Sink or Swim

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, August 5, 2007

The only people allowed on this side of the rope are people on the swim team," says Sasha, my 6-year-old, escorting me under the temporary boundary between us and them. She wears a team suit, black with orange lightning bolts. "You can pick any lawn chair you want," she says. "You are allowed to eat. People on the swim team are not allowed to eat until after the meet."

All of this might mean a lot more if she would actually swim in a meet. She knows how to swim. She has taken lessons for years. You have to be at least 6 years old to join the team, which she did the moment she was eligible.

Plenty of kids her age are big enough, and strong enough, to swim a 25-meter lap. Mostly you see freestyle and breaststroke and, on rare occasion, butterfly. It's impressive. It's inspiring. It's Sasha's dream.

But at 33 pounds, standing at 3 feet, 6 3/4 inches, she's the kid you see with the bathing suit that flaps in the breeze, defeating the whole purpose of spandex. She has always been tiny. She always will be tiny. And she dreams of being an athlete. I try to encourage, without pushing, without setting her up for failure, without expecting too much or too little -- that web of fine lines any parent tiptoes between.

Bodies need fat to float, and so she is at an automatic disadvantage. Her freestyle stroke is well-coordinated, her kick solid, and even the rhythm of her breathing is on target. She's good for about 10 yards of this, but then her little body simply loses oomph.

Three mornings a week she shows up for practice, arms and legs flailing, trying to make it to the other end of the pool. With the help of the wall on the side of Lane 1, she takes little breaks and more or less makes it. At the first meet, the announcer explained that swimmers who touch the wall would be disqualified. This was discouraging. "I have to hang on to something," Sasha told me. "Or else I will drown."

I tried to imagine being a person in water too deep to stand, forbidden to reach for safety, dependent only on arms and legs that are too skinny to power a bobbing, sinking head.

She refused to swim in the first meet, the second and the third. She doesn't want to drown. She doesn't want to get disqualified. And so instead she has become a little pet. At each meet she follows Coach Alex, a woman with bouncy long, red hair. Sometimes she holds Alex's hand, and sometimes she even holds the clipboard for her, running around in her droopy bathing suit and pink goggles perched on her head.

Tonight I see Alex talking to the opposing team's coach, pointing to Sasha. They're both nodding, smiling. Finally, Alex approaches Sasha. "Your team really needs you tonight," Alex tells her. The two of them are standing just on the other side of the rope from me, and I pretend not to hear. "You're swimming in Event 17, okay?"

Sasha shakes her head no. "I will drown."

"You'll be in Lane 1, and you can touch the wall," Alex says. "I just want to see you swim. You can just pretend you're a little fish, okay?"

I don't know where courage comes from. The atmosphere? The bloodstream? Heaven? Sasha nods. She places her goggles over her eyes, walks up to me. "You might want to watch this," she says, and heads over to Lane 1. Event 17 is probably a good 10 minutes away, but she stands there, arms folded, goggles in place. Ready. I wonder what she thinks. I wonder what happens to terror when courage takes over.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company