Though the team takes even the youngest swimmers, beginning at five years old, they must be able to swim two strokes. Sally has only recently been able to swim a front crawl successfully. Her backstroke brings even the most lackadaisical lifeguard to his feet in worry over her drowning. She flops this way and that, all of her appendages moving independently of each other. I fear for her life. Nevertheless, we thought the coaches might be able to work with her.
Ella is a different story. She is incredibly athletic. Lacking a foot and hand hasn't slowed her down. Nothing is impossible for her, swimming included. I emailed the coach before the season began expressing some of my worries. Ella is still wearing a size 8 bathing suit. Some of the 12 year olds on the team that she swims with are my size! I knew she would be creamed based on size alone, so I wanted to protect her. Add to the issue of her size the fact that she's missing body parts...it could easily become a summer of disappointments.
Everyone wanted to swim in the first meet and every meet following. Sally griped because she always came in fifth. Ella popped out of the pool ecstatic because she always felt like she won. She was always very, very far behind the other swimmers. Maybe she thought she finished so far ahead that everyone else was still swimming. Either way, she loved the summer swim team.
The meets were a challenge for me. Ella's mental abilities didn't allow her the acuity necessary to know when to go to the pool deck. If, by chance, she showed up for her event, she most often stood at an arbitrary lane. I watched like a hawk as her events drew near. Racing from the stands, many evenings I grabbed her from her perch on the low benches behind the blocks only seconds before the event began. Without her prosthetic, she crawled onto the block and kneeled, poised for the beep. Instead of diving, she would plummet into the water, only slowing her start as the tall, limber swimmers dove into the water. The race was on. Ella, being 12, is forced to swim 50 yards. She was strong during her first 25, but began to slow as she approached the far end of the pool. I could always make out the voices of her coaches cheering from the sides. Usually, a cluster of pre-teen girls would stand at the far end of her lane waving their arms and cheering. By the time she began her flip-turn, the other five swimmers would be hitting the finish, panting. Their swims completed, the event over, sans one lonely swimmer in lane 6.
Ella is rather proud of her flip-turn. Finally, she learned how to do it, and never hesitates to show it off. It's sweet, but cumbersome and slow. Her energy wanes as she pushes off the wall with her good foot. By now, all eyes are on lane 6. The parents watching their daughters have turned their attention to the small girl struggling to finish her event. They probably noticed her at the start, she was the only one kneeling on the blocks, but their attention would have been focused solely on their athlete. Until now. All eyes are on Ella.
I can't hear Ella's coaches any longer, my own voice drowns them out. Then I realize, it's not only me. People are on their feet, cheering for Ella.
Elijah always says he can't hear anyone while he swims. I yell relentlessly because I am that wild, encouraging mom. I believe they can hear my voice. As I watch Ella finish the last 10 yards of her event, I can see by her face that she hears. She is smiling. A big, toothy, wide smile pops up every other stroke. I silently chant, "Just breathe, don't smile!"
She finally tags the wall and the pool erupts. My arms are covered in chills and my eyes filled with tears.
As summer passed, relatives in town visiting always took the opportunity to come for a swim meet. At the summer finals, my in laws crowded next to me as we watched Ella finish her event. The crowd screaming, my mother-in-law looked at me in tears and said, "Does this always happen?"
Yes, yes it does.
Ella taught me something this summer, it's far more important to give her an opportunity than to protect her. What she may lack in physical strength, she makes up for in sheer will and determination. The courage of that humble little girl is awe inspiring.