Today, I am leaving the office early for three reasons: first, I am going to the Cardinals game. Second, it's Friday, and ever since the pandemic started, I have left early on Fridays. And I am leaving so I can have a long birthday weekend.
But as I sit here, at my office, on the last Cardinals baseball Friday in 2023, I was reflecting about Adam Wainwright’s journey and my journey as both an athlete and a lawyer. Adam became a Cardinal about the same time that I became a lawyer, and a lot of our careers and journeys have overlapped. But I want to start with my last competitive race in March 1995.
I started competitively swimming when I was in grade school. I was not particularly good until I grew into my body some and got a bit more flexible and coordinated. Still, I trained and trained. By the time I hit high school, I was 5'2" inches of solid muscle, and spent up to 6 hours a day training, practing 18-20 times a week. I was good. I was really good -- I was getting scouted as a Freshman and had a lot of potential. And I was weird, and did not fit in at all with my first high school’s team because I was better than the coach's favorite athletes.
By the time I was a sophomore, I was thrown off the team for refusing to join in the team pre-meet prayer. Yes, in Texas, in 1993, you could be thrown off a team for refusing to pray before a game or meet. I actually missed the mandatory prayer service because I was in the bathroom. It did not matter to my coach. I hogged the limelight away from his favorites. I appealed it to the school board and lost. I sat out a year.
Ultimately, it ended up being for the best. My left shoulder constantly ached, as did my right biceps tendon. Often, my legs and back were killing me. I never had time for fun or going out with friends. So I had a social life and actually attended three college courses to get on the plan to graduate in 3 years. I hated high school though. I enjoyed my friends, but hated the drudgery of being taught at.
The next year, I went to a different high school for my senior year. I went from a high school that had 1,200 students to one that had 5,000 students and a very strong swimming program. I had a new coach. And I had been out of the water for 8 months. My shoulder, biceps and back had healed some. I had grown another two or three inches. That coach saw my potential. She had called my old club coach and knew what had happened to me.
I got dumped into the group with the slowest swimmers, which was embarrassing. But I was slow. I was out of shape, and my body had changed. And I could only train once a day Monday through Friday. But still, I was embarrassed, as I hadn't been in the slow lane in years. But I remained there all season, moving from the second slowest to the fastest in the slow lane group. I was actually relieved to not be the star, and made friends in my lane. One of the swimmers became my lane counter, and they ended up being my cheerleaders.
On the date of our first meet, I was given a choice. I could have one of the two events I excelled at, but not both, because there were other swimmers faster than I was. As a senior, you could push a faster swimmer off only one event, but not two. So I chose to swim the 100 fly, and not the 50 free, even though I had been better at the 50. But I was the third best at the 100 fly, based on my old swims and the practice meet, for the 100 fly. I would have been the best at the 50 free, based on my old times, but I could not seem to put together a decent sprint to save my life after 6 weeks of training. I was slow off the blocks and I ran out of gas after the turn at the practice meet. Simply put, I stank at what had been my favorite event. And then she asked if anyone wanted to swim the dreaded 500. I always had been good at it, mostly due to my very efficient turns and endurance that game from 18-20 practices a week. I volunteered. If this says anything about the 500, often in high school meets, there is only one swimmer from each team, not the allowed two. So the boys race in the even or odd lanes and the girls race in the other. They are not really racing each other, but simply swimming it at the same time. This is also because a bad 500 freestyler can take upwards of 10 minutes to swim the event, so it’s a matter of efficiency. And in that first meet, I beat one of the boys, just like I used to.
My 500 improved all year. By the end of the regular season swimming schedule in February, I was swimming the best 500s I had ever swum in my life – and usually beating the boys in the process. It’s a point of pride when a girl can beat a boy who is at least 6 inches taller and 50 pounds heavier. But the ache in my shoulder and bicep was returning. I needed OTC painkillers after practice and a double dose after meets. I started having to ice my shoulder down after meets too. I was getting lightly scouted but I knew that I was probably nearing the end of my swimming career, unless I wanted to have surgeries to fix my rotator cuff, biceps tendon attachment, and other injuries.
I swam both the 100 fly and the 500 free at the district meet. I finished 6th and 2nd, qualifying me to move on to the regional meet. I was the only one in my lane to make it to the regional meet. They cheered me on like I was about to win state because the slow swimmers are the afterthoughts, the fill-ins and looked down on by the faster swimmers -- and they certainly don't beat the fast lane swimmers or make it to regionals in Texas, which is highly competitive.
I had an idea that the regional meet may be my last competitive meet, but was not sure. At the regional meet, there are qualifying rounds on Friday and the finals on Saturday. It was held at a pool I was not a particular fan of, having broken a finger in a lane rope there several years prior. But still, I prepared for the meet. I shaved down, made sure I was sleeping a bit extra and ate well.
On Friday night, I swam my 100 fly first, turning in my best time of the year, but not quite the same time I had as a freshman. Then came the 500. The 500 is a race of pacing yourself at about 92% of your max speed for much of it. I was a good opener, meaning I usually swam my fastest split in the first 100. I gave my lane counter my splits, and told her she had to keep me on pace to make it to finals. My lane mates started cheering as soon as I stepped behind the blocks. They wanted me, one of them, a broken, slower swimmer to show the faster, stuck-up and elite swimmers that a girl from the slow lane could be just as good, if not better.
When I hit the water in heat 2 of three lane 6, my shoulder began singing its song. By 150, my right arm was killing me too, and my legs were starting to feel heavier. I pushed. By 350, I was dying but could hear my cheer squad ramping up. I still pushed. At the 425 turn, I could see where I was and my lane mates were losing their minds, urging me on. Often, swimmers save just a little bit for the finish and turn it on at about the 425. I got a great turn, and picked it up a little bit. My stomach began churning too, to add to the symphony of the shoulder, bicep, and legs. I could hear my coach yelling at me to pick it up and I did a bit more. At the 475 turn, everything went silent. I could see it was going to be close. I hit the turn and turned on what sprint I had left. I pushed with every ounce of what remained. With about 15 yards remaining, I was almost dead. And I hit the wall getting my best time of the season, 5:33, with my lane mates roaring. I was so exhausted that I struggled to get out of the pool and immediately threw up on the deck.
And then I waited for the results of the heats. And the rest of this will be up on Tuesday.