Palo Alto Weekly 15th Annual Short Story Contest
No Guts No Glory
by Kalani Kai Leifer
Have you ever wanted something so bad that it hurt, or worked so hard for something that failing was not an option? Well that's how it was. This was the big time, this was the compilation of a lifetime of a.m. practices and late night work outs; this was my sweat and blood. These were the 2004 Athens Olympic games.
The hot July rain had subsided, and along with it ended my unbearable nervousness. A sacred calm had come over me, and as I stood in front of 20,000 screaming fans, all I could think about were the two most important minutes of my life that lay like a hungry tiger in my path. This moment was what I had worked for ever since I had blown my first bubbles in my neighborhood pool; half of me could hardly stand waiting, I was ready to give it my all. The other part of me dreaded the next few minutes like death itself. A thousand what if's" ran through my head at once, but I managed to imprison them in the farthest corners of my mind, until there was only one left. "What if I win?"
I never thought that I would come this far so soon, but I had, and there was no turning back, and no getting around it. I made finals seated first in the Men's 200 individual medley, and I was the obvious underdog. I was only 17 years old, and this was my first major international swim meet. Through the sheer will power that I had mustered up, I dropped nearly seven seconds off my previous best time in the morning's preliminaries. But none of that mattered now, it was just me, with three swimmers to my left and four to my right, the way I had always dreamed it would be. I vaguely remember the announcer declare my name to the crowd, but at that point, all that I could think of was myself standing on the top of the Olympic podium, all that lay between me and that distant dream were four lengths of that rippleless crystal pool.
The whistle blew, and I climbed up onto the starting blocks, imagining that it was the top of the podium. "Take your marks," I heard, and the gun shot, from then on, things happened quicker than I can remember. I knew I had had an awesome start, for I was already in the lead. I knew the race by heart, exactly how many kicks it would take to break the surface, and exactly how many strokes from there on. My subconscious counter reached seventeen, and I took my first butterfly stroke with great ease. The first couple of strokes felt weightless, and I was refilled with confidence, but that was all about to change.
By the sixth or seventh pull I began to feel and hear a little clicking sounding in my left shoulder every time I fully extended. It sounded like a wall clock in the dead of night, interrupted by the splashing of the water around me. I told myself it was just anxiety, and it would disappear by the time I reached the backstroke. I completed the fly with good long form, feeling no signs of fatigue, and the clicking had subsided a little. I made a quick transition to backstroke, and continued to lead the race by a significant margin, but I was counting on that half body length as I entered the back, then breast stroke, which are my weaker strokes. I began the backstroke with an explosive break-out, what at the time seemed the correct move. I remembered not to let the excitement get the best of me, so I held back with my kicks till the breast stroke. But now the clicking returned, and with it came a dull aching pain that had spread to both shoulders, increasing with each vigorous pull. I panicked, and turned to my legs, which I knew should not be used till later in this grueling race. In all the confusion, I had forgotten to watch for the flags, and had a terrible turn onto breaststroke, which cost me my lead. I felt the immediate results of my foolish decision on my first kick, my whole lower body was tighter than I had ever felt before. Still I persisted, but I knew that I would have to face the reality that gold was slipping farther and farther out of my reach, as the two men beside me continued to gain critical ground on me.
I had a new problem. Now I had to fight to even find my place on the podium, fight for the bronze. I kicked and pulled with all my might, but it had no effect, I felt like a sardine jammed into a tiny aluminum can. Then I remembered the words of my coach, "No Guts No Glory," and I reached into myself to find the guts to push through this pain. I imagined myself casting a fishing line and reeling the leaders back in. I turned to freestyle with one quick twist, and with powerful underwater dolphin kicks propelled myself back into gold medal contention. I kicked and thrashed myself to the lead, until it was a stroke for stroke duel with the Australian world record holder, in the lane immediately to my right. We passed the black line on the bottom of the pool signifying that there were 25 meters left, and I remember thinking of all my family and friends back in the States, I would not let them down. I could see my mom screaming and praying all at the same time in the midst of a sea of deafening Aussies that made up the crowd around her; and how my dad could not have been more proud of me, just for giving it my all. Then I said to myself, no one has worked as hard as you have, and no one deserves this more than you.
..And so I laid my hand on the wall.