If you met me today you probably would never know I was once an athlete. I am little, into fashion, have a blowout. But for most of my life, the thing that defined me was being a swimmer. I was someone who had to get my prom dress adjusted to fit my linebacker shoulders. There were years when I was young enough to think I could be an Olympian at 4'11", 90 pounds. It was that magical time when everything is possible and your parents are too nice to tell you otherwise.
Swimming let me be competitive in a way that I wasn't in any other part of my adolescent life, which I think is a trait that's so critically important to encourage, particularly in young girls who are often taught to be nice, to compromise. The pool was a place where I learned that it's good to want to beat the person next to you; where you don't have to talk it out and come to a concession. I so badly wanted to win. In my head, I was mean. I was the best, compared to middle school where I was awkward, shy and more of a follower than a leader. Sports taught me that I can win or lose and both are necessary and give you energy to do it again. Better. Faster. It's not the end of the world, there's another race next week. That's life. There's always another race next week, and you have to want it more than the person in the lane next to you.
I was competitive. I was driven. I had goals written out on a yellow legal pad that I would look at every morning -- a certain time I wanted to reach in the 200 fly, a meet I wanted to qualify for. I quit swimming after my sophomore year of college when I felt like I couldn't possibly swim another lap and it took me awhile to realize that I still am all of those things. I am someone who writes down my goals, looks at them every day, and goes after them. But now they involve contracts and foreign sales instead of tenths of a second and blue ribbons.
Swimming has helped me become a writer. It has allowed me be someone who can do the same thing every day, which is often painful and boring and lonely, where you can see only minuscule results after an excruciating amount of effort. But now that's writing 5,000 words instead of powering through a grueling 500m time set. I know from experience that if you do it consistently you get better and can surprise yourself at the championship or deadline. How did this happen? Oh that's right, two hours a day can add up.
Today I still literally use swimming in my work when I am plodding through a difficult plot point. If I can't figure out how to end Chapter 19, I put on my Speedo, jump into an over-chlorinated pool and let the black line on the bottom lull me into that meditative state where I don't even realize my mind is working. Where I only hear water rushing past my ears. The one place where my Instagram doesn't work and I can really think. And when I am in the locker room I write down the answer to the puzzle. It almost always works.
When I go into meetings now I psych myself up like I used to behind the starting block. My book events are my away-meets. I get excited before, I feel accomplished after. I listen to loud pop music in my headphones on the way there to get in the right mental space. I jump around to get my blood pumping. I want to be the best, even if I'm still too polite to say that out loud.
My 12-year old protagonist Louise Lambert is on the swim team and it's just a little background detail you might not pick up on, but to me it says so much about her character and if you get it you really get it. As an adult, I can safely say that I will never win the Pulitzer, just like I never made it to the Olympics or let's be honest, even a Division 1 swimming school. But it's okay, that's not really the point. Growing up as a girl in the world of competitive sports made me who I am today. Now if only I could still do a 200 fly.