My mother had been telling me that life isn’t fair since as far back as I could remember. She’d married a gay man and had a debilitating stroke before she reached the age of 30, so I figured she knew what she was talking about. It didn’t really hit home for me until I was in middle school.
The Back Story
When I was 10 or 11, I was on the University Club swimming team. Today the University Club is a private club for the well-to-do of St. Paul. 100 years ago it was a private club for the well-to-do, including F. Scott Fitzgerald who got his drink on there most days and nights. In the 70s it was still a private club and it was still a haven for the well-to-do of the town, but the swimming team was the worst in the league. The club was run down and not nearly as nice as some of the other clubs in the area.
I was not athletic by any stretch of the imagination. I was “chunky” as my brother liked to point out at every occasion. I played softball in the triangle park, and kick-the-can and ditch and all those other neighborhood games that kids play, but I wasn’t very good. I did not volunteer for the team. My parents signed me up for the team because it kept my brother and me somewhat occupied during the summer.
Growing up around 10k plus lakes I knew how to swim. I was a strong swimmer – I could, and still can, swim two lengths of the pool under water without taking a breath – but races aren’t swum underwater. The only practical use for that skill, that I have ever seen, was in the 1972 movie The Poseidon Adventure when Shelly Winters (someone who would also be labeled chunky) swam a great distance underwater to get the guide rope to the other side of the chasm. **** Spoiler – she died after succeeding****
I’m a Loser Baby
I was probably the worst swimmer on the team. I came in dead last every time I raced. I wasn’t proud of it, but I was accustomed to it. There were only two other girls in my age division. The other two were very fast swimmers, probably some of the best in the league. Betsy, not her real name, always came in first place. It wasn’t even a question, we all knew she would win.
The sky was blue, water was wet and Betsy always took first place.
Betsy was popular, attractive, graceful, confident, athletic and not the least bit chunky. Betsy was also kind of a bitch, to me at least. Although I was not allowed to use that word back then. She had a posse, I did not.
I was none of those things. I was someone who lost every race and who had come to terms with the word “chunky”, it was certainly better than the other nick name my brother called me – Post Toasties – said with such contempt it must be horrible though to this day I still have no idea why I was nicked named for a cereal. I was sure it was a way to call me fat without alerting my parents to such a thing, but I really don’t know.
Anything is Possible
Anyway, one summer afternoon we had a meet, I was called to take my place for the race and headed over to the edge of the pool, ready to accept defeat like always. My brother stopped me when I passed by him on the way to the end of the pool.
“You swim with your fingers wide apart. That’s why you’re so slow,” he said. “See how my fingers are pressed tightly together when I push the water away? When you keep your fingers closed it’s like having a paddle; you’ll swim faster.”
He pantomimed the stroke for me while emphasizing his closed fingers.
“Give it a try” he said encouragingly.
Talk about pressure. My brother was fast, he was clever, he was smart, he was a really good swimmer and I was sure he was embarrassed by having me as a sister, especially at the pool where we had to wear Speedos. I didn’t think this simple little tip was going to change anything, but I was thrilled he was actually trying to help me. I wasn’t too concerned about other people, but I really cared what he thought of me, I wanted him to be proud of me and so far that hadn’t happened. I was just the stupid little sister who tagged around getting in his way and making life difficult for him.
I got on my mark and when the whistle blew I dove in and kept my fingers togethers. I swam as hard as I could and went into my kick turn at the same time as everyone else. I pushed off the wall and just kept going.
I repeated this mantra to myself as I swam – Keep your fingers closed, keep your fingers closed, keep your fingers closed.
I slapped the edge of the pool and to my surprise, and everyone else’s, I won.
I didn’t come in third place, I didn’t come in second. I came in first place. It was close, very close, but I actually beat three other swimmers. I actually beat Betsy.
I climbed out of the pool grasping my first place ribbon. I caressed that blue ribbon. It was the best thing I had ever felt in my entire life. It was great. I was sure I was smiling that goofy smile that you couldn’t wipe off your face no matter how hard you tried. My brother even came up to me and congratulated me.
He didn’t say much, just a quick “nice job” before he joined his friends again.
Which was fine because I don’t think either of us thought I would actually win. I don’t think his goal in teaching me how to hold my hands was for me to win, it was just not to lose as badly as I usually did.
Life isn’t Fair
And then the click of the PA system sounded.
“Attention, please. The first-place winner of the girls’ 50-meter breaststroke is actually Betsy. Betsy took first place; Jenny took second place. Jenny would you please come to the judges’ table to exchange your ribbon? Thank you.”
I wasn’t even surprised.
Besty was at the judges’ table when I got there. She was making a big scene about how she always won and there was no way she could lose to someone like me. They must have called the race wrong because there is just no way she could possibly lose to fat girl who had lost every single race up until this point.
Obviously the judge agreed because he took my first place ribbon and gave it to Betsy. I stood there and waited for him to give me the second place ribbon — because let’s face it, there is no way someone like me could have possibly won against someone like her.
*This is an excerpt of my yet-to-be-published memoir, Minnesota Nice, if you liked this story please like my book on Facebook.