A few days after joining the Oberlin College varsity swim team, one of my teammates asked me if I had been shown the ropes. Assuming she was talking about practices, I told her that I had. “So you know where we eat?” she asked. I did not. She took me to the dining hall, showed me the swim team section and said, “We eat here.” Laughing at herself, she added, “We eat here a lot. Pretty much all the time. I would say that you could come here whenever food is being served and there will be someone from the team who you can stuff your face with.”
I came to Oberlin with every intention of not swimming. I had swum on my town team in grade school and my school team in middle school and high school and had slowly begun to loathe the sport. After roughly one lonely week of freshman orientation, I decided to give swimming a second chance and went out for the college team.
Mark Fino, the head coach, described the team atmosphere during a preseason pump up talk. He said that division three (the least competitive of varsity college athletics) is the highest level of collegiate competition in which athletes get nothing in return for their talent. In particular, this means that athletes are not allowed assistance in the admissions process or monetary incentives to come to a school. This, he said, meant that everyone on our team was participating purely for love of the sport.
The time commitment to swim ended up being more extensive than I had anticipated. It included two-hour practices every Monday through Friday afternoon, three-hour Saturday morning practices when we didn’t have meets, and “highly recommended” morning practices four times a week. Those morning practices have since been reduced to three days a week and are now required. It is the acquired love that Mark described from the beginning that motivates me through every one of these practices, though every endless meet, and it even wakes me up at 5:40 A.M. to trek across campus in the snow to go to morning practice.
Roughly three months into my freshman year, I found myself at the Wooster Invitational meet. This three day meet is the most hyped up meet of first semester and we were all rested and shaven to prove it. On the second day, I was swimming the 200-yard freestyle race. 8 lengths of the pool. The last time I had swum this race had been my freshman year of high school. I had been so nervous about the slightly prolonged sprint that I had forgotten to put my goggles on, had missed the wall completely during one flip turn and jammed my foot on another. Needless to say, I was ambivalent about swimming it again.
I stood behind the block for the first heat of the race. The first heat is reserved for the slowest swimmers who, at big meets such as Wooster, don’t score points for the team. As a result, these heats are usually ignored. I took a deep breath, shook out my arms and legs, and tried to relax. I looked forward to a mob of red and gold. Every member of my team was crowded into the five foot long, three feet wide space at the end of my lane. They were all there to cheer me on.
I ended up swimming a difficult, but great race. I could hear my team yelling at me to go faster on every flip turn and there is no doubt in my mind that their intensity of cheering inspired my determination in the water.
On our team, every swimmer from lane one (the fastest) to lane 6 (the slowest) receives equal encouragement. There is an appreciation for effort, so that while a great race for me might yield less impressive results than a great race for a more talented teammate, we are both praised and attended to with the same vigor. By the time the Wooster invitational of 2007 came to an end, at least half of our team had lost their voices from such enthusiastic cheering.
This encouragement I have found in the pool exemplifies my general experience at Oberlin. Some people come to college knowing exactly what they want to study and do in their free time. I was not one of those people. At the beginning of my college experience, I figured I wanted to study something in creative writing, math, or anything else. I pictured myself getting involved in musical groups or theater productions, as I also had done in high school. Now I am a physics and English double major and a student athlete. I traveled to Israel last year while getting credit for winter term and this year, I am going to learn how to knit socks and assemble a local and seasonal cookbook. I couldn’t imagine my collegiate experience taking any other path and I am grateful I had the ability to explore my opportunities before settling into my Oberlin life.