Chlorine Chronicles: Catching the spirit and paying it forward in high school swimming

The blue mats on the pool deck prick my feet as I walk toward my lane for the championship final of the girls 100-yard butterfly. 

The yellow and blue CIF State logo glares at me from the blocks, enticing me to step up to the start.

Across the pool, in the stands, I hear families shouting for the girls around me, mostly juniors and seniors. I feel a mix of terror and pride at being a sophomore standing among high school swimming legends. 

The other girls are cool, calm, collected; I’m a nervous wreck. The top seed, Halladay Kinsey from Rio Americano High School, who is also on my club team, comes over and gives me a quick hug and wishes me good luck. I turn to the girls around me and wish them good luck as well, which they return with smiles and thumbs-up. 

Then the referee calls the heat, and all thoughts leave my mind. From the starting buzzer to the final wall is a blur; then I hit the touchpad and grab the wall while gasping for air. I feel a tap on my shoulder; the girl on my right smiles and says, “Good job.” I hug her over the lane line, then move to the other lane line and repeat the process. Congratulate, hug, smile.

“Your underwater kicks are so awesome! I had trouble keeping up,” the second girl laughs. I thank her as we climb out of the pool; then I turn to the timers. In club swimming, my first coach required me to thank all swim meet volunteers after every race, even if it didn’t go how I wanted. 

Nobody wants to work as a timer. It’s a mundane and wet task that leaves many parents looking down at the ground or hiding in the bathroom so they can avoid the announcer asking for volunteers. It’s a vital job, however; without timers, we couldn’t have a swim meet. 

I’ve carried this habit into high school swimming, where the timers are frequently other high schoolers. I’m extremely grateful for all the students who spent the day timing at States when they could have been studying or having fun. My thanks catch my timers off guard, which delights me as I watch their faces change from surprise to pride.

Out of the starting area, the other girls from the heat high-five each other, congratulate each other on finishing the race and look eagerly at the scoreboard to see the results. 

My coach, Brian Nabeta, leaps over to congratulate me, his folded meet program waving in the air. His smile splits his face in two. I didn’t get a best time, and I didn’t place in the top three, but I moved from eighth seed to seventh place and scored 12 points for my team. The number seems insignificant, but it helped propel my high school girls team to sixth place overall. 

I thank Brian for the advice he gave me before my race, one of the hundreds of thank-yous he’s received from me throughout my club and high school swim career with him. After every practice and race, I thank Brian for providing me with an opportunity to improve. Brian’s excitement is infectious, and I can’t help but smile with him as the scoreboard flashes the heat results.

Halladay placed first, and I watched her medal ceremony from the warm-down pool. As she stepped up on the podium, she hugged the second- and third-place finishers and shook their hands, then hugged her high school coach and shook the hands of the rival high school coaches. 

Halladay’s example of graciously accepting her award and commending her fellow athletes has stuck with me into my junior and senior years. Halladay was the ideal teammate: She encouraged her teammates and friends, helped strangers in need and gave the underclassmen advice on life, swimming and college recruiting. 

Ever since Halladay graduated, I’ve tried to follow her lead. Although I haven’t gone on to win States, I did place first in the 100 butterfly at Sections. I swam against a few of my younger club teammates in the heat and made sure to wish them good luck before the race and congratulate them afterward. 

As an underclassman, I always looked to the people ahead of me without thinking of the swimmers who might be looking up to me. Now that I’m in Halladay’s position as a senior and the other girls on the team are juniors and freshmen, I notice that I’m giving the same advice Halladay gave me. One junior asked about my college recruiting process, and I ended up walking her through her first college coach interview. 

These small moments of kindness outside of the water help support the team and make us more communicative and open and friendly when we get back in to race.

Halladay also excelled at supporting opponents, which I’ve tried to emulate. A lot of athletes talk trash behind each other’s back or not offer help so they can gain an advantage later in a competition. Halladay always had a second to spare to encourage her rivals or lend them goggles and always praised their swims. Therefore, my junior year, when a girl from Halladay’s high school team asked me if I had a spare tech suit (a tight, knee-length racing suit), I lent her one.

Sportsmanship in high school swimming extends beyond motivating teammates and leading team cheers. Sometimes it is the small, unseen conversations or acts of kindness that create a healthy competitive atmosphere. 

I could have been a ruthless athlete. I knew the girl who asked for a suit was seeded next to me in the championship final for the 100 fly at Sections, and I could have made the competition easier. Instead, I offered her my extra tech suit, since I would rather have a fair race and let everyone compete at their best. 

This wasn’t a one-time occasion, however. Swimmers frequently borrow tech suits, help each other put on the tight tech suit straps and lend caps and goggles to one another to ensure everyone has a chance at performing well.

Halladay’s example of sportsmanship will help me, and hopefully the girls after me, well into college and later life. Sportsmanship teaches you how to be a good person and go through life supporting others while still competing against them. Habits of teamwork and respect in the pool carry on to the classroom and home life.

—By Rebecca Waterson

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