Spartans in Bangkok

11 Oct

We shave, not just the face, but the entire body. Being Italian means being blessed with heavy hair-growth. It takes me more than an hour to get rid of my “Armani-esque” fur coat. The point of shaving is not for “silky smooth legs,” but to exfoliate the topmost skin layer in order to feel the water better; like aerodynamics in water — aquadynamics. This traditional ritual that every swimmer goes through is reserved for momentous occasions only. Deep gashes on the Achilles tendon are customary —  the dark streams of blood in the shower don’t seem to bother me anymore.

He took my hand, and for a moment the world slowed down, and then stopped. A stadium with hundreds of spectators muted in an instant. Their slow-motion movements gave only a hint to the craze that was raging in the stands. People waving flags, jumping, screaming, but I didn’t hear any of it. I was in an orb of silence. His reassuring touch took my nervousness away, when seconds earlier I was hectically pacing the holding room, checking and re-checking to see if I had my red cap with the white, Swiss-cross. My warm-up pants swishing as I paced. My mouth was dry. I was standing by an Olympic sized pool full of crystal, clear water and my mouth was dry, how bizarre.
The thought of having forgotten something shot through my mind, paralyzing me and shooting a lightning of fear through my heart. “My goggles, where are they?” I thought frantically, nervously patting down my pants where I believed them to be. The reassuring feeling of sticky rubber and cold plastic made the shock go away.
Eight years I have been waiting for an opportunity like this. I would never allow myself to do something wrong. After eight years a habit develops to the point of mechanical perfection. Too much was at stake. It wasn’t only my relay. I shared it with three other guys, the entire team that flew to Bangkok, and everyone back home supporting us. We had a goal set before us. The last time Switzerland had had a relay team like ours can only be found in history books. Articles and clippings from the past; too short are the chronicles of swimming in Switzerland.

At a groggy 5:20 in the morning, I force my sleep-deprived body to the pool and dive into the icy water. A swimming pool, no matter what season of the year, is always icy at 5:20 in the morning. And we wonder why swimming is not a commercial sport. It is a sport that you do because you love to do it. There is no other way. There are days when even commitment and dedication fail and a pure love is all that pushes you to jump in once again. The sole satisfaction gained is either success or enjoyment of pain. The majority of swimmers are driven by both. Why else would somebody push his torn body through an element that is not a human domain?
And then there is the smell. Swimmers smell. We smell like chlorine, constantly. Au de chlorine. It is not comparable to the fresh summer afternoon by the city pool, no, it’s as if it has been has injected chlorine into you.

Four of us, standing behind starting-block number eight, ready to go, ready to fight. Waiting for our turn to be announced by the speaker with the funny sounding Thai-English accent, “…and on lane 5: Japan!” A sea of mini, Japanese flags and fans all displaying the red dot of the rising sun filled the stands proudly. High-pitched squeals echoed around the main pool. I could imagine my friends, who were also in the stands, giggling at the foreign cheers. Proud roars continued emerging from the sea of spectators tossing their best chants into the already hot and moving ocean of excitement. Their cries braking against each other like a wave on a jetty.

I looked at my teammate, who was still clutching my hand. His black-tinted goggles hid his eyes; I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but his presence alone disclosed more than his eyes could. A slow nod and a solemn glance — I knew what we had to do. I grabbed my other teammate’s hand, my gaze fixed on the pool, our lane, lane eight. Everything around us blurred. Four people, four friends, four swimmers, unified under the flag of Switzerland, proud to represent what our country stands for.
The announcers voice came once again, “…on Lane 7: Russia!” Together we stood beside the lane that was going to help us write another successful chapter in our young lives. People doubted our making the finals. After all, how could a tiny nation like the Swiss Confederation successfully compete against giants like the US, France or Canada? We proved them wrong.
Here we were. It wasn’t a day for self-doubt, lost against our inhibitions. We were small but mighty. Unpredictable. Like David, not afraid to aim his slingshot at the big guy.

“What sports do you play?”
“Well, I’m a swimmer,”
I wonder how many times I’ve answered like this, and how many times a blank stare or a scrunched nose has been the response. Only few people outside the “swim world” appreciate the training and effort one has to put into swimming just to drop seconds or even milliseconds from one race to another. 21 hours a week thereof 4 in the weight room and the rest in the pool, that’s the workload that shapes us into what we are. The closer you get to killing yourself in practice, the stronger you will be in the race, physically and mentally. Everyday, stroke for stroke, lap by lap. Warriors designed for one purpose — winning.

The announcers voice boomed once again from nowhere and from everywhere at once. “On lane 8: Switzerland!” We raised our already clasped hands proudly above our heads in unison. We were Spartans facing what we had been trained to do. Our red and white shirts waved like banners. The world turned slowly while the crowd went crazy. Every spectator sung his battle cry, each one louder than the one before, until at last the announcer demanded silence for the start of the race. We waited in anxious silence for the robotic command, “Take your marks.” No one dared to breathe. All eyes focused on the starting athletes poised on each block, muscles tense and flexed. Like statues of Greek perfection somewhere between god and man — athletes. Warriors anticipating this next jump into the chlorinated coliseum. A familiar element. A short high-pitched tone breaks the tension and it all begins. The world and time seemed to catch up with one another moving quickly, but my focus remained steady. Last reassuring thoughts shot through my head, as I get ready. Lane eight. Lane eight. Dive in. Kick, kick. Breathe. Switzerland.

It would be seconds until it was I on the block. Everything I’d trained for, everything I’d sacrificed and everything that I’d abstained from, all for this moment. My heartbeat was stunningly calm as I took my position. The third swimmer of our relay team skimmed toward me, touching the wall just as I torpedoed into the water. The final swimmer in our relay, the anchor, the one that seals the deal and brings the triumph home. I felt like I was flying. I was the last man in the water of the 4×200 meter relay with nothing restraining me.

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4 Responses to “Spartans in Bangkok”

  1. charla Thursday, October 11, 2007 at 1:31 pm #

    woh…i’m totally glued to the computer screen, wanting to know what happens next! you’re a really great story teller, Marco. i literally feel tense after reading this, like i’m about to jump in the pool too! you have to write more!! 🙂
    Rachel told me about your practices this week…wow. i hope you’re doing well, not injured or sick or anything like that.

  2. George Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 7:46 pm #

    Wow…..besides being a really good swimmer, you’re a really good writer.

  3. Todd Tuesday, February 5, 2008 at 10:10 pm #

    You rock Marco. That was great.

  4. Nate Thursday, February 7, 2008 at 9:14 pm #

    Sir… that is impressive.

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