The girl walked slowly into the pool area, searching faces for a familiar one.
The coach wrote something on a chalkboard but, without her glasses, she could hardly see the chalk, must less read it. She tried not to shake with nervousness, but in all honesty, she was terrified. Her stomach wouldn’t settle and her breath shook as she tried to breath normally. What if everybody was way better then her? What if the workout was too difficult? Before she had much time to try to collect herself, the girls and boys turned toward the pool, and, one from a lane at a time, with a huge splash, each jumped into the pool, pushed off the bottom and started off with freestyle. Not completely sure what was going on, the girl jumped in at her turn and started swimming, probably a little too fast at first, but it was her first day. She wanted to make a good impression. The first lap went okay, but as she started her second lap, following the lead of the girls in front of her, she began to fall behind a little, began to tire. Her heart knew it was fine, it was her first day, it was just warm-up, she’d done this a million times with her old coach, but her brain refused to believe it. Oh no, oh no, hurry, hurry, hurry, you’re getting behind, you still have so far to go, you can’t do it, you can’t do it, it’s too much! it tried to convince her. The pool was so deep, so much deeper than she was used to. The depth was playing tricks on her eyes, making her seem closer to the wall then she really was, and she missed her flip turn. As she tried flipping again and, succeeding, pushed off, she looked down, down, down, to the bottom of the pool, and almost cried out in fear.
It was so deep.
And she was so nervous.
And she couldn’t breath.
And she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t do it. She had to stop. She couldn’t possibly keep going.
But she did.
Because she had to. What other choice was there? She couldn’t just pop out of the pool and walk away. She needed to prove that she was tough, to her coach, her teammates, her mom–to herself. Oh, she wanted so badly to stop, but she didn’t.
Length after length, flip after flip, stroke after stroke.
As she stopped at the wall again, she couldn’t breath.
She started panicking more.
So this is what a panic attack feels like, she thought. This was definitely that. The number of lengths. The depth of the water. The chaos of 40+ teens crammed into one pool, eight lanes, no lane lines, no way to know if you were still in your own lane, or were about to have a head-on collision with someone in the next lane over.
Everything was chaotic.
She had no idea what she was supposed to be doing.
She had no idea when they could stop.
She couldn’t breath.
She stopped at the wall in the shallow end, unable to continue. Tears rolled silently down her cheeks. Looking up to the bleachers, she caught her mom’s eye. Her mom hurried down and onto the deck, carrying her water bottle. She tried to catch her breath but couldn’t. She drank and drank, trying to stall, not wanting to return to the chaotic monotony of the laps. Tears continued to roll down her cheeks, though she tried to stifle them. She tried to breath, but her chest was already too full of fear and panic and anxiety. No room for air.
Her mom and her coach both tried to reassure her. It was the first day. Take it easy. Swim at your own pace. Don’t try to keep up. They meant well, but their words didn’t help. She was still terrified. Her coach encouraged her to keep going. Just another fifty. Two more lengths. One more flip turn. You can do it. Swim at your own pace. Just swim. Move down a few lanes. Try it out here, with the less experienced swimmers. Swim at your own pace.
Taking a few more sips of water, trying to stall for just another minute, she prepared herself to once more enter the chaos. The other girls in her lane came up to the wall, did their flip turns, and continued toward the deep end. A few seconds after the last girl, she jumped back in. Just another fifty. Two more lengths. One more flip turn. You can do it. You can do this. It’s easy. You’ve done this before. You can do this. Just keep swimming. Swim. Breath. Don’t forget to breath. Stop crying. You can’t swim and cry at the same time. Stroke. Breath. Stroke. Breath. Stroke. Breath. Sobs cut through her lungs, limiting her oxygen intake. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t do it. She had to stop. She was too weak. She couldn’t do it.
This went on for–she didn’t know how long. Forever, is what it seemed like. This would never end. She’d keep this up forever. She could never leave. She could never stop. She had to keep going. When would it be over? How much longer? An hour? Half an hour? Ten minutes? She had no way of knowing. But she was miserable. And afraid. As she continued, the panic very slowly began to ease away, replaced very slowly with misery. But then, every time she swam over the deep, deep, endlessly deep end, the panic would surge up, and she’d have to close her eyes to keep from fainting in terror.
Misery. Never had it been so potent.
At last, it was over.
She climbed, trembling, out of the pool.
The tears were gone, but threatened to appear any minute.
She had survived. Barely.
But she knew one thing.
She was never coming back. She could not do this. It would kill her.
Of course, she did go back. It took a lot of adjusting. It was never easy. But her body grew used to the harsh workout. Her lungs grew stronger. Her endurance grew. And with it, her character. Her perseverance and endurance. Yes, she survived. And eventually, she learned to thrive.