Months later, I still replay the event over in my head, wishing with all my might that it could’ve happened differently. I think back, remembering every detail as clear as glass. I remember the exact moment when it all went wrong. And I wish it wasn’t so.
The National Swimming Championships. I had been training for years for this. The nerves that bubbled like acid in my stomach made so nervous I wanted to walk away and never look back. I wish that I had left when I had the chance. Of course, I didn’t.
On the poolside, I began my warm-up stretches. Across the pool I could see a rival club doing the same. Gazing across at all the members, one girl catches my eye immediately. She’s my age, I think, but so muscular that at first glance you would’ve thought she was a guy. She’s standing with her hands on her hips, and even across the seven lanes I can tell that she’s looking right at me. I freeze. She sneers, curling her lip in contempt, then turns away in obvious dismissal. I shiver, hoping very much that I won’t ever have to swim against her.
When my name is called for the 400m crawl, the nerves in my stomach have reached boiling point. It feels like there’s a nest of eels squirming in my belly. I walk unsteadily to the starting blocks. Everything feels like it’s in slow mo. I see the seven lanes, the lane ropes, the swimming officials with their stopwatches and clipboards. I see my team, gazing encouraging at me. I see my starting block in clear detail; I’m in lane three.
The other swimmers line up too, doing last minute checks to their goggles, their swimming hats, the straps of their costumes. I see their expressions: steely confidence and optimism. Then I see her and my heart stops.
That muscled girl is there, in lane five. Only two away from me. She smiles, but it’s not a friendly smile. It’s an “Do-you-honestly-think-you-can-win-against-me?” smile. I look away and shiver. I’ve never been more scared in my life.
The 400m crawl. Normally, this would be the easiest thing in the world. It’s only sixteen lengths, and crawl is my best stroke. But today I don’t feel right. As if, somehow, I know that I’m not going to do well.
The whistle shrieks shortly. The first signal. I climb up on my block and get ready. I hook my fingers on the front of block, place one foot at the front so my toes are over the edge, the other slightly further back. The ‘track-start’. I stand there, with my head down, waiting for the second signal. My mind won’t rest; it’s tumbling over itself, over and over. Doubts and worries won’t leave me alone, gnawing away at my confidence.
The second signal comes: two words boom out across the speakers. “Get set.” Even after the words fade, I still feel them echoing around the pool. Echoing around the space in my head. Get set, get set, get set. A drumbeat, a rhythm, the same speed as my thundering heart. I breathe in-out-in-out-in-out, beginning to panic. I’m not ready. I can’t do this!
I can feel myself sliding… my grip on the block slipping. The plastic surface is wet from a thousand splashes from previous races and my feet can’t find any purchase on it. I slither forwards unstoppably, downwards, towards the water. In the last second before I fall I wish, with all my heart, for the third signal.
But it doesn’t come. And so, almost in slow motion, I slip forwards through the air into the water with a loud, resounding splash.
Of course, I knew what it meant. In a big competition like that, even small things like falling in too early have consequences. What I had done was called a false start. And in national competitions, a false start means automatic disqualification from all events.
I had forfeited everything in one moment of panic. Training for years just to let myself down at the very last hurdle. For months afterwards I obsessed over it, desperately wishing it could’ve been different. Wishing I hadn’t panicked. Wishing I had a second chance.
But it’s too late; the moment is long gone. I had lost… everything.