Athletic Prowess

Henry backyard closeup


I confess a certain indifference when it comes to my eight-year-old’s swimming career. Since he’s young, I’m still cherishing hopes that he may one day abandon sports altogether and become a musical theater performer like a proper Gypsy (of course the WASP in me hopes equally that he’ll make enough money to stay out of our basement).


The main problem, if I’m being honest, is that I am out of my element as a Pool Mom. I believe I would make a brilliant and terrifying Stage Mother, but I can’t get my head around the values and customs of pool culture. I see the other parents at meets and practices, draped in team-logo performance fleece, watching the events with equal parts intensity and stoicism like owls or eagles.


I, on the other hand, watch with equal parts amusement  (I can’t help it –the kids who swim diagonally across the pool make me giggle) and confusion (is THAT my kid? No. That one? Wait, did he win? Oh, that’s not mine either) –more like a monkey or a lemur than an owl or an eagle. Once in a while, one of the Swim Elders will generously and soberly remark that Henry’s freestyle or kicks are coming along nicely. “Okay! Thanks!” I say, realizing too late that I’m not supposed to be smiling. Too much smiling –forgive the pun—is frowned upon.


Obviously, I can appreciate the inherent value of sports for children, though my own athletic prowess peaked at about seven.  For two glorious years at Wooddale Elementary school, I enjoyed a minor celebrity as the most flexible girl in my little after-school gymnastics class; I could sit in the splits for HOURS. My parents, I’m sure, were seeing red flags –that’s NOT the reputation you want your daughter to have once adolescence begins.


I see the other parents at meets and practices, draped in team-logo performance fleece, watching the events with equal parts intensity and stoicism like owls or eagles.


They needn’t have worried.  By 14 or 15, my marginally-promising gymnastics career had been cut brutally short by my boobs, my height, and the fact that I am not at all athletic. I think I stuck with gymnastics until I was maybe 10, when my nice, gentle tumbling instruction ended and my parents blindly enrolled me in a cut-throat, hyper-competitive, Mary Lou Retton cult gymnastics school inspired, I’m guessing, by the Soviets or North Koreans.


Once I became a tumbling school dropout, I quit organized sports entirely, took up baking, and fell into a comfortable rhythm of music, boy-craziness, and pretending to have my period during gym. Pre-boobs, I had been a fast runner, a good swimmer, and a decent skater. Once junior high rolled around, I had more or less accepted that I wasn’t athletic. To compensate, I made a kind of art form out of pretending to participate in ball sports during P.E. by running back and forth a lot, making it clear by shielding my face with my arms that I was unavailable for passes.


This established a kind of lovely symbiosis with the girls in my class who actually liked sports and wanted to be stars. If by some freak accident or misunderstanding I ended up with the ball, I would immediately pass it to one of them and they would get to do whatever unfathomable, sporty tricks occurred to them. Lord knows no such tricks ever occurred to me. They wanted glory, the opportunity to shine; I wanted anonymity, the assurance that the goal I may or may not have scored for the opposing team would be forgiven and never mentioned again. Win-win.


So you can appreciate, I’m sure, how the whole Sports Parent gig is a bit of a reach for me. Most of those other pool parents were athletes themselves when they were growing up –if not in competitive swimming, then in some other sport, like basketball or at least cross-country skiing. While they were doing drills and being coached how not to cry when they ruined everything (I would never have mastered that), I was singing sad songs on Katie Baumgartner’s karaoke machine and writing horrifying love poems to boys who probably really wished I wouldn’t.


There is a certain athleticism to it –you can’t imagine how much speed and agility it takes to make sure you get to the other side of your high school in time to casually walk some cute boy to his next class and then book it to yours, next door to the one you just left.  Endurance? I can cry for DAYS. Can you do that? No. All you can do is skate and fight and flick a tiny black disk past a mummy-giant into a butterfly net all at the same time. If only that were as impressive.  Don’t feel bad –not everyone can be an emotional athlete.


Motherhood arrived, visiting upon me a ghost-childhood made up of the shadows and echoes of the first one. She follows me everywhere, reminding me where I’m weak, have always been weak.


And not everyone can be a real one. I thought I had come to terms, more or less, with my lack of athleticism. I thought I was done with PE and all the sports activities –forced or at least pressured– that naturally come with childhood and adolescence. I thought I had grown into a worthwhile human being despite that particular deficit and I thought I could leave it comfortably in the past.


Then Motherhood arrived, visiting upon me a ghost-childhood made up of the shadows and echoes of the first one. She follows me everywhere, reminding me where I’m weak, have always been weak. She likes to play scenes from my early life while I’m trying to help my kids with math or teach them not to beg for love or friendship from people who won’t freely give it. See? she whispers and rattles as I feel my way in the dark, you’re far from figuring this out yourself. They know. And so they won’t trust you, even when you do know what you’re talking about. She can be mean, this phantom childhood, and loud.


And she really likes going with me to the pool, where the other parents practically dangle off the balcony where we’re all corralled, watching every stroke with their silent intensity. Don’t lean over like that, the ghost warns. You’ll fall –you know what you’re like. And besides, it’s not like you know what to watch for. You can’t help him with this.


And it’s true, I can’t. The Swim Elders can probably see that, which doesn’t particularly bother me, and Henry can also probably see that, which does bother me. Because I know, my ghost childhood has reminded me, that the scariest moments of childhood aren’t the ones when you don’t know what to do –they’re the ones when you can see that your parents don’t know what to do.


So I have to discipline myself to let my little boy witness my inexperience, my insecurity, my vulnerability, so he can get stronger. Not so he can become a stronger swimmer –I have no idea what will make him a stronger swimmer. What I do know: getting comfortable with vulnerability –both in himself and in others– will make him a stronger friend, a stronger teammate, a stronger person. I can help him with this. Then perhaps when he’s a Swim Elder himself, watching tiny swimmers make their way diagonally across the pool, someone will ask him why he’s smiling and laughing so much and he’ll say, “Oh, I learned that from my mom.”

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