Winning


Winning

Carla reached into the hat and took out a small paper. Quickly she unfolded it.

“Lane eight, heat one,” she read. Great!

She looked around the room, her eyes inadvertently landing on the starting block that loomed majestically over the end lane. That was her favorite position, and for this meet she needed all the advantages she could get. She had to win this one!

Carole, the girls’ team coach, walked over. “Which lane and heat?” she asked.

“Eight, heat one,” Carla answered.

“Good. Are you ready?”

“Yes.”

“I wish you’d loosen up. I’ve never seen you so tense. You can’t win like that. Any problems?”

“No,” Carla said too quickly, and then added, “It’s just that this race means a lot to me. It’s my last chance. The Western Division Trials only come every four years, and next time around I’ll be too old.”

“But it means a lot to the girls in the other seven lanes, too. Remember that.”

“Wow! What encouragement!” Carla tried to joke.

“All anyone can do is try her hardest, but if you don’t loosen up, you won’t stand a chance. You’re wasting good energy!”

Carla laughed as Carole walked away, but she knew that what Carole said was true. However, it didn’t change how she felt. This was more than a race, more than just a question of proving herself.

For five years she had been preparing for this one race, and finally it was here. Now was her chance to prove herself or find out if her five years had been wasted.

The hollow mechanical echoes of the huge natatorium seemed deafening. Carla kicked her foot into the water as over the loud speaker a deep voice boomed, “Attention, swimmers.” And the room hushed to a murmur. “The girls’ 200-meter breaststroke qualifying heat number one will be next. Swimmers, report to your lanes.”

Carla took a deep breath. It was now or never!

“Good luck.” She jumped at the voice from behind.

“Oh, Dave,” she said. “You scared me!”

“Sorry! I just wanted to wish you luck.” He smiled, and for the first time all morning she felt almost at ease.

“Thanks.”

Quickly Carla hurried to her lane, removed her sweatshirt, and started shaking her arms, trying to loosen the tense muscles. There would be four qualifying heats, and to make the final round she had to have one of the eight fastest times. In this heat she would be racing time, not the other swimmers, so she couldn’t judge too much on her position.

“Judges ready?” the starter shouted, and 16 hands popped up at the ends of the pool. “Swimmers, take your mark.”

Carla climbed onto the block and curled her toes around the edge. “Get set.” She stooped precisely, her arms back as if she were about to take off in flight.

“Bang!” the starting gun fired, and Carla threw her arms forward, pushed with her feet, and strained each muscle to get every inch she could out of the dive. Her arms and legs slapped the water to keep her on top as she landed, and then in a precise, four-count rhythm she started stroking.

It was a good start that put her out in front, but she knew her turns were weak. She had to make time in the stroke. Her arms pulled at the water as if it were something that could be conquered, and her legs pushed powerfully as she spurted down the lane.

At the end of the fourth lap she still had the lead, but the girl in lane three was barely behind. Carla pushed a little harder, even though she knew she had to save something for the last two laps. Two more laps and lane three passed her by half a body length and lanes one and six were too close for any assurances.

She made the next to the last turn and then gave just a little more. Lane one slowed, lane six spurted, and lane three began to pull out even farther. The last turn. Carla’s muscles ached, but she wasn’t yet aware of it. Forcefully she now gave it everything she had. Lane three had pulled out too soon and was now lagging, lane one slowed even more, but six was suddenly a contender. Carla pulled wide and hard as she drew three more strokes then slapped the bank with both hands. Six had come on fast, but her spurt wasn’t soon enough. Carla finished first.

Her teammates gathered around the starting block and pulled her out of the pool.

“Good work!” Dave grinned.

“Thanks.” She smiled. “Do you know the time yet?” She was panting for breath, but she was too excited to stop and catch it.

“Two minutes, forty-seven and two-tenths seconds! You’re sure to qualify with a time like that.”

“Think so?”

“I know so.”

“What time does your heat start?”

“We’re next.”

“I’ll wish you luck, but to tell the truth, I don’t think you need any. There’s not a soul here who can beat you.”

The other girls on the team began to crowd around. Ann put a towel over Carla’s head and pulled it back and forth.

“Way to go!” she shouted. “What a time! Hope I do as well.”

“You will.”

Carla pulled the towel down to her shoulders, grabbed her sweatshirt, and ran into the locker room. She had two more events, freestyle and the team relay, but they weren’t for another hour. She lay down on the bench and waited uneasily for the results. Finally the loud speaker clicked on. Carla jumped up and ran out to the pool.

“The eight best times for the girls’ 200-meter breaststroke are Kathy Winn 2:46.6, Leslie Jacobs 2:47.1, Carla James 2:47.2 …”

Carla didn’t hear anymore! She had made it.

That night Dave came over after dinner.

“Thought you might like to go for a little ride,” he said.

“Sounds great.”

They got in the car and rode awhile without saying anything. Then finally Dave spoke.

“Are you a little more relaxed now?”

“Yes.” She paused before she went on. “You know for some reason those time trials are more frightening than the final race!”

“You’re not upset about not qualifying in the freestyle?”

“Not too much. I’m weak in freestyle. I was hoping to qualify, but at least the relay team qualified, and two out of three isn’t bad.”

“I agree.” Dave laughed.

“But I will be upset if I don’t win that race tomorrow!”

“Be careful! You can’t let the whole world ride on one race.”

“My whole world already does.”

“Oh?” Dave feigned hurt.

“Oh, you know what I mean. Besides, I feel good about tomorrow. I’ve trained harder than any of the others, and I’ve been at it longer. I deserve to win.”

“This doesn’t sound like you, Carla.”

“Oh, I don’t know how to explain it! It’s not that I mean to be conceited. It’s just that … well, like Kathy Winn. She’s only been competing for three years, and you and I both know that she jumps in and out of training like a hopscotch pro!”

“But she had half a second on you this morning.”

“But I’ve got faith. I’ve done everything just the way I should. That’s got to mean something.”

Dave smiled at Carla, his soft brown eyes full of concern. “I hope you’re right. But after hearing your philosophy, I’d better get you home before you break curfew tonight.”

“Me and my big mouth!” Carla laughed. “And how do you feel about your races tomorrow?”

“I don’t! That’s one of my secrets. If I win, I win; if I don’t, I don’t.”

“Even with a race as important as tomorrow’s? I just don’t think it’s that easy.”

“It is, though. All I can do is try my best. If that doesn’t work, then I at least have the satisfaction of knowing I did all I could.”

The little blue Pinto pulled into Carla’s driveway.

“End of sermon!” Dave laughed.

“Thanks for coming by,” Carla said as they walked to the door. “I really appreciate the talk.”

“Well, just think about it. And now, fair lady, I bid adieu!” Dave made a sweeping bow, his tall, thin body almost graceful.

“See you in the morning, goof!” Carla laughed.

“All right. I’ll pick you up at 7:00.” And Dave left.

By 10:30 the next morning, Carla’s relay team had failed to qualify for the Western Division Trials by just four-tenths of a second. Dave had qualified in the 400-meter backstroke and missed the 200-meter freestyle by three-tenths of a second, but his relay team had qualified, with him as the advantage-giving backstroker.

Of all things, Carla’s race was the next to the last, and she had drawn lane four. She hated that middle spot. Then to top it off, by the time the race was announced Carla was so nervous that the entire natatorium seemed to have taken on an electrical charge. Try as she might, she couldn’t lose the thought; this was her last chance to win a spot in the division trials.

She shook her arms and legs impatiently as she quickly scanned the gallery for her parents and then the decks for Dave. He wasn’t hard to find. His tall, browned body and sun-blonde hair stood out. He waved and she nodded back.

“Judges ready?” the starter began. “Swimmers, take your mark.” Carla climbed onto the block. “Get set.” Bang!

Her start was stiff, which lost her some time, but that could be overcome. Kathy Winn in lane six, Leslie Jacobs beside her in lane three, and a girl in lane eight were all ahead of Carla. In her mind she counted a rhythm, pushing a little harder than she should at the beginning. One, two, three, four.

Laps one, two, and three passed with the swimmers seemingly in a precision drill, then Kathy began to pull ahead of Leslie, lane three began to lag, and then one of her own teammates, Ann, in lane seven passed Carla.

Carla had to finish first or second to qualify, and she had to gain at least the third spot now or she’d be in no position to pull ahead in the last lap. She pushed a little harder, but the tense muscles were showing.

However, after lap six she had managed to pull into the third spot just behind Kathy and Ann. Leslie was close behind and gaining. Carla made the last turn and let go with everything she had, but it wasn’t enough. She finished third.

Carla’s eyes stung as she climbed out of the pool. Her muscles felt like jelly, and there was a sickly hollow spot where her stomach should have been. Her teammates buzzed excitedly around Ann, and she knew what she should do, but she just couldn’t bring herself to congratulate Ann.

“It can’t be!” she kept thinking. “It just can’t be. I’ve worked so hard for this. It isn’t fair!”

As fast as she could, she made it to the locker room, and, half-stunned, she dressed and left without even drying her hair. She caught the bus at Second Street and sat down with a sigh of relief at having managed to avoid Dave and her teammates. By the time the bus stopped, however, she felt very foolish. But it was too late now. Slowly she walked the two blocks home, but she didn’t go in. She sat on the step to think, even though she felt as if there was nothing to think about anymore. It was just a habit by now. Everything was over. Five years wasted, five years of exercise, practice, and training. She wished she had waited for Dave. He would understand, but by now he’d be at the banquet. He was a winner, and winners had to be there.

Suddenly a small, blue car screeched into the driveway. Carla sat up and smiled as she recognized it. Then she frowned as Dave slammed the door and jumped disgustedly out of the car.

He walked over to her, gruffly handed her her sweatshirt, and then spoke in a harsh whisper-voice. “Here, you forgot this.”

His soft brown eyes had turned hard, and his face looked sad. She’d never seen him like this, and it scared her. Then fright turned to scorn. She wanted understanding, not this. What kind of friend was he anyway?

“Thanks, but I don’t need it anymore.”

“Going to run out, huh?” Even his face was different.

“I’m not running out. I’ve wasted five years trying for something that in less than three minutes slipped through my grasp. I’m not running out. It ran out on me!”

“Wasted? Carla, I watched you last summer teaching those underprivileged kids from the east side how to swim—the look on your face! It was then I knew you were more than just a girl on the team. This summer I watched you teach those mentally retarded kids not to be afraid of water, and it made me feel good just to think you were my girl. I watched you save a little boy’s life out at the lake, and I watched you teach your own sisters to race. You call that a waste? You’ve got the talent. It’s you running out, Carla, and all because of one race. I thought you were bigger than that.”

Dave threw the sweatshirt down and stalked away.

“But I explained it last night. I deserved this win. I earned it!”

“Life doesn’t work like that,” he said without looking back. The car door slammed, and he drove off.

Carla sat, stunned, as hate slowly melted to despair, then pity, then scorn, and finally thoughts mellowed as tears gushed wildly and she realized how wrong she had been.

Now the tears came, not because of her own wounded pride, but because she suddenly realized how immature she had been. And now besides a race, she’d probably lost a friend, too.

“Why is it that things are so easy to see when it’s too late,” she whispered. Then slowly a blue Pinto came to a stop in front of the house.

Dave walked to the porch, his eyes soft, his walk slow and deliberate. He picked up the sweatshirt, folded it, and sat down next to Carla. Silently they sat, not needing to speak. But Carla felt a relief that showed in a whisper of a smile.

Finally Dave spoke. “The banquet hasn’t started yet.”

“I can be ready in five minutes.”

“I’ll give you six,” he said, “but I expect you to be my partner at the winners’ table.”

An arrow of pride struck at Carla’s heart, but she hesitated only for a moment. “I can make it in four.”

“Then get ready,” he said, but she had already gone in.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Dale Kilbourn