The Not-So-Great Race, reminiscence
“Swimmers take your marks,” intoned Mr. Stretch. I stood up tall on the Ocean Beach dock over the Great South Bay, all four feet eleven and a half inches, 12 going on 13, everyone was watching. “Get set.” I crouched down in the starting position of the racing dive, felt the familiar surge of nerves, fear and adrenalin. I thought about all the people who’d come to see me, Dad and Mother, maybe my brother, my new teenage friends who’d kidded me about how babyish it was to still want to race — competing was for boys — and this girl. I checked out the others, noticed they all had breasts or at least beginnings, flat as a pancake, wondered for the millionth time why I didn’t have any, when I would get them, if they’d been left out because I was premature. I harbored this secret thought as I searched for pubic hairs every day without success. Maybe I’d never get my period, be a woman or grow, hated being short; despised my braces. I jumped the gun, a new low in embarrassment, how could I? You’d think I never raced before. I tried to calm down, didn’t look at the spectators as I swam back to the racing platform in my best form, climbed the steps slowly, glad I was so dark no one could possibly notice I was blushing. Everyone’s eyes had to be glued on me thinking I was an idiot. At least I was wet, small comfort. “Two false starts and you’re disqualified from the race,” warned Mr. Stretch over the microphone. “Swimmer’s take your marks.” I resumed my position. “Get set.” That goddamn pause. Interminable. Hang on. Wait him out. Get down further. Think of winning. “Go!” The startling report of the gun cracked, I pushed off into a racing dive that sprung me out onto the top of the water. The impact smashed what there was of a chest. I started stroking as I hit with all my strength, short, but strong. Four strokes breathe, four strokes and breathe. Reach. Reach. Kick. Kick. Straighten out. You’re bumping into the lane. Who’s close? I looked to my right. Oh. Oh. Janey. Very. Put on more power. Get ahead. You can do it. Now. Faster. Faster. Six strokes and breathe. Do it for Dad, he’ll be so proud. Come on. The wire’s near, don’t breathe till you finish. You can do it. Go. Go. Go. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. I touched the wire. Had I won? I couldn’t tell. Janey breathed hard next to me. The others came in. “Congratulations. Great race.” Who was that directed to? I was afraid to hope. Mr. Stretch’s voice boomed over the mike. “The winner of the Girls 12 and under Labor Day Medal Race is…” I heard him say my name, surprised. Hell, shocked. “Second is Janey Gillespie. Third is Patty Flynn. Congratulations to all.” Applause. I shook the other girls hands. Suddenly shy, I surface dove to the floor of the bay, crawled along underwater until I saw the steps to the dock, stayed an extra minute to pull myself together. I climbed the stairs quickly, wished that my thighs were invisible, shivered while Mr. Stretch handed us our medals, a gold, blue ribbon for me, silver for Janey, bronze to Patty. “Thanks Mr. Stretch.” We shook hands. I took a victory stance. Applause. Mother materialized with my shirt and a blue and white striped towel. “You shouldn’t have looked around, almost lost.” Only Mother would try and make me feel bad today. My brother was nowhere in sight. I searched through the crowd and found Dad, newly elected Trustee of Ocean Beach, the only incorporated village on Fire Island, arms crossed, engrossed in conversation with Mayor Gilder. “I won, Dad.” He’d missed it, “Great news.” He put his arm around my shoulder briefly, released me and continued on about the dunes leveled by a Nor’ Easter last year, granted a major problem for the fragile 32 mile long slender thread, barrier beach that was Fire Island, ever haunted by the memory of the Hurricane of ’38 when the ocean and bay had met. I was always competing with politics for his affection, attention and losing. A Pyrric victory.