The Sunday Rumpus Essay: Distance Devotion


For a brief spell as a teenager, I dreamed of suffering. What I wanted, more than anything, was to become an Olympic distance swimmer, one of the scrappy elite who distinguished themselves through deprivation. Eight times a week, I logged hundreds of laps, thousands of yards in the warm, over-chlorinated waters of my high school pool. My coach, a hard-to-please history buff with a fondness for motivational speeches, saw enough potential in my fifteen-year-old frame to move me to The Fast Lane, where older teammates dragged me along in their wake. My hair turned to straw. My skin developed a scaly sheen. On the weekends, I ran loop after loop in the horseshoe where my parents lived, my Discman blaring Queen and Rage Against the Machine. Homework was secondary to sleep. What mattered were my streamlines. What mattered was the pain.

Unlike athletes who play team sports, swimmers labor in solitary, submerged in a strangely silent medium. Absent conversation or choreography, one becomes uniquely attuned to the forces conspiring against the body—gravity, lactic acid, time. I still remember some of those sets, each one a special form of masochism. 50×100 on 1:10. 3,000 for time. 12 x 400 I.M. on 5:00. 100% effort until you hear the whistle. I remember teammates getting out to puke in the trash can. I remember feeling my heartbeat in my brain. Lying on the deck, staring at the rafter lights, I remember floaters flooding my field of vision. “This isn’t vacation,” my coach would say if I lingered too long. “Get your butt back in the water.” For hours after practice, my hands would shake.

Day by day, week by week, I improved. The pace clock, an analog octagon stationed across the deck, became my compass. Its steady circles measured my progress. As the sun rose or fell through the tiny window at the end of the natatorium, the mathematics of stroke counts and breathing cycles occupied my mind. Watching the black line on the bottom, I calculated the distance I had covered, the distance remained. One thing I liked about swimming was the absence of ambiguity. At every wall, you knew exactly where you stood, whether or not you were hitting the mark. The second hand always told the truth.

Come March, taper season for most clubs, times I had logged at meets months before I could now perform on repeat. Over the course of the year, I had qualified for a handful of events at the regional championship, which drew competitors from across the lower Midwest. In the first session, shaved and shivering behind the blocks for the 1,000 yard freestyle, my imagination conjured all kinds of absurd scenarios. Suit falling off. Paralysis. Heart attack. But when I dove in, muscle memory took over. I’d never felt so smooth in the water. Halfway through, I caught a glimpse of my coach jumping up and down, waving his clipboard and whistling through his fingers. Near the end, I picked up my kick, buried my head, and made the final push to the wall. When I hit the touchpad, the cheers of my teammates told me I had done well. By fractions of a second, my performance qualified for Junior Nationals, which meant college recruiting letters and a badass windbreaker.

At that point, my competitive future looked bright. I dropped a couple more seconds at Juniors, collected a few high fives, and set my sights on bigger meets. The next morning, after warmups, my coach pulled me aside to watch heats of the 400 IM, a four-stroke sampler considered by many the hardest test in the sport. “You have to check this guy out,” my coach said. “Thirteen years old.” In the middle lane, a tall, skinny kid flapped his arms like a seabird before adjusting his goggles. Moments later, when he popped to the surface, his butterfly seemed a trick of physics. Gliding through the water, his body undulated in perfect rhythm. His recovery, swift and smooth, was propelled by a powerful kick that carried through to the backstroke. His technique was textbook, especially the walls. Every turn sent him surging ahead, shooting past competitors with a dolphin kick unlike any I’d seen. After the race ended, I stole a glance at my coach’s heat sheet. The name, highlighted in yellow, was Michael Phelps.

If I understood the difference between good and great in that moment, it would be years before I came to accept it. I continued to train religiously, seeking out new ways to test my limits. I invested in ankle boards and stretch cords to improve my flexibility. Eight Minute Abs became a nightly routine. In practice, I pushed delusional pace, speed unlikely to hold up over the course of a set, let alone a race. Laminated goal sheets—in my mesh bag, above my bed, tucked into my binders—reminded me of trial cuts I knew by heart. And yet, as Phelps followed a meteoric trajectory, moving on to Nationals and Sydney and World Records, mine more resembled an asymptote. Waiting for a growth spurt that never came, I dropped time in smaller increments—tenths, hundredths. For too long, I believed that hard work alone would win out, assuming my ceiling was a function not of physiology but of psychology, a mental tolerance for handling hurt.

By the time college rolled around, it was clear. Competing for an underfunded team in a top conference offered a weekly lesson in humility. Even on a good day, when my legs felt light, when my catch felt calm, when my turnover topped out, there was nothing I could do to keep up with true talent. Freshman year, I remember lining up against an All-American from the University of Virginia, one of the best backstrokers in the country. I managed to hang on his hip until the final fifty, when his kick flooded my lane with backwash. No amount of will or conditioning would have helped me break that wave. During the customary post-finish handshake, as I gasped good job, I could see that the effort had taken nothing from him. He was barely breathing hard.

That I kept at it—adding more events to my repertoire, butterfly and individual medley, four years of bus rides and training trips and early mornings where hopping into the frigid pool seemed a Sisyphean exercise—is a testament to the staying power of early dreams. The part of me that refused to let go was the part of me that found frustration in diminishing returns, the part that saw momentum in every small uptick. I continued to set unreasonable goals, losing to swimmers I once beat, hoping for unlikely outcomes just like the ballplayer who never escapes the minors or the novelist whose work remains unread or the aging rock band forever stuck in an opening slot. All share in common a commitment to discomfort, an enduring love of striving or maybe stubbornness, a deep disdain for fact.

After my last meet, I promised myself I’d graduate to less exhausting pursuits. But within a month, I was back in the water a few times a week, rehearsing old rituals. Over a decade later, I still swim, thirty minutes of rushed back and forth before I pick up the kids. Reductions of old sets on easier intervals hurt too much. Saddled with an extra fifteen pounds, I think sometimes of a Gatorade commercial that aired a little while back, in which a portly man sprints through the frame with surprising speed. “I have never used the backstroke as a coping mechanism,” says 15 time NBA all-star Kevin Garnett afterwards, “but I have tried to be the best I can be.” I wonder: How much of my motivation lies in the act of reimagining ability? A return not so much to the result but to former fantasies of the future?

Not too long ago, after bailing on an overly ambitious set at the YMCA, I spread my arms along the gutter to catch my breath. Nearby, in the deep end, a middle-aged man was treading water in a tank top and cargo shorts. He caught me eye and smiled. “You’re good,” he said.

“Thanks,” I told him. “I’ve been doing it for a while.”

“Like really good. Were you in the Olympics or something?”

I waited a moment, savoring a compliment from a man unversed in proper aquatics attire before telling the truth—only in my dreams. I pushed off the wall and for the first few strokes, before my shoulders sank and my kick died down, I allowed myself to believe I could hold that pace, that somehow, past its prime, a body might let go of limitation.

Edward Helfers teaches writing at American University. His work appears or is forthcoming in Booth, DIAGRAM, The Nashville Review, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. More from this author →