the surface in Lane 1. Our swimmer, in Lane 4, crouched in her starting stance, ready to spring off the block, when I turned and saw the body floating in the water.
The teenage form hung limp in her dappled black speedsuit. Her back rounded into a hump that barely broke the surface, and her arms and legs dangled. Her eyes gazed at the bottom of the pool.
She looked relaxed, like she was resting in jellyfish pose while she waited for her heat to begin. I expected her to lift her head, shake the water off her cap, and say, “Okay, I’m ready,” with a big grin on her face.
Instead, her flaccid form floated there, as we all wondered, what the hell?
“She must have passed out,” I murmured, flashing back to times I’ve fainted: at the eye doctor, after blood draws, watching the nurse pull the drain from the gash in my husband’s leg; the slurping sound it made.
Timers, coaches, and neon yellow vests of meet officials crowded the corner of the pool deck adjacent to where the body floated. I recognized a meet marshal with full makeup and a helmet of highlighted hairsprayed hair. She was kind to me that morning when I told her, “I’ve never done anything like this before. I have no idea what I’m doing.” She had smiled a warm smile, cupped the side of my shoulder in her hand, and said, “It’s okay honey, we’ll have a timer’s meeting beforehand to train you. We’re just glad you’re here. Thank you for volunteering.”
Now, she was jumping into Lane 1, feet first, fully clothed. Her hair lifted as her body descended. The white rubber soles of her Converse low tops slapped the water and her arms were clamped by her sides. Another official, a young man with rectangle glasses and dark jeans, plunged in from the adjacent pool deck.
At the timers’ meeting the head timer paired us up and instructed, “You’ll be timing the women’s races in the near pool. Next to the women’s pool is the warm-up pool, then the men’s pool on the other side of that.” He looked around the circle to make sure we knew which pool to go to.
“Velcroed to the sides of each starting block are timing plungers,” he said. “As your swimmer makes the flip turn for her final stretch, you and your partner will step to either side of the block and detach your plungers.” He held one up. It looked like a small black joystick without a base. There was a red button at the tip so that when you gripped the plunger in your hand, your thumb would rest on the button.
“Then,” he said, and he shifted one foot in front of the other, like the starting stance for a running race, “You’re going to place your feet so that the tip of one toe is on the edge of the pool – not an inch over, not an inch behind. Keep your other foot planted behind you for balance.” He leaned forward as if peering over the edge of something.
“You are looking for your swimmer’s hand to touch the wall,” he said as he continued to look over the imaginary edge. “You will need to lean forward so that you can look into the water and watch for her hand make contact. As soon as any part of her body touches,” he held his hand in the air and clicked his plunger. He stood back up. “Any questions?”
As my partner and I collected our clipboard and pencils, the sweet meet marshall smiled at me and said, “Did that help?”
“Get her face out of the water!” My timing partner yelled. She had a 13 year old daughter swimming in the meet, and I could imagine her mother-heart racing.
The girl’s body dragged as they pulled her five feet to the wall. Her white, bloodless limbs flopped as they pulled her torso over the gutter, over the edge, and out of the water. I imagined someone on deck saying, “Watch her head, gently now,” as they cradled her skull like a newborn babe.
They lay her on her back, next to her starting block. Her feet dangled in the water. Aids on either side of her, and one behind her head, kneeled on wet tiles as they worked to bring life back into her body.
As it does when I am driving our children, and I envision fainting at 70 mph on a bridge –-
The kids see me slump in the seat and say, “Mom? Mom?!” as their eyes turn to saucers and the car hits the guardrail and they open their mouths to scream
— the blood drained from my face when I imagined the implications of fainting into water. Does the body know not to inhale? Are her lungs full of water? I felt my head lighten like it does before a faint. I leaned forward in my seat, trying to be inconspicuous, trying to lower my brain below my heart to get blood flowing back to it.
At the far end of the echoing aquatic center the men’s heat was still running. It was a short race – a 100 meter – so only a few seconds must have passed. I heard “GO!” silence, “GO!” silence, “GO!” silence in the telltale rhythm of the breaststroke; coaches cheered and whistled every time their swimmers’ heads broke the surface. The men’s race, combined with rhythmic splashing in the warm-up pool and growing murmurs of “What’s going on?” created a loud babble in the cavernous acoustics of the aquatic center.
I glanced over at Lane 1 and checked the girl’s abdomen to see if it moved with breath. It was motionless. Still. The kind, formerly hairsprayed marshal stood over the girl, her own chest heaving. Her hair clung to her face, her mascara ran. Her burgundy tee shirt stuck to her arms and back, and it dripped onto the heels of her soggy shoes. The droplets disappeared instantly into the sopping black canvas, like ink into an already saturated spill. She nodded at a lifeguard, pivoted, and rushed away.
I rocked in my chair and remembered the faint that still terrifies me, when I slumped to the carpet at a reception window after having blood drawn. I was signing a check, proud that I hadn’t passed out during the blood draw, and I fell to the floor in a faint. I floated in a sepia-toned and terrifying place in my unconsciousness –
This is hell I’m scared GET ME OUT
– and awoke to “Ma’am? Ma’am? Are you okay?” I lay on a beige carpet in a hallway with off-white walls. My eyes darted like a horse that’s been shot. A nurse in tan scrubs leaned over me. I remembered nothing from my faint but the shadowy sepia tones and the choking terror I felt. Since that episode, even the thought of fainting makes me lightheaded and afraid.
I looked up into the stands overhanging the pool deck; I tried to give the girl some privacy by looking away. The crowd was on its feet, white-knuckling the plexiglass barrier. A sea of worried parents. A hum of “Is she okay?”
I dropped my eyes to my hands, thinking about all those eyes on her. It is terrible to faint. It is horrifying while you’re out. It’s disorienting when you open your eyes to worried faces leaning over yours. It’s embarrassing when you come to and realize you just passed out –-
“Ma’am? Ma’am? Are you okay?” I awake in a close dark room, reclined on a black medical bed. A small raisin of a man in a white coat peers over me. He looks frightened. I tried to tell him the glaucoma test was freaking me out – I can’t handle things in my eyes, and oh my god its coming straight at me and I’M LOOKING AT IT WHILE IT’S COMING STRAIGHT AT MY EYE PLEASE DON’T TOUCH MY EYE I CAN SEE IT MY EYE IS OPEN
— and to wake with five thousand eyes witnessing your vulnerability?
I checked her still, adolescent stomach again, then rested my eyes on my clenched hands. Please God, let her be okay.
Our lane 4 swimmer, who remained on her block, leaned forward over the water, her neck craned to the left to check on the girl. Then she stood, scanned the scoreboard, and leaned back out, this time to her right. The men’s heat had ended and she yelled to the swimmer on block 6, “They’ve stopped the meet!” Our swimmer hopped down off the block and shook her thighs and shoulders.
Quiet descended over the aquatic center. No splashing. No cheering. More lifeguards ran to assist now that all pools had been cleared of swimmers. They carried red rescue tubes with bold white crosses, and their bare feet smacked loudly on the wet deck behind our timing chairs. I imagined the submerged girl, her body limp, her mind unaware, inhaling underwater. Were they performing CPR now? Was water dribbling out of her mouth, down her cheek, into her ear, while they pumped her chest?
I gripped my seat as another wave of dizziness hit me. I turned my head slightly, watched her abdomen. Willed it to rise.
It was flat. Unmoving.
The bleachers were silent. The crowd was still on its feet. Hands gripped railings. Eyes lasered the deck at the end of Lane 1.
And then her belly rose. Ever so slightly, as if from a breath pushed in from someone else’s lungs. Then a larger rise, and another.
“Her lips are moving,” my timing partner whispered. “She’s talking.”
I closed my eyes. Thank you.
The sopping marshal with inky Converse low tops shouldered glass doors open. Her arms were full of fresh white towels pyramided in neat rolls like at a hotel pool. The lifeguards must have sent her to the front desk to retrieve them. She raced over to the girl, kneeled, opened a towel, and laid it over her chest. She laid another over the girl’s rising abdomen. Two more over her legs.
When the lifeguards sat the young girl up, the aquatic center broke into applause. I imagined her mother’s body shuddering with sobs of relief. I clapped too, wiping tears. Once the young girl was standing, she accepted an offered towel and immediately covered her face, her head bowed in the universal pose of weeping.
A healthy, vital teenaged boy walked behind us, his eyes like full moons. He wore a team warmup jacket and gestured his tanned hands excitedly. “Whoa. I saw that whole thing happen. She was up on her block, like, in her starting stance, and, her eyes…” He stopped. “And she just,” and he sagged his body as if falling off a cliff, and lurched forward on his flip-flopped feet. “She just fell in, and she sank. And then her body floated up and just, like, hung there.” He dangled his arms and his head in a jellyfish pose. I understood his need to process the scene, but I ached for the girl, who was now a spectacle instead of a swimmer.
The teenager at our block began jumping up and down, windmilling her arms, slapping her thighs to wake them up. The whistle tweeted three times and she scrunched her shoulders to her ears, pulled them down, scrunched them up again. The whistle tweeted once, a longer tweet, and she climbed up onto her block.
“Take your marks.” She leaned down, her eyes to the water, this 16 year old girl who just witnessed a frightening tableau. One toe was on the edge of the block, the other slightly back, like a runner on a track. Like I would soon have to do to time her lunge into the wall. I gripped my seat again. She grabbed the front rim of the block, her body poised over the edge, her eyes focused on the wall at the other end of her lane.
I held onto my seat and tried not to sway as my head became light watching these girls, hanging over the edge, the pool a magnet pulling them forward. All those eyes on them. They were 12, and 14, and 16 at a championship swim meet. Their families had spent thousands of dollars to get them here; their performance would determine whether they went to nationals. So much pressure. I wondered at their courage. Were any of their heads light? Did any of them see stars? Our swimmer crouched motionless, waiting for the signal. I imagined the rigidity leaving her body as she sagged, falling forward into the pool. Floating back up and just hanging there.
The strobe flashed and she sprang from the board, her arms like a needle tip, her torso firm, her straight legs clamped together as one, her pink lacquered toes pointed archly. She denied any body part the opportunity to drag.
As our swimmer came into the wall after her first lap, anxiety began to build in me. In less than one minute, my toe would be on the edge. I saw myself falling forward, sinking in my sweater and jeans, then floating up slowly and just hanging there, blocking our swimmer as she tried to lunge for her finish.
She touched the opposite wall, and my partner and I stood up from our timing chairs. My head felt weightless. Like it might float away. We walked two steps forward to either side of the block, reached down, ripped the velcro tabs of our timing plungers, and gripped them in our dominant hands like joysticks.
I thought of the girl who had fainted. Wondered what happened in the landscape of her mind while she was unconscious
This is hell I’m scared GET ME OUT
and if she would have trouble taking the block the next time it was time to compete.
I shivered as I watched our swimmer power through the water. “It took a lot of guts for these girls to get back up on the blocks,” I said.
My partner looked at me and tilted her head, as if to say, “What else would they do?”
What else indeed. What would I avoid for fear of fainting? Never go to the eye doctor again? Refuse to have blood drawn? Bypass bridges because I might pass out and drive over the edge?
I placed my right toe at the lip of the pool – not an inch over and not an inch behind – and my left foot back. My thumb hovered over the timing button as our young swimmer approached the midpoint of the lane, surging toward us in her finishing sprint. I leaned over the edge, and vertigo built as I stared through the sloshing surface into the cerulean depths below. My body tipped forward and my head felt light. I shifted my eyes to the wall beneath my toe, where I must watch for our swimmer’s hands to touch.
Though most of my content over the past week has been recycled, today’s post is a new one. I volunteered to assemble a Writing 201: Longform Personal Reflection workshop, and in an effort to practice what I preached there, I took a stab at writing about one of my greatest fears. I hope you’ll give it a try too.