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Swimming against the current: becoming a college athlete

Horgos swimming in the Monterey Bay. (Bill Horgos)

I haven’t been on a swim team since I was eight. So then why am I joining the Mills College swim team?

Being the sports and health editor, I often feel like a fraud. Sure, I enjoy working out, but I’ve never been much of a team player. My parents briefly enrolled me in soccer when I was five; I sat picking flowers during games.

Swimming, however, is something I can relate to. My parents are swimmers, I’ve dabbled in competing and even enjoy a dip or two in the pool.

But is that enough to become a Cyclone? I will track my strokes, flip turns and belly flops for the next several weeks, hopefully surviving one of the ultimate balancing acts: being a college athlete.

I’m not used to all of these people. Girls swim next to me, reaching out, pushing their hands into the water, gliding past. Then again, I’m not sure what I expected joining the Mills College swim team.

The team moved back onto campus four days early this semester. Each day, we swam up to two and a half hours, in addition to lifting various weights and hurling medicine balls. I’m sore and realizing I have no idea what I’m getting myself into.

My path to the swim team began in late September of last year when I decided to participate in the Swim A Mile fundraiser for women with cancer at Mills. After swimming the mile and not collapsing, I figured I was pretty much good to go. I could obviously join the swim team.

Yet here I am, just 10 minutes into the warm up and already short of breath.

I’m not out of shape. I swam two miles every day over winter break, even waking up at 5:45 a.m. on New Year’s day to swim (turns out the pool was closed.)

Still, I was swimming at my local YMCA with 80-year-old men using flotation noodles to ease their arthritic pain. I pretty much looked like a god if I could complete a lap.

I’m not looking too hot right now though. While my endless hours of swimming over the break were useful, our coach Neil Virtue gently points out that my stroke is mangled and uncoordinated. I waste energy by twisting and turning my butt, overlapping my legs with each stroke.

I’m surprised that my stroke has deteriorated so much.

I began taking swimming lessons around age six. My favorite part was passing the other kids as I worked on my stroke. No, I wasn’t a great swimmer; I was just bigger and wanted to prove myself.

After a fair amount of lessons under my belt, I joined the local swim team at eight. I was only a member for a year, but I developed a relatively strong stroke.

But I guess swimming isn’t exactly like riding a bicycle. Our coach watches me and tells me that I’m not using my core, relying instead on my shoulders and calves to swim. Not too effective.

I become slightly discouraged, but I still manage to work through the near half-mile warm up.

After comes a kick set, where we work out using the kick board for two thirds of a mile. I’m surprisingly fast, keeping neck and neck with the fastest kickers. Still, the coach tells me to slow down, that I’ll burn out way before practice ends. My cocky self doubts it.

But then comes the main set. We have to swim multiple medleys of butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle; mind you, I haven’t swam butterfly in about ten years.

I push as hard as I can. I’m gasping for air, my body aches and I’m pretty miserable.

“Take it down about six notches, Bonnie,” Coach Neil says.

I hate taking it down a notch though; it goes against my parents’ philosophy. My parents met swimming in the San Francisco Bay, working out each morning at 5 a.m. without a wetsuit.

My mother swam throughout her pregnancy, even swimming from Alcatraz on New Years day eight months pregnant; the water was 45 degrees and hell no, she still didn’t wear a wetsuit. I grew up with the mentality that effort equals serious pain. And here I am about to die in the Mills pool.

I eventually do ease up a little, realizing I’ll never survive the whole season, let alone one swim practice, if my heart rate is above 200 beats per minute the entire time.

I somehow manage to make it through the first swim with the team, feeling jubilant and proud. We all sit in the hot tub, rubbing our sore necks, shoulders and calves, planning on what to feast on for dinner.

With each practice I grow a little more confident. I learn how to push myself without collapsing, discovering an inner endurance that could help me last at least two hours.

Plus, it turns out that growing up around my parents’ crazy swimming practices gave me certain advantages. While most of the girls found the pool too cold, I was pretty comfortable.

I got grounded when I was 16. As a punishment, my parents made me swim at 5 a.m. everyday over the summer. In a bikini.

Running into the ocean at 5 a.m. is facing your fear over and over again. The nerve-shattering cold hits your toes, your feet, your calves; the only choice is to dive in unless you want to prolong the pain. Walking in slowly means a rash of pain that migrates up your body, twists around your groin and continues to throb for hours after. Diving in still hurts, but at least you can try to numb out as soon as possible.

I still get into the water as quickly as possible, but the 80 degree pool is no struggle compared to the Pacific’s chilly 60 degrees. Despite the aches, gasps and doubts, I still feel right at home.

I still have so much to learn from these girls though. They swim six days a week, waking at 6 a.m. every other day to work out while most people are comfortably asleep in bed. And after workouts, they carry on throughout their days, taking notes in class, putting in time at work and doing hours of homework each night.

Hopefully I can keep my grades up when I’m not working out countless hours, taping ice bags onto my sore muscles or shoving my face with all the food I can get my hands on.

Read the rest of the series

Swimming against the current:
1.) Becoming a college athlete
2.) Getting down to business and gearing up for swim meets
3.) How to win a swim meet
4.) The final race