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To an Athlete

Not just because your body is beautiful but because of how you use it to slide through the water, the way your hairline crests the surface, hands reaching forward from strong shoulders, the pull of the submerged hourglass, he watches you. He critiques and corrects and sometimes you feel you can’t do anything – even the easiest of things – right.

But also because your body is beautiful, he picked you. You made the cut. His job, he tells you, is to make you better than you were before he culled you from the herd. He will help find the excellence, push you beyond where you think you can go.

You, he calls out. You are the one. He will mold you into more than you were. The other girls don’t have your form, don’t work as hard, can’t go as long. When you’re finished – always last out of the pool, wrung out – you are done. There’s nothing left. Except for the part that he alone sees. You don’t know that your body is beautiful.

The other girls laugh and fear him. Or they laugh and mock him. You do not. It’s serious, this. It’s the most important thing. Not APs or SATs or Key Club or prom. It’s this: this season. Your parents thank him for going the extra mile for you.

You strain to hear his voice in the crowd. You wait for sparse words of praise, flinch in anticipation of a harsh assessment of what you already knew was a bad performance. Losing hurts, but his disappointment can unmoor you

You touch the wall breathless, emerge, lift your goggles, search for his face. You need to see the win in his smile. When he pumps a fist, that’s the goal, the final tick of the clock. You do it for him.

Not just because your body is beautiful, but because it aches and strains, he touches you. He rubs out the knots, adjusts your rotation, pushes down your shoulders, squares your hips. His hands on your body feel familiar. They put you into order.

Your successes take you away together – to other meets, other pools. You spend hours with him driving. You have dinners in dim restaurants, sleep in musty hotel rooms. He begins to whisper about his life, about who he used to be. He brings you into a world that exists outside the pool, the gym.

You are the only one who can hear the things he murmurs. He has chosen you. You make his life bigger; he is now more alive. It thrills him: your strength, your beauty, your talent, your passion, your drive. He will not say your youth; this he does not want to talk about.

You want to talk about it. You say it doesn’t matter, age is just a number. You are smart and can make good decisions. This choice feels uncomplicated to you.

Not just because your body is beautiful, he cries that first time.

Sometimes in public you call him by his name not his title. You are daring, bold. In practice – about drills, about form, about strategy – you listen to him. He is making you better than you were. But outside the pool you play and challenge.

If you don’t answer his calls and texts right away, he tries again. Before you, he didn’t have much use for texting. Now he’s always got his phone with him, is always checking it. You wait longer and longer to reply, seeing how many messages will pile up before you decide to respond. He asks too urgently about boys and you evade answering, even though there are no boys, only him. You begin to feel powerful, not just in your body.

He takes you to the lake, to the cabin where his kids have left toys scattered on the stairs to the loft and his wife has hung tasteful art from trips to Asia and Africa on the walls. His wife and kids are back at home. You told your parents you were spending the weekend with a friend’s family; the lies come easily. You drop your bag on the floor. You have worn your swimsuit under your clothes.

Come on, you say.

He tries to stop you, holds you by the shoulders, says, stay a minute. Slow down.

You are eager to feel water you know will be too cold on your skin. You want to play – no lap lanes, no clock. You squirm away from him.

Change, you say.

Into your suit, you clarify.

The cabin smells like wood smoke and lavender. You have never been in his home, have seen his wife and kids only at a distance. A pair of women’s slippers waits by the door, a Lego has gone AWOL under the table.

Let’s swim, you say, and before he can answer you go outside, walk onto the big lawn, start down toward the beach. You don’t wait for him, though you can hear his calls. You run into water and swim toward the dock. You touch it, turn, and head back. You’ve gotten in five laps before he appears.

Come on, you bellow.

His body in full sun is pale; his frog belly makes you look away. He walks daintily into the water, cringing. You turn away, swim hard again toward the dock.

You watch him swim for only a moment then swivel to look across the lake. You squint to see the far shore. You can make out tiny houses. The lake feels massive, and manageable.

When he finally gets to the dock, pulls his bulk up and flops down next to you, you say, Let’s swim out.

Give me a minute, he says. His voice rasps. He flops an arm toward you, but you move away from it.

Come here, he says, with too much need.

He’s flat on his back. Swirls of grey hair, dark with lake water, arrange themselves on his thick chest, which rises still and falls, though he should no longer be winded. It wasn’t that far; he didn’t swim that hard.

You stand above and look down on him. His body, bulky on top narrowing to thin legs, reminds you of a sperm. His eyes close and tight vertical lines form on his forehead. Parallel lines. Two small black hairs grow on his nose; they look like blackheads. His eyebrows, even wet, are untidy.

Get up, come on.

He reaches for your ankle but you dodge his hand and before you can hear him say one more word – you can’t hear him say one more word – you dive.

Rising to the surface you pull the water past your body, imagine yourself climbing a ladder made of solid rungs of liquid. You feel strong enough to stroke your way across the lake. You swim out, away from the shore, the cabin, away, fast away, from the dock.


Rachel Toor, the author of three books of nonfiction and the novel “On the Road to Find Out,” is a regular columnist for the Chronicle of Higher Education and Running Times magazine. She hates water, can’t swim, and somehow ended up with a dog, Helen, who can’t stay out of lakes, rivers, mud puddles, and horse troughs. She teaches creative writing at Eastern Washington University.



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