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Ninth Place Ribbons

I’m thinking halfway through the same thought, over and over, the way I often do when I’m swimming. Something about the cyclical nature of laps tends to keep me from getting all the way through whatever it is I’m trying to figure out, my mind hypnotized by the repetition of my turning arms and the water beating in my ears. Usually I’m just trying to add up how many yards the workout is, or wondering what I’ll eat for dinner, but today, between drills and kick sets and sprints, I’m trying to figure out if I should run home once practice is done. We’re not at our usual indoor campus pool and the sun is everywhere; in the water, on the deck, in my eyes and on my skin. I don’t want to run home and I remind myself that I’m under no obligation to. The teammate in front of me takes off for the last set of practice. I wait five seconds and then I go too. As soon as I’m off the wall, my focus snaps into place as I feel my arms, legs, and lungs straining and I push them to go harder, to give more.

We’re in Ft. Lauderdale, FL, one of America’s most respected party capitals, but the Carleton College Swim and Dive Team is aggressively not here to party. For the ten days we’re here, we swim, twice a day. We get two rest days, which mean we just have one practice in the morning and get the afternoon off. Since the pool is only one mile away from our hotel, the coaches decided not to rent vans to drive us. Instead, it’s up to us to walk or run to and from the pool, but they’re clear that we don’t have to run. So I make a deal with myself: I’ll run to all the practices and let myself walk home afterwards.

When I made that deal, it felt like a good one. I’d be doing more than expected by running to every practice, and then each walk home would feel luxurious, earned. But, in practice, I’ve found that logic easily corrupted, snagging on that fact that when I get out of the pool, change into my clothes, and put on my tennis shoes, there’s nothing actually stopping me from running. In the face of this, the thought of walking home feels less like the second half of a good deal, and a lot more like the easy way out. There’s no way around the fact that if I don’t run, I’m doing less than I could. Which is less than I should. Every Nike commercial I’ve ever seen has told me that good swimmers run to practice, but great swimmers also run home. What I forget is that being a great swimmer isn’t something I’m trying to be. I forget all the time.

I take off my cap and goggles and dunk my head under the water. If I do run, then I’m breaking the deal I made with myself, that running to practice would be enough to warrant a rest on the way home. If I run, I’ll lose hope that I can ever expect to rest and feel okay about it, that there will ever be a break from the not enough that seems to have swallowed me on this college team.

But, if I don’t run home, I’ll have, objectively, taken the easy way out, and that’s not a way of being I want to have to live with.

Some days I walk home. Most days I run.

If I’d had more talent, or simply enjoyed swimming more, this mindset could have been a huge asset. Give 100% and then give a little more. Empty the tank every time you get in the pool. You’re not done until you think you’re going to be sick. Working hard in service of something you love can be painful, but it’s a down payment on a dream that is full of joy.

But that wasn’t what I was doing. If you know the song “Remember the Name,” you don’t need me to quote its iconic lyrics. But in case you weren’t playing high school sports in the late aughts, the chorus goes like this: “It takes 10% luck, 20% skill, 15% concentrated power of will, 5% pleasure, 50% pain, and 100% reason to remember the name.” This, and “Bet On It” by Troy from High School Musical 2, got me pumped up for every meet I swam in high school, but my problem was that this breakdown was now applying too literally to my athletic pursuit. It was 5% pleasure and 50% pain.

I started playing sports when I was seven, trying half a dozen of them but sticking with soccer, and my memories of the ten years I spent playing are mixed. I remember the feeling of potential before a game, when we’d be jumping around and pumping each other up, ready to go. I remember how small I was, that I was usually the one knocked down or off the ball. I remember winning a tournament and sprinting off the bench toward my teammates when the final whistle blew, elated and hesitant – I had barely played, so I wasn’t sure how much this victory was mine to claim.

At some point during those years dread sprouted and steadily grew and by the time I got to high school it felt like all I had left. I knew with a certainty I rarely feel in life that I wasn’t going to put myself through high school team tryouts. But sports were what I did, so when soccer was done, I joined swim team, which didn’t have tryouts and didn’t cut anybody, and I had just a little more experience and a little more natural skill at it than the average freshman, which meant I got to feel, for the time, like I was good at what I was doing. I was less thrilled about going to practice by the time I left high school, and had started to hate the intense club team workouts I did in the off-season, but my favorite months of the year were still easily the ones I got to spend with my team, so it became a given that I’d swim in college.

There was never one thing that made college swimming different than any other team I’d been on. It was an increase in intensity just enough to overwhelm me, but not enough for me to recognize it.

Outside of school, family, and my closest friends, playing sports was the most consistent thing in my life, and all that time playing, I’d never been good enough to earn accolades or praise. Even when I was feeling successful on the swim team, I wasn’t winning races or scoring points. Ninth place ribbons were invented for me. Eventually it came to seem natural, that what I had to offer wasn’t worthy of celebration. This twisted belief snuck up on me so quietly that I didn’t even notice it wasn’t innate, that I was choosing to withdraw from competition, from caring about winning. I convinced myself it was more mature not to.

Over the course of my freshman year, in the water, alone with my thoughts, I went a step further, disentangling my athletic identity from performance entirely. I had to. It was clearer at Carleton then it had ever been that I was not good at this, at least relative to my teammates and the schools we swam against, and that I was never going to be. When I had reassembled myself, it was as someone who knew glory would not be hers, but was going to earn her place and prove her worth for the next three years by supporting her teammates on the deck and working hard in the water. Things worth being proud of.

But this meant that in practices and races, whether I succeed or failed came down to whether or not I had tried hard enough. And unless you faint, or throw up, or suffer in some other visible, dramatic way, there’s no clear marker that tells you when enough is enough. I suspect that if I’d loved swimming, I could have figured this out, my desire to be doing this thing a compass. But I didn’t love it. Showing up to the pool every day happened because standing shoulder to shoulder with my teammates and coaches, being part of that collective, made me feel safe and loved and gave me people to love. Because to be a teammate made me radiantly happy. I was not there because swimming brought me any particular joy. And in every practice and race I felt this. It felt like a physical weight tied to my legs, dragging me down. No matter how hard I was trying, how hard I was pushing myself, it was never as hard as I would be going if I didn’t have to also fight against the part of my brain that was always telling me to stop, to get out of the pool, that this pain wasn’t worth it. So it wasn’t everything and it wasn’t enough.

Maybe I should have quit. But we ate every meal together. We spotted each other in the weight room. We had incredible parties that lasted all night and the next day we met up in the library, miserable, to study together. We watched movies and lived together and held each other when things were hard. We won flip cup tournaments and spray painted our names on the basement walls.

I would have been losing too much. So I didn’t quit. But when we had our last practice, I took it in with relief, knowing that that day I was leaving sports behind entirely. It had been my life but I was done.

This summer marked five years since the end of my athletic career and was also the eighth official Women’s World Cup. Growing up, I’d been a fan of Mia Hamm and the iconic 1999 World Cup-winning team, but for all that I’d always played sports I’d never followed them and I didn’t even know that the tournament was happening this year. It wasn’t until I saw some of my friends keeping up with the games on social media and caught wind of Megan Rapinoe’s emphatic declaration that she wasn’t going the white house that I got curious and looked up the team and the tournament.

I watched the final in a bar, standing shoulder to shoulder with a hundred other people, collectively spellbound. When Rose Lavelle scored in the 69th minute, securing the U.S.’s win, my friend Natalie watched me jump up and down with tears in my eyes, laughing and pointing to the TV screen in awe, unable to form words.

In the biggest twist of my own life’s story since I figured out I was gay, I became obsessed. With women’s soccer. Which is a sport. (A very gay one!) For a full week after the World Cup, I had dreams about the players every night. I discovered and obsessively followed our domestic professional league. I stole the Sports Illustrated issue with a special feature on the team from my physical therapist’s office. I signed up to play in a rec league. “Can I say, Alison as a die-hard sports fan is such a fun new thing for me,” my friend Annie, an old teammate, texted.

What knocked me over was the recognition. Watching the national team play, following them online, I was struck by how completely they reminded me of me. They were playing the same sport I had played and their friendships shone through every hug and joke and celebration. They lived and fought for their team. I had lived and fought for mine. But they were also more than me because they owned how talented they had to be to make it on that team. They had deep faith in their own abilities, they knew they were good, and they believed, truly, that they deserved to win and to be celebrated.

A few weeks ago I watched a video of Megan Rapinoe, and in it she describes star striker Alex Morgan as someone who is “hungry for greatness.” She says this with admiration clear in her voice, and when I heard it, I cried. Watching these women play, listening to them talk, I see my belief that glory should not be mine exposed and disproved. It has taken someone speaking from the same place that inadvertently stole that belief from me to give it back, but when Rose Lavelle scored, dropped to her knees, and roared, it started to.


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