If you’re a careful reader, you might pick up on the fact that some of the life wins I’ve written about here are a little…mundane. It may seem that I set a low bar of achievement for myself, that I pat myself too hard on the back for accomplishments that are too minor. My life circumstances, admittedly, are such that I take my victories where I can find them, even when it means searching with a microscope and pair of tweezers.
Today is different. Today I’m going to tell you about a bona fide, universally recognized and respected shiny bauble in this virtual trophy cabinet that I unlock before you.
Today I will tell you the story behind my gold medal in synchronized swimming.
It was the summer of 2012, the Games of the XXX Olympiad in London, England. The atmosphere was charged with the extraordinary magic of athletes pushing themselves to superhuman feats, of national pride and team spirit, of the coming together of hundreds of nations to honor the singular and unique achievements of the few while also celebrating the universality of humankind.
Or so it seemed to me, over TV, from a few thousand miles away.
In honor of the games, my employer created the WU Olympics, with competitions open to students, faculty, and staff in a range of Olympic events. Some coworkers and fellow water aerobics aficionados banded together to form a synchronized swim team. I was nervous, always having been highly unathletic, the clichéd last person picked for the team in gym class.
But I have to say, something about the promise of that gold medal, the thrill and terror of public competition, the loyalty and camaraderie created by the team, the newfound pride over my poor bone density and resulting excellent buoyancy in the water—it transformed me.
I found myself doing things I never imagined I could: Jumping in a cold pool at 7 am to practice before work. Before breakfast. Hell, before coffee. Sometimes, during thunderstorms when we got kicked out of the pool, we’d brave the puzzled and bemused eyes of students playing basketball and lifting weights and practice our choreography in a corner of the gym. I visualized our routine and practiced in my head, 5, 6, 7, 8ing at random points of the day. I listened to classical music. I made myself a tutu. Painted my fingernails hot pink. Wore a flower-bedecked swim cap.
In short, I saw a side of myself I didn’t know existed, and I was amazed.
I am, in fact, amazed that I just posted that picture.
We dubbed ourselves the Synch or Swimmers. On competition day, we rallied in the locker room, crowded beside the towel hooks nervously till at last we were announced. The locker room door was opened with a flourish and we marched through a cheering, blurry throng* to our spots beside the pool.
We started with some graceful choreography, perfectly in synch with each other and in time with our music, a delicate string version of “Letters from Camp.” Our first back layout with ballet leg drew an audible, “Ahhhh,” from the crowd. We fed off that energy. I locked eyes with my swim sisters across the formation and we understood each other wordlessly, the way that only a team forged in the fire of Olympic competition can truly know, and the message conveyed and received was that we were going to give this crowd every penny of their money’s worth** with our performance. Second place was not an option.
We wowed them with our first position and our fifth. Our sailboats and our sculling were on point. We showed them a completely unique form of the sport that was like nothing they had seen before.
Our innovative routine was the first in history to include tutu-encircled flotation belts and to take advantage of a part of the pool most teams dare not enter: the shallow end. Our liberal, near constant use of the pool floor was utterly original; I feel confident in stating that no professional synchronized swimming routine before or since has ever utilized the pool bottom like we did that day.
Our grand finale was a breath-taking handstand and somersault, and we made our exit blowing kisses and pageant waves.
In the loud cheers of our friends and colleagues, I could sense a change in how we were perceived. When we got into the pool that morning, they saw some data analysts, a couple student services coordinators, a tenured professor of art history, and me, “the snakebite girl.”
But by the time we arose from the water, the trappings of our previous selves washing away in the rivulets of chlorine streaming down our bodies, they saw past those simple terms and convenient definitions and found out that each one of us is an athlete. A dancer. A princess. An Eagle. And, yes, a basket case.
The Wellness Director read out the judges’ scores—10, 10, 11, 15—confirming what we knew in our hearts: Our performance had been off the charts. And then suddenly it was time for the awarding of the medals because, shockingly, no other collection of students, faculty, or staff on a campus of thousands had the courage to face the Synch or Swimmers, the free time to craft and practice a routine, or the sheer commitment and discipline in pursuit of the absurd. Their loss, our win.
We learned that the gold medal itself was more of a symbolic than literal object. But each of us won a plastic sippy cup emblazoned with ‘WU Recreational Services.’ If I could find it, I would post a pic and you would see that it is as glorious as any trophy.
All our effort, our long hours of practice, our heated discussions to resolve artistic differences and fine-tune the routine, and, most importantly, our willingness to reveal our naked hearts and our almost naked bodies to a room full of our colleagues: It was worth it. It was all worth it.
It was a story for the ages, etched eternally into our culture’s collective electronic memory to live forever on YouTube and now too in this humble web log.
Just remember, the next time you must approach a low-level government bureaucrat like myself, it is possible—nay, highly probable—that behind that stack of paperwork and red tape, beyond those computer-screen-deadened eyes, and within that mild-mannered chest, beats an untamable, triumphant, Olympic heart.
*The throng’s blurriness may not have been due to its enormous size but rather to the fact I am half-blind without my glasses on.
**Admission was free.