Five swimmers dive into a pool for a race. The swimmer closest to the camera is pictured mid-air in their dive into the water.

Swimmers dive in for a race at an event at the John C. Argue Swim Stadium put on by the LA84 Foundation’s aquatics program in 2015. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times)

Creative Writing

Column: The Swim Race

A short story of my first competitive race that explores feelings of anxiety, embraces perseverance and captures moments of love.
<a href="" target="_self">Santiago Bustindui</a>

Santiago Bustindui

August 15, 2022
I remember the moment clearly. I walked down that dark hallway walled with endless rows of blue lockers. At the back, a gleaming light pierced through the doorways that led to the main center, like an angel descending from a cloudy storm. I remember opening the doors ever so slightly to hear the yells of the school swim teams screeching and rooting for their swimmers. I turned to see massive crowds of families seated on the second floor, overlooking the Olympic-sized pool I would soon swim in. It was my first competitive race, and I felt genuine pressure for the first time in my life. I was just 12 years old.

As I anxiously walked down the pool deck, with my ears ringing from the loudness of cheers from swim teams, I noticed the undeniable perseverance the swimmers kept during their races. Their smooth and swift flips on each side of the 50-meter-long pool and immediate push off the wall in a streamlined position were too perfect not to watch. I was astonished and, at the same time, frightened that I would not meet their standards. 

When I arrived at the other side of the pool deck, hundreds of adults continued cheering for their children as I anxiously waited in the long but shrinking line that emerged in front of me. As I breathed in, my body would twitch, and I could feel an uneasy feeling building up inside me. It was a feeling that I needed to impress my family, teammates, coaches, and even the hundreds of people in the stands, each with their thoughts about how the next swimmer will perform to their standards.

As the line grew shorter and each swimmer raised themselves onto the diving boards while struggling to apply their goggles, my coach assigned our meet with the first of three strokes. He assigned our meet with backstroke. I felt relieved; backstroke was my specialty. But, I quickly came to realize that most of the swimmers in my race were older than me. 

Eventually, it was my time to race. I nervously approached the blue still pool, dipping half my body into the freezing water. I then grasped the bar on the diving board, hanging on as if I were a wild animal in the jungle, while my feet rested on the chilling marbled wall of the pool. 

I glanced around to notice if my parents were up in the audience. There they were, looking down at me, waving, smiling. Humans have a photographic memory, and every meaningful moment in our lives gets saved in our memory as a frozen image, like a photograph. Their bright, reflecting smiles and loud cries as they looked down at me is an image I will never forget.

Suddenly, the announcer’s voice roared through the speakers. “On your mark!” I quickly wrapped my black stretchy goggles around my head and locked them in above my eyes. “Get set!” I fixed myself into a stiff diving position. “Bang!” 

The bell rang, and its vibration bounced off the walls of the natatorium. I flung off the diving board and locked my arms into a streamlined position with my back arched toward the pool’s surface. As I broke the water’s surface, I looked up into blinding lights above me.

Suddenly, time froze. I could see the faces of those anxiously remaining in line and the strangers up on the stand watching down on me. It felt as if everyone was watching me, only me. Soon, my entire body submerged into the water, and the freezing temperature crawled down my spine, energizing me like an engine starting up. The energy I received transformed me into a machine, in which I revolved my arms up and down into the water in perfect synchronization.

My legs functioned without my conscious; they controlled themselves, kicking in a quick flowing motion as my hands splashed and pierced through the heavy water. As I approached the opposite side of the pool, I counted “one, two, three, and four” strokes and flipped onto my stomach.

I did one final stroke and dove my head deep into the water, nearly scraping it on the marble wall during my descent. My arms followed along, and I tucked my entire body in like an armadillo. Once I fully rotated in the opposite direction, I forced my body off the wall as smoothly yet intensely as possible.

The process then repeated itself, break the surface of the water, breathe steadily towards the roof, rotate my arms, flare my hands, and flutter my legs. In what felt like less than a second, my hand touched the opposite marble wall, and there I stopped to notice my coach roaring and crying above me on the diving board. I won.

My body relaxed, and my heart rate dropped as I breathed in and out. As I looked toward the bright lights hanging down from the roof, all I could think was, “it’s over.”