During swim season you can find Marianne Sciucco, a dedicated Swim Mom for ten years, at one of many Skyline Conference swim meets cheering for her daughter and her team, the Mount Saint Mary College Knights.
York’s Hudson Valley, and when not writing works as a campus nurse at a
Minutes later, I stood on the pool deck with an odd blend of girls vying to earn a place on the team. I spotted the usual huddle of newbies benched together at the far end of the bleachers, glancing at each other nervously and at the seasoned swimmers with something like awe. On the opposite end were the members of last year’s championship team, all wearing team T-shirts and chatting like old pals, ignoring everyone else. In the middle was a bunch who looked like they wanted to go back to bed, the ones whose parents pushed them into a sport and who chose swimming because we did it indoors and it looked easy. Most of them wouldn’t make it.
I found a place to stand against the wall and blocked out the curious glances shot my way, using the time before practice began to check out my surroundings. Aunt Mags had said the natatorium, built just a few years ago, was state-of-the-art.
Banners hung from the rafters and on clean white walls, touting the team’s success, and an enormous leaderboard listed all of their champions and their accomplishments.
A wall of windows on the farthest side and a ceiling loaded with skylights filled the room with light.
The six-lane pool had blue and white flags and lane lines, and the Trailblazers logo – a torch – was laid out in blue tiles on the bottom.
The floor tiles were a mosaic of white and three shades of blue.
The air was thick with the smell of chlorine.
I checked my expression, not wanting anyone to catch me gaping over the finest natatorium of any team I’d joined. The thought of swimming in it, of calling it “home” for the next few months caused a thrill of excitement in my belly. Around me, the other girls talked and laughed, none of them seeming to appreciate the beauty of the pool and the privilege to use it.
“Good morning girls.” A man’s voice cut through the chatter, and each girl sat up at attention. “Let’s get started.”
The voice belonged to an older man, with bushy white hair and bifocals, dressed in the school’s colors: navy blue shorts and a white polo shirt. Coach Steven Dudash. I hadn’t met him yet – he was out of the building when my father and I visited the high school – but Maggie and her husband, Pat, gave him high praise. He’d coached the Two Rivers boys and girls swim teams for more than twenty years, and they were both winning teams.
He pulled a chair behind him, positioned it in front of the bleachers, sat down, and organized the pile of paperwork on his clipboard. “Good morning,” he said again, studying us over the rim of his bifocals. “I’m happy to see last year’s team back for another year. And welcome to those of you here for the first time. I’m glad you decided to give us a try.”
He took a swig from an extra tall cup of coffee before continuing. “For those of you new to the team, meet Coach Denise.” He gestured toward the young woman who accompanied him. “She’s my daughter. I coached her for six years when she swam for Two Rivers and got her name on the leaderboard.”
I checked out the leaderboard and saw she held the record in the 200 IM and the 100 breaststroke. Good creds.
“This is her second year as assistant coach,” he said. “She did a terrific job last year so I invited her back.”
The young blonde smiled at him and the swimmers cheered.
“Yay Coach D!” a few seniors shouted.
“It’s great to be back,” she said. “Ready to win another championship?”
The shouts and applause were deafening.
“During the next two weeks,” Coach said when the noise died down, “you’ll all be working hard, doing drills both in the pool and in the weight room, four hours a day, six days a week. During the season, you’ll be practicing from after school until five or six every weekday, and four hours on Saturday. Sunday is a resting day. And, of course, you will compete in swim meets at least twice a week. So, if you don’t think you can make it through the first two weeks, you might as well leave now.” He paused, waiting for anyone to opt out before we even got started. No one moved.
“Okay,” he continued. “Most of you know that Two Rivers won the Division Championship last year, and the two years before. I plan to win again. When we do, and I say when, not if, we will be the first team in the division to ever win four consecutive division titles.”
Last year’s team broke out in wild applause and cheers. Coach waited for the outburst to die down before he continued.
“I need performers,” he said, “swimmers who aren’t afraid to push themselves, to try new things and discover where they best support the team. So, in practice you’re all going to swim every stroke, you’re all going to swim distance, and you’re all going to swim sprints. Each person will do all she can to defend our title.”
Silence filled the pool deck as the girls looked each other over, wondering where each would fit in.
“That’s the good news.” He paused for effect. No worries. He had everyone’s riveted attention. “But I’ve got some bad news. For years, the school board has been supportive of our team, and we’ve reciprocated by working as serious athletes and turning in winning records. Most years, the team can support as many as thirty-eight swimmers. This year, due to a budget crisis in our school district, our funds have been cut, and I can only put twenty-eight girls on the team.”
Raised eyebrows and shocked inhalations followed this bit of news. I counted bodies: thirty-six.
“Yeah, eight of you will be cut, either at the end of this week or the end of next. Anyone want to leave now?”
Again, no one moved.
Coach Dudash smiled. “I like your level of commitment. Let’s see if you can keep it under pressure.”
He spent the next half hour reviewing team policies and the season’s schedule. I’d heard such talks before from other coaches and tuned him out while I studied the other girls, trying to figure out what their positions might be.
Most of them focused on Coach’s every word, but last year’s champs ignored him and whispered among themselves. One of them, a lanky girl with sun-bleached hair and a killer tan, looked over the group of wannabes and held up her fingers one to five, scoring them, I guess, on whether or not they had a chance. Her friends snickered, trying to act as if they were paying attention to Coach instead of fooling around.
At last, the lanky girl’s frosty blue eyes rested on me, and I met her gaze straight on. We stared at each other for a few seconds before she looked away first, then held up three fingers. It seemed she was ambivalent. I could go either way.
I was ambivalent too. I joined this crowd as a walk-on, someone with no history with the team and questionable ability. In their eyes, I was no better than a wannabe who needed to prove herself to gain a spot on the team and the other girls’ respect.
I showed up because it’s what I did at the start of every school year. Swimming was my only sport, and I was good at it. Really good. Still, I almost skipped tryouts today. The truth was, I didn’t have the energy to join a new team, in a new school, for the third time. If anyone found out I’d won championship titles in club and varsity last year they’d expect great things from me, and I didn’t want the pressure. Swimming was no longer the focus of my life. It was my therapy, and I wouldn’t let anyone mess that up.
The glimmer of challenge in the way the lanky girl looked at me caused a stirring in my gut, and I shot it down. I didn’t come here to get involved in any personal challenges. I came here to swim, and not make any waves. My plan was to get through the senior year and go away to college, away from my troubles, and on to a new life that I could control.