Rhythm of the Stroke

The rising sun turns my room golden and its light glints off something hanging on the wall. Encased in a shadowbox picture frame are mementos of my Olympic experience, including my gold medal. I smile, and suddenly I am immersed in the memory of that special day.

My heart pounded as I approached the starting platform. A swirl of sound echoed through the swimming venue, part of it coming from my father and brothers as they watched from the stands. I tried to block it out, adjusted my cap, my Speedos, my goggles, gave my limbs a bit of shaking down. Then I stepped up to the platform.

Inside, I was shaking. This was the finals. The gold medal round. The biggest moment of my sixteen years. I swallowed, took a deep breath, and remembered my coach's words.

"Be calm and don't get cocky. Focus on the rhythm of your stroke. If you do that, you can beat them all, Tracy. Now, go out and show them what you've got."

The shaking stopped. I took my position and focused on the sound of the starting pistol.

It went off and I flew through the air for a split second. Then I hit the water already moving. Nothing mattered but the rhythm of the stroke.

I pushed myself, stroking faster, harder. I couldn't hear the crowd, didn't know how loudly my family was shouting and whistling for me, encouraging me. Nothing mattered but the rhythm of the stroke.

I hit the wall and turned around, pushing off harder than ever before, resuming the rhythm without dropping a beat. I didn't care what my opponents were doing, or where they were in the pool. Nothing mattered but the rhythm of the stroke.

When I hit the wall again, I almost turned over. But it finally hit me: the race was over. I had finished. I looked around and found my competitors coming in, one or two looking at me. I looked up into the stands where my family was and they were hugging and jumping up and down. Then it occurred to me to look at the scoreboard. What I saw made my jaw drop.

My name was on top. My time was... incredible. And next to my time were the initials: WR.

World Record.

I stared for a few moments and then it sank in. I ripped off my cap and whooped for joy!

My closest competitor, my teammate, reached over the lane barrier and grabbed me. I grabbed him back and we hugged. My other teammates clustered around the starting gate, and I climbed from the pool. Before they could gather me into their excited midst, I turned and waved my cap at my family. I saw that Virgil carried a big sign: Gordon Is GO! I laughed, and waved again.

The medals ceremony was one of the most moving experiences in my life, and one I will never forget. The announcer's voice rang through the venue.

"Winner of the gold medal and new world record holder in the butterfly stroke, representing the United States... Gordon Tracy!"

I stepped up to the podium, shaking once again, this time with excitement so great I could hardly contain it. The crowd was cheering wildly and I saw that my brothers had abandoned Virgil's sign for an American flag that they waved enthusiastically before them. The silver and bronze medalists mounted the platforms to either side of me, the audience applauding for them just as loudly as their names and countries were announced. I took the moment while we waited for the medals to shake hands with my competitors and congratulate them on a race well swum.

Then the medals arrived. They stopped first at me, and I bowed, my eyes closed, as the ribbon was placed around my neck. The medal was heavier than I expected. I stood straight again and shook hands with the presenters, then accepted a bouquet of flowers from a young girl dressed in the native costume of the country hosting the Olympics. I thanked her, and she moved on to my teammate, the silver medalist.

The announcer's voice reverberated through the swimming venue again, echoed a moment later in French, and in the native tongue of the country we visited. "And now, ladies and gentlemen, the national anthem of the United States."

I didn't sing, or even mouth the words, just stood at attention with my hand over my heart, watching the flags of two countries lift slowly to the ceiling as our anthem played. I risked a glance at my family. John, Virgil, and Alan all stood at attention like I did, careful not to let the flag that they carried touch the ground. Dad and Scott, the military men, saluted the flag, and Dad was mouthing the words of the anthem, as somehow, I knew he would be. My heart swelled with pride, not pride at what I had done, but pride in my family who had supported me to this ultimate goal. A tear ran down my cheek as I thought of them, and as I thought of Mom, who hadn't lived to see this day. But I knew that somewhere she was looking down at me and smiling her beautiful smile.

The anthem ended. I wiped my tears away, then grinned wickedly and reached out, dragging my teammate up to stand with me. We both grabbed the bronze medalist and hauled him up too. Arms around each other's shoulders, we each displayed our medals, and for that moment, rivalries were forgotten. That was the final picture people saw of the medals ceremony, and it's the most prominent picture in my shadowbox.

The sun has risen above the horizon. I get out of bed and look carefully at the shadowbox. Sometimes the memories seem more like a dream, but medal is there, reassuring me that I am indeed an Olympic champion.