At Winter Junior Nationals in Austin, Texas, on Dec. 7, I learned that one race does not define you as a swimmer.

I had made it to the B final in the 100-yard butterfly, the first time I’d advanced that far at a national-level meet, and I was almost too excited to swim. Cameramen stalked the pool deck, looking for the stars of the A final so they could get an interview, while onlookers waved from the stands at stationary cameras, hoping to get on the livestream TV.

“Maybe next year, when I make it to the A final, they’ll want to interview me,” I thought as I shook out my legs in front of the blocks. Across the pool, I could see my teammates standing up in the bleachers, ready to cheer for my swim. My coach clapped a few times, followed by a “Let’s go, Becca!”

I tried to zone out, make my mind go blank, to stop thinking about the endless possibilities of outcomes of this race, but I couldn’t stop wondering what it must be like to finish a race and have a cameraman sitting in front of your lane, zooming in on your triumphant face as you celebrate your victory.

I stepped up on the blocks and set myself. At the starting buzzer, I leaped off — a clean dive, and the race was underway! My underwater kicks were fast and strong, just as practiced. I broke out on the first 25 and without hesitation launched into my 100 stroke rate. Unlike in practice, where I often felt like I was slipping when trying to hold the fast tempo, I could actually feel my hold on the water.

Everything was going right until I hit the wall – and my hands slipped. It was almost as if I’d bounced off the wall with my feet sticking the wrong way.

Panicking, I spent too long kicking underwater, which gave me a stellar first split but killed the last half of my race. I’d gone out too fast, and I’d died.

No cameras for me this year.

Looking at the results, I could barely contain my anger at myself; I’d added only half a second, but I’d dropped to last place by half a body length. How could I have messed it up?

Discouraged and disheartened, I didn’t pay attention to my body screaming for a warm-down; I just sat, huddled in my towel on the team bleachers, replaying the race again and again in my head. I didn’t even care that I had another race that night, the 200 freestyle relay. I had checked out of the meet.

Because of my decision to do hardly any warmup before the relay, the swim was only OK. In my eyes, I was in a downward spiral, and I could hardly stand the thought of swimming the 200 fly the next day.

Thankfully, I had a change of heart by morning, but seemingly to no avail. My bad decisions from the night before meant I was sore and tired, and I was also skittish because of the pressure of swimming next to my teammate. After the first 100, I could feel my stroke start to collapse on itself, and I could see the people around me start to pull ahead. I was on my best time, but I’d been hoping for a drop, so I was once again crushed.

I had made best times in three events the previous two days, and I had one final chance to finish the meet on a high note. I was in the final relay, the 400 free, and leading off too, which meant I had a shot at getting one last best time to close the meet. (Leadoff swims in relays count as a regular race since they start with a normal dive.)

Something clicked then. I don’t know what it was – maybe the overall energy of my team from the huge success of some of my teammates, or the delirium and exhaustion of spending a whole week in Texas in a rental house right next to a fraternity – but I was excited. Everyone on DART Swimming at Davis (formerly Davis Arden Hills Racing Team) was smiling, shouting and goofing off in our section of the bleachers, and at one point we even had a silent disco party.

The positive vibe carried on to warming up, and our relay couldn’t help but strut across the pool deck as teammate Gianluca Urlando broke Michael Phelps’ national age-group record and won the men’s 200 fly by a body length right before our relay.

“Let’s get this over with, ladies!” we cheered. My mind went blank as the whistle blew and I stepped up on the blocks. I was tingling with anticipation; I couldn’t wait to get off the blocks and go! With the beep of the buzzer, I flew out of my start. I entered not too deep, not too shallow – just right to do my planned 10 dolphin kicks. Through the first 50, my arms were moving fast – faster than I’d ever been able to throw them before.

“Let’s get this, Becca,” I challenged myself on the third lap, trying to pick up my leg speed to drive the race home. I was too close to the wall on the last turn, so I pushed off deep. I could feel the extra pressure I put on my legs as I extended my final kick-out, almost like heated compression pants wrapping around my muscles. Halfway across the pool, I could no longer feel my legs, but I felt good – no, amazing! I’d never felt this great in freestyle before!

I slammed into my finish and glanced at the scoreboard. I’d dropped almost two seconds! Although there were no cameras in my face, I knew that race had been a success.

When things don’t go as planned in life, don’t get discouraged. If I’d moved on sooner from the 100 fly and remembered that one race does not define me as a swimmer, I might have gotten a best time in the 200 fly as well. Most of all, I’m thankful my teammates helped keep up team morale that long last day and helped switch my mood around to get me pumped for that final 100 free.

—By Rebecca Waterson

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