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I shimmied out of the extra swim suit I wore over my red New Smyrna Beach High School team suit, hopped onto the starting block, and bent to on-your-mark position almost in one motion.

A Mad Magazine could be read through a dry team suit and wet—let’s just say the guys still fondly recall the girls’ suits forty years later.

I held my ready stance, excitement bunching in my stomach. As a distance swimmer, the 500 Freestyle/twenty laps, was my chance to hotdog.

New Smyrna Beach High School inaugural swim team, 1975 [me in center, standing on diving board]

Last week—the only week of practice before our first meet—the team splashed up and down Aqua Park Pool sucking oxygen like first string sunbathers instead of athletes. But really we were a motley mix of surfers, loaners from other sports, cheerleaders—and probably a few sunbathers.

Giddiness zinged through my bloodstream. I might be the slowest kid in the pool at Halifax Swim Association, but I’d own New Smyrna Beach High School’s inaugural season.

My fingers curled around the lip of the starting block. Hopefully, my body had recovered from the brutal four-lap butterfly and eight-lap smorgasbord of all four strokes—events nobody, including me, wanted to swim. Coach Basil Bullard had slotted me in the races because, thanks to my AAU training, I had the cardiovascular endurance and stroke expertise to swim those events.

“Swimmers, take your mark!” the starter’s voice boomed over eight swimmers poised on blocks.

My muscles tensed, ready to spring.

The starting gun sounded.

I flew out from the block, stretching parallel to the water, knowing my body moved faster through air than water.

The shock of cool water on my drying skin fueled my first lap. I stroked just ahead of the pack, right where I wanted to be. After a flip turn against the wall, I backed off the sprint to conserve steam for the rest of the race. My middle splits needed to be strong and consistent.

Energy leached out lap by lap. Every muscle in my body craved rest and the Crunchy Cheetos in my swim bag. Which length was I on, anyway? I needed to get my head back in the race.

The girl on my right had edged a half-body length ahead of me and the one on the left pulled even.

I squinted through my goggles at the large lane counter teammate Suzy Chamberlain had submerged against the wall.

Seven. More. Laps.

This was where I always died—the reason coaches say eighty percent of swimming is in your head.

Just think about the next fifty yards, I pep-talked myself. Swim a little over three-quarters’ speed. Don’t worry about the other swimmers unless you’re eyeballing the splash of their feet.

I maintained my position for the next two laps and now I stared down five on the lap counter. Only one more lap to trail the competition, then I’d sprint my heart out.

But how was I going to keep pace for another lap, much less have anything left to attack the home stretch? What would Laura Odley do?

Coach Basil Bullard, Back row: Laura Grabiak, Scott Porta, Suzy Chamberlain. Front row: Laura Odley, Ann Fetterman (me)

Laura, an eighth grader and my carpool partner, swam so fast she trained with the high schoolers on our AAU team. She would tell herself she could win this race if she wanted it badly enough.

I heaved in a breath, visualized oxygen energizing my starving cells, and channeled Laura. My legs rocketed me off the wall into my four-lap race to the finish.

Three lengths to go and my body yelled, I quit!

I ignored it.

I flipped and shot off the wall, pulling ahead of the girl on my left and gaining on the girl on my right.

When I was fresh, I glided through the pool, slick as a seal, girl winning over water. But now, way past winded, the water sloshed in my face when I gasped for air. It Jelloed around my limbs.

This is where Laura won her races. Now. She powered through.

I wanted to quit. I wanted to win. I wanted to never swim again. I wanted the Olympics.

Isabel & Cathy McLaughlin, 1975

I pulled even with the girl on my right.

My heart sang. One last breath sucked down my throat and I barreled for the finish wall.

My fingertips slapped the gutter and my head spun before I heaved in air. Had I out-touched my opponent?

A spray of water splashed my cheek and I couldn’t tell who’d won.

Air wheezed in and out of my mouth.

My ears strained to capture my time and the girl’s in the next lane.

Only the two lane judges stayed in sharp focus. Everything else blurred—the swimmers bouncing and shaking their limbs behind the blocks, the 400 Individual Medley Relay broadcast over the PA, my teammate Diane Schneider holding a towel so I wouldn’t flash the boys when I exited the pool.

My judge said, “Six-fifty-one point oh four.”

My fastest time yet!

My opponent’s timer said, “Six-fifty-one point oh seven.”

Yes! First place.

So this was what it felt like. Glorious.

I’d won some heats, even a couple of events when I’d been lucky enough to swim a B-level AAU meet. But winning a high school event was a first.

My ribbons

Several weeks later I sat at the Spring Sports Banquet marveling that New Smyrna Beach’s first-ever swim team finished in the top three of the Orange Belt Conference. Though I owned the 500 Free, we had the sheer athleticism of our surfers, like Isabel and Cathy McLaughlin to thank. And Scott Porta, Marlin Athearn, and Paul and Laura Grabiak had swum AAU as kids, Marlin and the Grabiaks all the way to the Junior Olympics. Our novice swimming coach must have thought he won the athlete lottery.

Coach Bullard cleared his throat and held up the “Most Valuable” plaque.

My teeth clamped down on my lip. I’d won a lot of races. I’d swum the 100 Yard Butterfly and 200 Yard Individual Medley like a martyr all season. I wanted that piece of proof I mattered like I wanted the guy I’d crushed on all year to choose me back.

Coach sung the praises of the unnamed swimmer and I chewed on my lip. “…and this year’s most valuable swimmer is…”

My breath caught.

“Isabel McLaughlin.”

I exhaled. My shoulders slumped.

My hands clapped, even if my emotions didn’t. I liked Isabel. I couldn’t argue with Coach’s choice. She’d swum a stellar season.

On the way out of the banquet, Coach patted me on the shoulder. “Isabel’s a senior. I had to give her the award. Next year it will be yours.”

What Coach didn’t know was that Laura Odley would start her freshman year at New Smyrna Beach High School in the fall. He hadn’t counted the seconds that stretched between our times, so many that no amount of training would land me “Most Valuable” next year or ever.

Coach taught me a lesson weightier than any award that night.

Failing to win “Most Valuable” swimmer of 1975 at New Smyrna Beach High School didn’t nosedive my life. I went home to friends and family who loved me, whom I loved. And I’d later realize God headlined the list of those who cared about me.

Sure, part of me will always hunger for validation—I yearn to see Random House on the spine of one of my books. I’m willing to march through hundreds of rejection letters from agents and editors even though I may never nail that goal.

Because Coach taught me disappointment is momentary.

Life taught me love hangs on. Stubborn. Forever.

And the people who read me say my words matter. I matter.