This is a short story I wrote for  Ragbag Magazine. Last month’s issue was all audio/visual so I recorded myself reading the story out loud. Here’s that audio and a slightly edited transcription of the story. 


St. Pat’s Invitational

There’s no gun anymore. Now the race starts with a loud electric beep. So, hearing the beep, he dives in.

He doesn’t arc over the water or break through a tiny piece of the surface; he falls in and ends up deeper than he should be. He’s still moving diagonally down when he sees other swimmers break the surface of the water. He doesn’t hear anything. The race just started and he’s already behind.



Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

He breaks his streamline and starts to kick. He can tell he’s too deep. There’s no time to waste, this is a sprint, so he begins his first stroke. Unfortunately, he’s not really pulling himself forward, he is clawing his way up to the surface, fighting instead of riding the little momentum he got from the dive.

Pressure builds up in his chest. He wants to breathe, but he’s still too far from the surface, so he starts his second stroke.  His head breaks the surface and he takes a kind of straight ahead gasp, exhaling and inhaling before bringing his head back into the water.

His right then left arm comes around, back in front of him. His strokes are coming in a strange rhythm. It’s a frantic lope.

Now at the surface racing, he almost feels like this is what he practiced for. He’s kicking and pulling and looking forward out of his goggles, which have just a moderate amount of water in them.

But that comfort is only going to slow him down, and he thinks kick and pull and does more thrash and flail. But he flails mightily and purposefully and as he comes under the flags almost ready for the first turn, he sees the man in lane five coming back toward him, already off the wall.

He’s two body lengths back, there are still three more laps to swim, and this is a sprint.

David Christian weighed 110 pounds when he started high school. At 5’8’’ David was no shorter than most of the other incoming freshmen, but his voice wasn’t cracking yet and he felt very young.

David didn’t lean on his physicality. He never thought of himself as a physical force.  But in high school, where people seemed to be looking at each other more closely, and where the folks were just bigger, size and strength got to the front of his mind more often.

It took a crappy play and the better part of a semester to make him vulnerable enough to be talked into joining the swim team.

“Come on man, you’re tall.”

It didn’t start out being very much of his life. He was a terrible swimmer. Of course, he didn’t know that going in.  He had never needed to think about being terrible at swimming before. But he was personable, made a couple jokes, and the seniors decided they liked him.

So he swam the whole year and became more of a mascot for the team than an important teammate.  David said the cheer, he swam third in the JV relay, and he tried not to disqualify.

It’s not that bad to be a terrible athlete when you’re a freshman, because usually someone else is terrible too.  But as the season wore on, a lot of those terrible swimmers became ex-swimmers.

Then the season ended and Christian – everyone on the swim team was called by their last name – “Christianwas still pretty bad, and now the seniors were gone.

The rest of freshman year went pretty well. That spring and summer he grew five inches and gained twenty-five pounds.  When he came back as a sophomore he was taller than most of his high school.

He had also spent a season playing water polo (watching, really) and he was a lot more competitive than he had been.  He never liked losing, nobody does, but in water polo when you lose you are shoved under, you’re manhandled and it’s galling.  He was still thin, weak and slow, so he got as much shoving under as he could stand. After the season ended, he set about trying to become less weak and less thin, so that eventually he could be less slow.

His first idea was to do pushups.  Pushups were the most boring, difficult way he could think of to work out, so he pointed himself in that direction. The first week he did them, he gave himself terrible acne.  It took him another week to realize he couldn’t do them before bed and go to sleep in a sweaty heap.

He swam in the summer programs. They were far away. It took more time to get there on the bus than he spent in the pool.

He showed up on time, he stretched, and he worked the practices. He led his lane.  He pushed his intervals, and in every way he could think, he beat his body up.  He was breaking himself down as much as he could, straining his muscles and his breath, wanting, willing himself to move faster.

After practice he would come home and stink like chlorine. His hair got nasty and dry. First it turned blonder, then it frosted with a kind of white tip. His skin dried out and pieces of it flaked off in uneven little white sheets.

Then, when the summer ended and he couldn’t spend all day on the bus, he tried to cross train.  He ran stairs, he ran in the park, he ran home from school with a book bag full of books.

His body didn’t seem to change much.  He got faster at running home.

Then came the actual swim season and the real practices.  Now he wasn’t making things up as he went along.  He was doing the things that were actually supposed to make him a better swimmer with his actual team.  Putting in the laps, the work and the time.

Coach talked about winning the work out, and David ate that shit up. But he didn’t see great times at the first few meets.

He felt better. His starts and turns were better, but he wasn’t swimming varsity times.

He wouldn’t have asked for anybody’s advice. He was embarrassed at what they might say. But they offered advice. “It’s early in the season,” they said. “You’ve been working hard. You’re breaking your body down now for races that come later on in the year.” “You’re in good position.” “It was 1.06, but it was clean.” “Don’t worry, you have nice balanced splits.”  “You want to peak at the right time.”  “Wait ‘til Conference.” “Wait ‘til taper.”

He couldn’t make himself believe that stuff. Swimming’s not subjective.  You’re good or you’re not. He knew what he wanted and he knew he didn’t have it.

He was getting good at practice.

The year before, practices had left him exhausted. Now he could lead practices, he could push as hard as anyone in his lane.  He asked for harder intervals. Yeah, it pissed off his lane, but he did it anyway. David still left practice exhausted, but now it was because he was pushing himself.

He had more meets and more mediocre results. Mercifully, time passed. He got over the hump of the season without noticing.  David pushed through the hardest practices of the season and afterward jogged home.  He broke his body down.  He wrecked the thing in traditional swimming style, hoping that he could come into his taper with more strength, more energy and more speed.

And then he was in taper, and he felt the boost in energy. Suddenly, he was restless in class.

Taper is the part of any training regimen when you practice less so that your body can restore itself and heal. You let your muscles rebuild. Boxers taper before big fights, marathoners run shorter distances in the week before an important race and swimmers swim less and less yards as they approach their final meets.

David wasn’t going to swim in sectionals or state.  He wasn’t fast enough to make that cut.  But he had conference coming up, and that was his Olympics.

On a Tuesday in an afternoon algebra class while everyone else was in the sleepy haze of an after lunch class, David fidgeted in his chair.  He had already asked to go pee once and walked around the halls.  Now he was out of excuses to leave class.

His body wanted work and practice, but during taper he didn’t practice enough to satisfy it.

Then the bell rang and he was free.  He went to his locker.  He already had his books for history, but why not? The locker is high school’s version of the fridge – you always look in whether you want something or not. He opened the locker.  It held a spring jacket and a stack of papers, folders and other things that might have been important.

He closed his locker. He went to class. Class dragged on. Class ended. He went to the locker room. He put his suit on. And for a blink, he swam.  He felt good, he felt fast, then it was done.

Walking back into the locker room, David wasn’t satisfied with his effort, but he did feel strong. After practice, he went through his daily routine: rinse, towel off, dress, run home.  But this was taper, so no running.  With that in mind, David was walking when he opened the door, stepped out of Sacred Heart College Prep onto Clark Street and got very wet.

He wasn’t thinking about the weather; he was in his routine. The water woke him up. Newly wet swimmer skin stinks of chlorine that can never be totally washed off. As he walked down the sidewalk, the light of the street lamps sparkled in his eyes. David reached behind his head for a hood but this jacket didn’t have one. Whatever, six blocks, he thought.

David got home, went into his room, peeled off the clothes he was wearing and fell asleep. Two hours later, he woke up when his mother came home from work.  David put his head out the door of his room and told her he’d make himself something to eat later.  They didn’t usually eat together anyway.

When he woke up again it was morning and he was sick.

His throat felt sticky and full. His eyes had sandmen that started by his nose and worked all the way out to the far side. He rubbed them. The left eye was less gross, less welded shut than the right, so he worked on that one first. Eventually he opened it, but the world wasn’t any prettier with his eyes open so he put his head back on the pillow.

He started to fall asleep again but he remembered about practice.  You couldn’t practice if you didn’t go to class that day, so he sat up again and started working on his right eye.  Eventually, it opened and he got out of bed.

“I checked on you, but I couldn’t wake you up.” His mother told him as he got ready to leave for the day. He didn’t have anything to say back.

Wednesday practice didn’t go as well as Tuesday practice did. But, it was taper so it was short. He gutted it out and went home.

He felt just as bad on Thursday as he felt on Wednesday. He gave his friends a wide berth, particularly teammates – nobody should be sick for conference. Practice felt shitty, but he was good at practice now and he could get through them on bad days.

Friday, he felt better. Maybe he would be healthy again by conference on Saturday. Taper was fucked. But, if he could be healthy by conference…

It wasn’t about taper, it was about conference.


He hears the beep and he’s off. For a long moment, he’s in the air, holding his body tightly in the streamline. He hits the water, glides, still in streamline, then, feeling himself slow down, he kicks.  He feels the pressure in his chest.  He wants to breathe but instead lets a little air out of his lungs.

His head breaches the surface of the water and he takes his first stroke, feeling the water in his hand. He still wants to breathe but doesn’t. The next stroke starts out as strong as the first but comes out a little short.  He finally turns his head to breathe on his third stroke.

Don’t slow down your kicking, keep the pace. He can see the swimmer in lane four. He’s right next to him, they are stroke for stroke, he must have dived a little to the right of the center of the land because they are very close. Now the other swimmer is a half stroke ahead of him. He shouldn’t have looked.

Ahead, the wall is coming, five strokes away, maybe six.

David tries to turn up his turn over, bring his arms through the air more rapidly.  He takes what will be his last breath before the wall.  He pulls, flips, and as he does the somersault that makes the turn, he can feel that his body is a little too close to the wall.  He unfurls awkwardly but with all the power he can muster.

Still, three laps to go.

He dropped seven seconds off of his best time.

At a higher level this would be a miraculous improvement, something beyond hoping for. But David wasn’t swimming at a very high level. Coming off the low base of JV swimming, it’s more like respectable.

Every swimmer mainly races himself, herself, or the clock. It’s as individual as a sport can be. Sure there’s a team, but you can barely hear them cheering. There are no cheerleaders, no fans at swim meets. When you compete, you mostly look down at the bottom of the pool.  It shouldn’t matter too much what place you come in. Seven seconds is the thing, and it wasn’t bad.

But David came in fifth.