The Young Mr has an alternate identity which he has long maintained: the Slippery Seal. When the Seal was much younger, his grandfather lived nearby in a house with a pool; as a result, the Seal spent every possible moment between the ages of 2 and 5 in the water. Eventually we learned to put him in a flotation device and removed him only to warm him up and feed him. He’s the same way, still, at the beach. He doesn’t go to the beach: he goes to the water, and will swim in the ocean in October if you let him.
Despite swim lessons, despite swimming at summer camp, despite my imprecations and pleading, the Seal refused to try out for the local (as in two blocks away) TigerSharks swim team until invited last summer. Now he swims at least twice a week after school, and competes in meets around the state. He loves it, even when he struggles.
The meets take hours, as some teams are twice the size (or more) of the TigerSharks dozen-plus kids. On Sunday, the TigerSharks swam against the Barracudas and the Penguins. Both the Barracudas and the TigerSharks have a number of team members in the under-8 category, that is, kids as young as 6 and 7. And zOMG, are they cute. We call them the Swim Kittens or the KittenSharks, because there is hardly a splash when six of them go off the blocks and start paddling. The first time he saw this, Mr S said, “It’s like someone threw an armful of kittens into the water.” The big boys go in like Great Danes, kerSPLASH! and rumble down the lanes.
The cutest thing we saw at yesterday’s meet was a swim kitten on the Barracuda team carrying her Little Mermaid doll. This swimmer was clearly in her first year of competing, swimming very slowly and deliberately, and then clutching her totem Little Mermaid when out of the water and on her mother’s lap. This level of adorableness helps us get through the three-plus hours of other people’s kids swimming, while the Slippery Seal waits for his 30 seconds in the water.
Every team has a different style. The Fox Point team’s coach is Australian, and silently coaches swimmers with hand and head gestures alone. It reminded me of shepherding. One Cumberland team had a real screamer of a coach, but the Cumberland-Lincoln Penguins coach used a lot of hand gestures and rhythmic calls. The TigerSharks coach gives the kids thumbs-up signals, and yells things like, “You got it!” on their last lap or final yards. Older kids give each other a lot of high-fives, but the Swim Kittens alternate between hopping up and down and hugging each other.
The Slippery Seal was very nervous at yesterday’s meet; it was his first away meet, and he was as terrified as he’d been before the very first meet. When he gets really anxious, his asthma kicks in, and he started his notorious Seal Cough. Still, he made it through his first event (breaststroke) just fine, coming in second. He scratched from his next event, the freestyle, because he was using his inhaler, but his team mates told him he could have taken first in it. We spent the hour and half before his final event convincing him he could get through the waiting, into the water, and make it through all four laps of the backstroke.
This took some doing. There was coughing on his part, and pep-talking on our part, and on the part of the 12-year-old team captain (Abby) and the coaches. But he did it: he finished and came in third. And when it was over, I cried, surprised at how tense it had been.
At his first meet, the Slippery Seal inhaled water and stopped swimming, with a booming cough that silenced the entire pool. At his second meet, he stopped swimming because he thought he was going to have an asthma attack (he didn’t). He sees a specialist for the asthma and has a therapist for the anxiety, but nothing can teach him he can really do this but doing it. I think he learned that on Sunday– and that he can have his own Swim Kitten Cheer Squad. Sometimes it’s hard to accept that people want you on their team, and want you to succeed, and have more faith in you than you do yourself.