Nerves, agony and elation in 200 metres of lactic hell
With just hours before the start of the London 2012 Olympics, where swimming is one of the most watched and celebrated sports, I thought I could give Punchers a little taste of what it’s like to compete as a swimmer.
Although I am not claiming to have had the experiences of an Olympian, I do know what it’s like to have the sport take over every inch of your psyche in the lead up to and during race day. So imagine this - multiplied by a million with the incomparable variable of competing at an Olympic level.
It’s 9.30pm the night before the 200m butterfly heat at the Australian Open Swimming Championships. I have to be up at 7.30 to get to the pool. Ten hours should be enough. Of course this never happens. I’m so worried about getting enough sleep that I can’t doze off.
I look at my clock. 11pm. Still eight and a half hours. 12am. Okay, I’m going to sleep now.
I wake feeling lethargic. Already the nerves are sending trembles through my body, but I drag myself off to the aquatic centre to join the other hundreds of hopefuls. “Milly Moose!” my coach calls me by my familiar squad nickname as I arrive at the pool and he gives me a warm-up set.
I am constantly aware of how every part of my body feels. As any butterfly-er would know, shoulders are the biggest issue. I assess how they feel, reminded of all the idiots who have called me Butch Bitch, a tiresome expression well known to any female swimmer.
10am. I’m in the marshalling area, chatting to teammates and competitors, some of whom are giving off intimidating auras of relaxation and confidence. Some are telling everyone how freaked out they are. Some are completely silent, tapping their feet with their eyes fixed straight ahead. Some are on the other side of the room flirting with the male swimmers. It’s hard not to be just a little distracted by all that muscle and testosterone of the men’s 200m butterfly competitors).
We’re lined up behind the blocks. Lane six – lucky lane six as Stephanie Rice would say. There’s something about lane six that makes me feel like the underdog, yet still in the mix of the best swimmers.
Thoughts run through my mind as I assess how I’m feeling. Did I eat too much this morning? Not enough? Was my warm up too long? Too short? Am I shaking because I’m nervous or cold? If I’m cold, then shouldn’t I be doing more active stretches?
I’ve been training for this for months on end. I think of everything I’ve missed out on to get here. The 4.30am starts. The hours and hours of pain. The countless classes at school during which I fell asleep.
It’s all going to be worth it, or not, depending on the next two and a bit minutes.
The race is seconds away. I pull myself together and repeat my control-freak mantra in my head. You have the power over what is about to happen. Nothing else will affect this race except you.
I hear the whistle and climb onto the blocks. With a deep breath, I grab the handles. My mind is completely blank.
“Take your marks,” I hear. And the acquainted sound of the blunt beep triggers my arms forward in the torpedo position as I dive into the water.
It’s the most amazing feeling, swimming butterfly. On that first lap, I feel like I’m flying. Like my body is made to do this.
As I turn at the 50 metre mark, I glance at the others. We are all pretty equal at the moment and I streamline out of the wall. Just a hint of fatigue starts to kick in during the second lap.
I remember my coach’s words. Don’t Breathe Too Much. Don’t Come Up Too High. Get Into A Rhythm.
The pain is starting to settle in now as I near 100 metres. Pain Is Just Weakness Leaving The Body, the words of one of my best friends echo in my mind, and I push myself harder.
The third lap. That dreaded third lap. The most excruciating 50 metres of any race. It takes all of my self-discipline to keep my head down and not come up and start gasping and floundering around in the water.
The lactic acid is building up around my legs, and I know that to any spectator my shoulders are as red as anything right now. My arms are in agony as I push my body beyond its capabilities.
I hit the 150 metre mark and accept that I’m just going to smash my body for the next 50 metres. At this point, there is too much pain to think about anything. Even when I see the T on the black line and there are mere seconds left, it feels like I still have a mountain to climb.
When I finally hit the wall, I know I have done well. That’s the thing about butterfly, you can tell straight away if you’ve got it right.
Looking to the board, I see my time and feel nothing but elation. I’ve finished first. My chest is heaving and I’m in the worst pain of my life, but it’s all worth it. Because that feeling of a great race is unlike anything I have felt – and have not felt again since I quit the sport years ago.
It’s the feeling that every swimmer holds on to – that they remember on those freezing cold mornings before dawn, during agonising sets in preparation for a meet, on those nights where all your friends are out and you’re at home resting your body. And when you get that feeling, you remind yourself that there is absolutely nothing better than that.
For an Olympian, it’s all of the above and more… with the world’s eyes on you.
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