The (Tears of the) Long Distance Swimmer
And then there was the long distance ocean swimmer who cried into his goggles as he swam. He was the only swimmer in the race that didn’t stop to empty his goggles as soon as the salty drops first appeared in the bottom of his plastic eyepieces.
Where others would last only minutes with a salt water intrusion to vision, he would swim on, regardless and oblivious. He had no need to see where he was going, as he didn’t see a thing, and besides, the salt water in his goggles belonged there – it came from him, not from the sea that the goggles and their watertight seals and taut elastic straps were specifically designed to keep out. It didn’t seem like a problem.
For this swimmer, the water meant more than an annoying salt sting in his eyes or an obstruction to a view of the slowly passing seabed or a gaze into the seemingly endless depths of deeper water. He had no need to reassure himself that shadows or changes in light patterns weren’t creatures from the deep, nor keep close contact with competing swimmers. He neither swam to draw adrenalin from facing a shark risk, real or imagined, nor to emerge from the water, striding up out of the surf on to the wet sands of a finish line ahead of an impressively large portion of the race field.
For this swimmer, he swam solely so he could cry, to simply be strong in doing so.
He began swimming as a younger man as part of growing up – living as a teen in a beachside suburb, spending hours and weekends with friends crashing in and about the surf, joining a surf club and competing, building strength, skills, teamwork and camaderie, and seeing the glistening tanned bodies of the girls in their swimsuits. For all that, swim races were just a part, a necessary component of being there and going where they where all, like it or not and for better or for worse, going to end up.
As he got older, and probably lazier, and didn’t need to robust structures and wide open freedoms of surf, the swimming soon fell back in a strong field of competing demands, ambitions and pre-requisites for the next phase of his bold, bright life. He only returned to it in his late 20’s when he sensed his body’s immortality beginning to show signs of slow softening, and he again found purpose and friendship in water.
But by that time, other things had changed too. Things that were deep down, deeper than the ocean floor out at the back leg of a surf swim race and probably hidden by a similar lack of illumination from above, had surfaced or been sensed. Events and the shedding of innocence and a growing life’s layers had revealed weakness, and pain. In short, by the time he came back to the water, he was no longer carelessly, exuberantly and blindly optimistically throwing himself into each wave and each swim stroke, like he did with life too, but rather battled purposely and determinedly to reach his goal, overcoming the many obstacles thrown his way: waves, tides, arms and fists, stingers, and hardest of all, fatigue, doubt, aches, pains – and relentlessness.
His swimming took on a whole new purpose – whilst each swim was an achievement, it was not something boasted about. At best, tucked under his belt as “something”. In the place of all the joy, hope and lust of his earlier swimming days now lay one single goal – to lose himself in all his pain, to give in to it totally and let it overtake his body, but not to give in – never to give in. And his tears where his tools. His trick, his tactic. The more his tears flowed as he swam the faster he swam, the more the pain came yet the less it mattered and the less it held him back. And so, he spent no time and no worry with the water sneaking into his goggles as other swimmers did, rather he vaguely hoped somehow the tears would well up and start to leak out, rejoining the salty ocean water from which they came, from which he came, and to which he returned every race day and every training day, and so which tears could never be detected as they could on dry land, in real life and in the face of real, unsubmersible pain. Of course, as you know, they never did leak out unless his goggles became dislodged by a passing hand or foot in the thrashing race starts or rounding of buoys.
So, as he emerged from the water and, dutifully, crossed the finish line, he would stop and stand, hands on hips as lungs did their work sucking in and out fresh oxygen to quell the fire in his limbs and shoulders, and hang his head, bending forward. As he peeled his goggles up from his eyes and onto his forehead, the tears mixed with the sea water streaming off his head and body, falling and forgotten into the soaked sand beneath him. And with that, the disappearance of his tears, which he never really noticed anyway, the pain left him again. His body became strong and returned to its robustness, tanned and glistening. Shoulder aches became trophies to his conquest, exhausted leg muscles became struts and supports to his victory, and his gasping breath a testimonial and acceptance speech to what he had achieved: pain faced, released and vanquished, never to bother him again…. Until it returned.
But, knowing it would return, and that he would – must – face it again was not a fear or cause for any concern, as he knew he had beaten it with strength and control. He could fight that fight again, and fight it any time. Simply, by letting the pain of his swim meld with the pain he felt for those other reasons, and not fighting it with any anxiety or tension in his body and muscles, he let it in and accepted into his pores. And then, once inside, he could control it, use it and parry with it for his own gains – to swim and to swim powerfully, with each rolling stroke taking the pain of the last and thrashing it back on its head – pain just meant another stroke to fight it with until it returned into the next stroke’s beginning. And the cost of doing so? The tears.
Just his tears.
Probably, no-one knew he cried as he swam and probably no-one cared – not that it bothered him much either. His tears allowed him to do what he needed to do, to fight his battle and win it every single time. To remain undefeated underwater, to remain a king supreme in his planing, measured freestyle stroke, the emerge victorious again.
Though he never thought about it much, he wondered if tears could help him win a swim race, maybe tears could help people win all sorts of other battles, win wars even. The thing is, he thought, you can’t fight any other person with your tears, but you can fight the pain that makes people fight people, and makes people fight wars.
But we all know tears can’t win wars, he thought, as he leapt into the surf and began to strike out toward the northern most buoy. Tears began falling from his eyes.