I'm probably the only person in the world who's watching the Olympic swimming events and thinking:
Boy oh boy, they sure kick up a lot of foam!
That's because for several summers of my childhood, I struggled through that kind of foam as a reluctant member of a swim team.
Every weekday at 8 a.m., my sisters and I reported to our local pool in Queens for an hour of swimming practice. The pool was filled with water from a deep well, and if that water had been ten degrees colder, we could have skated on it.
The coach was a German who never cracked a smile as he put us through endless drills, back and forth in that 25-yard-long pool. In my memory there were guard towers and barbed wire surrounding the pool, but that's probably just time playing tricks.
I don't remember wanting to join the swim team. I don't remember the other kids wanting to join, either. It must have been our mothers' idea to send us to that pool every morning.
It wasn't a bad strategy. This was the late '60s. Drugs were everywhere, and the pillars that supported society were crashing all around us. Our mothers probably thought the discipline of daily swimming would keep us on the straight and narrow.
So I never smoked pot, but thanks to all that time in the pool I went around with a continuous chlorine buzz, which caused me to hallucinate that I was getting faster and faster in the water -- an illusion that was shattered on race days.
I was terrible. I had no speed. This meant I was always choking my way through kick-foam, an endless path of those little bubbles left behind by the swift swimmers.
Once, in a two-lap race, I was so badly blinded by the foam that I couldn't see the wall and did my flip-turn too early. I missed the damn wall, so I had to re-orient myself, swim another ten yards and do a second flip-turn. When I finally finished the race amid much jeering, the coach shook my hand.
"Congratulations!" he said. "You just set a record for flip-turns in a 50-yard race!"
And people say Germans have no sense of humor.
My sister Gina was a star swimmer, but my sister Mary and I were hopeless. Then, Mary caught a break -- she got a horrendous ear infection from all that swimming and had to leave the team. She began swinging a tennis racket and eventually swung her way to Wimbledon, and a mixed-doubles championship at the French Open in 1977.
(You may have heard of her doubles partner -- John McEnroe, also from the neighborhood, and also not much of a swimmer. Pretty good tennis player, though.)
Sadly, my ears remained disgustingly healthy, so I had to keep pounding my way through the icy water each morning, and choking my way through kick-foam at swim meets.
My other obligation, besides the swim team, was church on Sunday. No way to get out of that, either. So I'd be on my knees at St. Anastasia's at 11 o'clock mass, praying for an ear infection that would get me off the swim team.
Never happened. Was an ear infection so much to ask for? Was God too busy to grant me this tiny favor? Thus, the seeds of doubt were planted.
This may sound like complaining, but it isn't. Our mothers knew what they were doing. The swim team was a good idea. Discipline is discipline. The earlier you acquire it, the better.
And anyone who dreams of becoming a writer is going to need an underdog mentality, plus a good supply of rage. Whenever I feel my supply dwindling, I think of myself gasping my way through kick-foam and I'm right back on track.
So everything worked out, and in fact I'm toying with the idea of a memoir about my dubious swimming career.
The working title? "There's No Place Like Foam."
It'll be funnier than anything Michael Phelps writes, I promise you that.
Charlie Carillo's novels "God Plays Favorites," "Found Money," "My Ride With Gus" and "Shepherd Avenue" are available on Amazon Kindle for 99 cents. Watch his video here.
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