Sunday, May 14, 2006

Entertain the Possibilities-Swimming Championships

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High School Swimming Championships

I had been taking risks and entertaining the possibilities as far back as high school. Back in those days, my biggest passion was swimming. While I was not a “hot dog” (a term given to swimmers who consistenly broke records), I did have a dream and that was to make the finals at the state championships in my last year of high school.

My parents wanted me to belong to a sports team of some sort to help me develop social and competitive skills. Believe me, I tried out for track, baseball, football and even tennis but never made the cut. Did that ever happen to you?

My family was always going to swim meets for my two younger sisters (and eventually brother). We had always been a swimming family so when I arrived to high school, the natural choice for me was to try out for the swim team.

They immediately placed me on the freshmen team. Eventually I worked my way up to Junior Varsity and finally Varsity. At one point, I had gone to summer swim camp in Fort Lauderdale for some serious training for my event (200 yard individual medley - consisting of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle - in that order).

The swim team had done particularly well during my senior year, advancing all the way to the state championships. I was thrilled when "Rabbit," our coach, put me in for the 200 individual medley event. (We called him "Rabbit" because he had two front teeth that was permanently puckered out of alignment).

The day before the state championships, I was watching the 1978 Olympics on television. My favorite event, of course, was swimming. As I was watching the men’s freestyle event, it slowly dawned on me that there was indeed a way to make the finals.

I noticed that all the guys were......bald!


In my last year of high school?

Right before the senior prom?


Before I could change my mind, I made a beeline to my parent’s bathroom and promptly locked the door. The last thing I wanted was for someone to barge their way in while I was doing the unthinkable. Rustling through the cabinet beneath the sink, I found what I was looking for.

Trembling with excitement, I put the small black case on the counter and gingerly opened it. It was the electric shaver my Mom used to cut my hair when I was a toddler. Before plugging it in, I opened the door and poked my head out to see if anyone was around. Seeing no one, I got right to work.

With the razor whirring to life, I held it beside my face and stared at the mirror.

It’s now or never.

Starting on the right side, I mowed in neat lines from front to back, watching clumps of beautiful teenage hair tumble to the floor. I was halfway through when I felt the pounding on the door.

My mom!

Stupidly I said, “Who is it?”

More pounding.

“Okay, okay, just a sec,” I said in exasperation.

I opened the door a crack and positioned my head in a way that only the side with remaining hair could be seen.

“Yeah, mom, what’s up?”

“What are you doing Stephen?”, she said.

“Um, not much, do you need to use the bathroom?”

“No, answer my question, what are you doing in there!!??”

No sense in hiding anymore. Taking a deep breath, I pulled the door wide open.

She let out a loud gasp, covering her mouth in horror.

Mom practically screamed, “Stephen, what in God’s name are you doing?”

“Ma, some of those guys in the Olympics shaved their heads so I want to do it too. I’m going to make the finals tomorrow.”

She looked me up and down like I was crazy, then her eyes spied the mess on the floor - it was beginning to resemble my father’s favorite barbershop.

Letting out a loud sigh, shaking her head and pointing to the floor with her bony finger she said, “Make sure you clean up this mess.”

The cat was out of the bag. In no time the rest of my family will find out.

Waving her off, I closed the door firmly and hurriedly finished the job. I lathered my head with shaving cream and carefully plowed off the last remnants of hair.

Twenty minutes later, I was done.......

Is this how I’m going to look when I’m fifty?

It’s too late my boy, there’s no turning back!

If I’m going to shave my head, I might as well shave the rest of me!

Pssssss....more shaving cream.

When I went to bed later that night, I was in for a major shock - the sheets were ice cold! Where was the electric blanket when I needed it the most?

After tossing and turning for several minutes, I finally fell asleep.

The next morning I awoke at 6 am, had breakfast and headed for Albany State University, the site of the championships. So that no one would suspect anything, my head was concealed with a blue bathing cap. I wore nylon stockings and a couple layers of t-shirts to weigh myself down during pre-trial laps in the pool. The nylon stockings were nothing new in high school swimming. The “hot dogs” did it all the time.

The idea behind shaving is to compare it to a snake shedding old skin for new. You are in effect getting rid of dead body cells, giving you the like-new feeling. It provides a tremendous psychological boost - an indescribable feeling.

After swimming a couple warm-up laps, I got out of the pool, dried off and removed the nylon stocking and t-shirts. The bathing cap stayed in place. Grabbing my blue warm up suit, I sat in the corner to mentally prepare for the race.

I was very keyed up, filled with nervous anticipation about making the finals. This was going to be my special day – I was going to show everyone what I was capable of doing. I closed my eyes and meditated, murmured some prayers and took a couple of deep breaths. As I was stretching my legs, I felt a light tap on my shoulder.

It was one of the “hot dogs” from my team.

"Yo man, it's almost time."

My heart lurched. Here we go.

Wanting to savor the surprise, I slowly undressed, first the warm-up pants followed by matching windbreaker.

Then with a dramatic flair, I took off the blue bathing cap and threw it in the air, Mary Tyler Moore style.

The “hot dog” nearly fell in the pool.

He let out a gutteral scream, “Hey Hoppy (my high school nickname) shaaaaaved!”

The look on everyone's faces was priceless. It was a sweet moment for me. "Rabbit" almost died of a fatal heart attack.

Laughing, I made my way over to the the starting block. Everybody gave me high fives on the way over.

Arriving at block # 5, I took one last look at my family up in the spectator section and gave them thumbs up. Snapping the goggles in place, I stepped onto the block, shaking my arms like they do in the Olympics.

Cocking my head slightly, I waited for the magic words to come forth from the starter's lips.

Take your mark!

The swimmers instantly spring-loaded themselves into position. I was the only one with my head turned toward the starter's gun - everyone else was looking down, intently listening for it to crackle. The only way I could knew the trigger was pulled was to watch for the flash that came seconds before the sound. As long as I didn’t hit the water before the popping sound, I would not be disqualified.

Splashing into the water, my hairless body sliced through the waves effortlessly. The first lap was over before I knew it and then I switched to backstroke.

Have you ever noticed arrow-shaped flags floating across both ends of a swimming pool? They serve as visual checkpoints for backstroke swimmers to alert them of the fast approaching end of the pool. As soon as they reached that checkpoint, they automatically counted a pre-determined number of armstrokes before touching the wall and flipping to the next lap.

Upon seeing those flags, I counted five arm strokes, 1-2-3-4-5.

Then disaster struck.

Everything happened blazingly fast. I miscalculated the number of armstrokes and crashed into the wall, almost knocking me out. It took me a few seconds to reorient myself but the mishap cost me precious seconds.

As soon as I came to, I pushed off the wall and tried to catch up.

I still have a chance, I still have a chance.

After completing the breastroke, I switched to freestyle and gave the last two laps everything I had, not daring to turn sideways for air. My eyes were riveted to the end of the pool.

Slamming on the touch pad, I ripped off my goggles, practically gasping for air and looked at my family. They were cheering, clapping and giving me thumbs up. So was the swim team. My hopes surged.

Glancing at the huge digitial time board, I couldn't believe it.

My performance turned in the best time ever!

Excited, my eyes darted over to the column that listed the order of placement.

Mine was “3.”

Rubbing my eyes, I looked again.

Sure enough, I was not imagining things.

I didn’t make the finals.

Stifling the urge to cry, I dipped my head back in the water as if that would wipe away invisible tears and pulled my taut body out of the water.

On my way over to the bench, the “Rabbit” came up to me, cradled his arm around my shoulders and said, “Congratulations Stephen, you did your best time ever!”

I said, “Yeah, but I didn’t make the finals.” His mouth puckered in sympathy and he gave my arm a reassuring squeeze as if that would somehow wipe away the pain.

Meanwhile, the rest of my teammates were slapping my back, giving me high fives but I didn’t feel their joy. Suddenly my head hurt – it was throbbing furiously. I absentmindedly rubbed it. There was a lump the size of a small baseball.

That was almost 30 years ago.

The lesson? Have a passion for your goals and entertain the possibilities. Even though I didn’t make the finals, it wasn't for lack of trying. Because of my passion for swimming, I was able to take a compelling idea and follow through. As a result of acting on my intution, I ended up doing my best time ever and for that I can be proud. I won't be sitting in my rocking chair wondering what would have happened had I shaved.

Let me ask you: "Do you have a passion for something? Have you entertained the possibilities? And finally, have you acted on your intutition? If not, what are you waiting for? You only live once.
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