Playing sports, Drew Johnson writes, provides valuable lessons for children of every shape and size.
Growing up, I didn’t play sports. My parents put me and my sisters in gymnastics and Taekwondo as kids, but only for a few months. There was too much turmoil and not enough money to support those sorts of extracurricular endeavors for long and, without any parental encouragement to do otherwise, I turned into a very lazy child.
During the school year, I read, a lot, which I’m glad about. I also went to camp every summer until I was 15. For five weeks I was forced to use my pale and flabby body to actually do things besides flip a page or thumb a remote. I hiked, mountain biked, rock climbed, kayaked, canoed, shot guns, and rode horses. I was terrible at all of it, but I did those things—with my clumsy, flabby body—and, before I joined the swim team, those early challenges were the highlight of my physical experience.
Then, one day, during a class in the fall of my sophomore year of high school, a girl asked me if I wanted to join the swim team. I’ve always been better with women than men; I have a lot of sisters, and men traumatized me throughout my childhood. This girl wasn’t super hot, but she was hot enough, and we’d flirted quite a bit during most of freshman year. I was flattered when she asked me if I wanted to join her sport and, to be honest, I wanted to impress her. I said I’d give it a try.
The coach held open tryouts during the first week of swim practice, and I showed up on the first day.
“Do you know how to swim,” he asked.
“OK, let’s see.”
I wore baggy neon-green trunks under my jeans, and I stripped down to my suit right there on the pool deck. He watched as I took off my shirt, and I saw his face fall when he took in my flabby frame. I’d never lifted weights in my life, never ran, hadn’t shot a basketball or swung a bat in years. I doubt I could’ve done a dozen push-ups, and a pull-up was beyond the realm of possibility.
He let out a sigh and said, “Jump in and swim four laps.”
I have no memory of how well I swam. I know now that, at the time, I actually didn’t know how to swim. At all. I could flail at the water and stay afloat, but that was it. After the fourth lap I jumped out of the pool and asked the coach if I could stay.
“OK,” he said. “Practice is every day at 3:00. Don’t be late.”
Where this all came from, I have no idea. I’m not a joiner. Groups freak me out. Aggression and competition are abhorrent. I even hate board games because I hate losing and get so anxious when I’m winning that I’ll sabotage myself to not have to deal with the stress of being in the lead.
Yes, I’m a neurotic mess.
Swimming is perfect for loners because it is the quintessential individual sport. Unlike running, in which you can see your opponents to your right and left, in the pool your eyes are glued to the black stripe running down the center of your lane. During swim meets, you race to win points for your team, but winning meets isn’t the point of racing. The point is to swim faster than you swam previously. This is not to say that it doesn’t feel good to win races, or meets for that matter. But swimmers measure success in seconds, and, when I got fast enough for this to matter, I could lose a race but feel like I’d won because I shaved time off my record.
None of that mattered, though, during my first year. Times, records, winning—all of that came later, and when it came, when I became a vaguely successful swimmer, it was a very modest success.
I only have the haziest memories of those early practices. Coach divided us into lanes, with the slowest in lane one and the fastest in lane six. I, naturally, was in the slowest lane with the other new recruits. Practice was two hours long, and coach spent a little time directing us on technique and teaching us drills that would help us learn the strokes. For example, to learn freestyle, you slow your stroke down dramatically, starting with your hand aligned with your outer thigh, and dragging your thumb up your side until it reaches your shoulder and then shooting your arm out in front of you. Repeat on the other side.
To learn flip-turns, we practiced flipping forward in the water, over and over and over, until we were so comfortable with the motion that we could begin to combine it with forward motion. To make butterfly—by far the most difficult stroke—teachable, coach had us do the stroke one side at a time: swing your right arm out, dolphin kick, swing it forward, dolphin kick, repeat on the left. Breast stroke and back stroke were easier to learn but, at first, we drilled endlessly on freestyle, learning proper stroke mechanics.
It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. At the end of a two-hour practice, my legs would feel like jelly and I could barely pull myself out of the pool. One of the upperclassmen would drive me home, and I’d collapse into my bed to sleep for an hour. When my mother came home I’d eat (and eat and eat), do my homework, and pass out.
And most of the first year was like that. I got better, but barely. When the season started, coach entered me in events for which he needed a swimmer—not for which I had any talent. This meant that, at least once a week, I swam the 500 free and the 100 fly. This also meant that, for the first year of my athletic career, I placed last in almost every event I swam. At one meet, we had to swim in a pool with longer lanes than I was used to (our home pool was 25 yards, whereas most indoor high-school swim teams have 25 meter pools), and by the end of my heat of the 100 fly I could barely lift my arms out of the water. I finished the event flailing through the pool, all semblance of form and grace sunk into blue water.
I got out of the pool, went to the school’s locker room, sat on a bench, and wept. I wanted to quit—had wanted to quit since the first week of practice—but didn’t know if I could. Somewhere deep inside myself I’d made a promise that I’d see this thing through, and I refused to run away because it was hard. My then-girlfriend—a senior and also the prom queen who, to this day, I have no idea what was doing with this skinny loser—came into the boys’ locker room and sat with me while I cried it out. Then I washed my face off, went back to my team, waited for my turn to swim the 500 free, and finished last.
Then, the next year, I started to get better. I grew a couple more inches over the summer, giving my body the length necessary to start developing a polished stroke. I turned into a backstroker and a middle-distance freestyler, and my go-to events became the 100 back and 200 free. I still wasn’t great, but I stopped finishing last and, finally, I started winning points for my team. More importantly, my times started dropping. I would never be strong, nor would I ever be the fastest swimmer on my team. My twin sister, a natural-born athlete, joined the team during my junior year and within a couple weeks was competing with the fastest girls. One of my best friends, a 6’4” country-boy named Jeremiah, likewise joined the team and within a month had blown past all my times.
I didn’t care. I relished what was happening to my body. Our team would lift weights a couple times a week before practice. A year before, I’d struggled to yoke out three pull-ups. By my junior year, I could do 15 without stopping. My mom’s boyfriend game me an old weight set he never used, and I would do curls with a 65-pound bar.
Along with the strength came profound, blissful exhaustion. After practice, my friends would stop at the convenience store and buy five dollars of junk food each, which we’d gorge ourselves on before going home and passing out before dinner. Most nights I slept straight through, waking only occasionally when a cramp shot excruciating pain up my calf or thigh.
Teachers were lenient with athletes, and for some reason we swimmers got a pass for sleeping in class. The team became very close—girls and guys—and we all hung out together. For the first time in my life, I was part of a community that I loved. I became close friends with several of the guys on the team, and dated a handful of the girls. We were playful, but also hard on each other, like siblings, and coach was a surrogate father to most of us.
I decided to skip camp after my junior year, and spent that summer swimming with a private team. I got faster. We all got faster. By my senior year, there were several standout swimmers on my team—but I wasn’t one of them. I didn’t care. I swam in the relays with the other seniors, and our relay squad could compete with all but the two fastest schools in the city.
For the first time in my life, I felt strong. Each stroke was a physical miracle, propelling my body through the water with a force that surprised me. Practices that used to wipe me out now felt like warm ups, and coach started tacking on more and more distance to wear us down. I got good at fly, and goddamn if it doesn’t actually feel like flying when you do it well, like your body’s actually skipping like a stone above the surface of the water.
By the mid-point of the year, I was winning races against schools of similar size. Numerous times, in the 200 free and 100 back, I finished my heat not just body lengths but, on occasion, entire pool lengths ahead of my competitors. One day a girl I knew stopped me in the hall of my high school to say, “Drew, you look different. Your forearm is all veiny. It looks cool.”
That season, I qualified for the state championships in the 100 back and as part of the 400 free relay. Our relay team made it through a few heats before getting eliminated. A friend on the team, Justin, and I had competed all year to have the faster 100 back time, and we both qualified to swim in the same heat at the state meet. The pool was huge, and there were swimmers in our heat who looked gigantic, like they were in college. We jumped in the water and grabbed the starter bar above the deck to prepare to start the race.
“Swimmers take your mark. Beep!”
We swam our hearts out, but it was a strange pool and I missed both my turns. Justin and I tied for last place in our heat.
And that was pretty much the end of my career as an athlete. It seems pathetic, as I read back over it, but it wasn’t. This wasn’t like losing the big game and letting down the whole school. Swimming showed me something. It taught me about strength, and speed, and about the beauty of practicing hour after hour to do a thing well.
I think that’s called grace. In those moments when I glided through—above—the water, I had access to something that most of us only have a few glimpses of throughout our lives. It’s something most of us only have the luxury to partake in as children, when we have enough disposable time to devote to the singular, focused pursuit of mastering a difficult subject.
For most boys, especially the weak ones, these experiences can change our lives. Being excellent, or just grasping at it, teaches us what we’re supposed to aim for in our work, or relationships, our marriages, and with our children. Working hard at sports teaches us how to be good. It can make us men.