Take your mark … beep.

I dive in, and the water consumes me whole until I break the surface, moving my arms as fast as I can. It only takes a couple of strokes until I’m hit with a wall of pain.

It’s only a 50 freestyle, I think to myself. My shoulder can take this. It’s only two laps.

And it does, because when I smack my hand on the wall and look up at the scoreboard to see a little No. 1 next to my name, I realize the pain is worth it. I can take a little pain in my shoulder — even more than just a little.

My coach and parents know my shoulder has been achy, not because I wanted them to know, but because I can’t not put ice on it as soon as I get out of the water. I learned the hard way that if I don’t ice it, the pain is too intense to swim the next day. But if I ice it for 10-15 minutes after I get out of the pool, I can extend my arm above my shoulder without sharp pain shooting throughout my shoulder blade.

Anxious to get to my ice, I check in first with my coach, who’s been training me for the Olympics the past four years. “Hey, that was great,” she says, giving me a high five.

“Thanks, Kate. It felt good, too,” I lie.

Coach Kate is, besides my dad, the only one who constantly asks about my shoulder, making sure I watch it, so it doesn’t get worse. Kate is the only one who has suggested I take time off. My dad never has, though. I think asking about my shoulder is a conversation starter more than anything. We don’t have much in common. He golfs in his free time; I swim in mine.

He tries, though. He really does try his hardest to understand swimming, to ask me how my training is going, but I feel like sometimes it only leads to talk of the Olympics and fame. It doesn’t go much past surface level. And he never talks to me about golf, so I don’t ask.

My mom, on the other hand, loves swimming. Like me, she swam in college and now tries to live her ex-swimming career through mine.

“Hey, Grace!” she yells from the side of the pool, the closest spot to the pool deck without actually being on the pool deck. “Great swim but come here!” She waves me over.

I give Kate an apologetic smile. I’m still when I get close enough to my mom to notice a man standing next to her. He extends his hand towards me.

“Grace, this Coach Darren,” my mom says for him, a smile plastered on her face. “He works with USA Swimming and is very impressed with your time.”

I take his hand. This is the moment I’ve been waiting for since before I can remember — to be noticed by the USA Swimming coach. The Olympics team.

I put my hand back down at my side, slightly shaking with equal nerves and excitement.

“Hi, Grace,” he says. “I’ve been watching you for a while …”

I lose focus when I feel it — the numbing pain in my shoulder. I haven’t iced yet. I always ice right away.

I’m convinced that the words coming out of Coach Darren’s mouth are the words I’ve wanted to hear for so long, but I can’t hear them. I can only absorb the searing pain shooting through my shoulder blade in ways I’ve never felt before.

I cut him off, apologizing, claiming my coach will be mad if I don’t swim down. I swim down slowly for 10 minutes, but when I push up to get out of the pool, the pain blinds me. 

Two weeks later, I’m on my first day of physical therapy. I haven’t been in the water since my mom and Kate helped me get out of the pool. They said I went into shock, that my shoulder was in so much pain I couldn’t move.

“How’s that feel?” my physical therapist, Elle, says as she lifts my arm over my head. It’s been a week and a half since my surgery — it was minor, but surgery nonetheless — and my doctors already want me to move my shoulder, so it doesn’t get stiff.

“It kind of hurts,” I admit. Although it kills me to say I’m in pain, I’m done lying. What’s the point? They already told me that my career as a swimmer is no more. It hasn’t fully processed through my head but having to go to therapy three days a week makes it hard to ignore.

Elle looks at me and sighs. “You know, this isn’t the end. There are still other things you can do — other sports.”

I know she’s trying to be helpful, but there’s nothing else I want to do. That’s what I’ve told my parents every day for the past week when they tell me I need to do something else to take my mind off my injury. My mom told me to do extra schoolwork, my dad asked me, for the first time in my life, to play golf with him. Neither one of those sounded appealing at the time, especially adding more schoolwork, but the more I think of golf, the more I think it could be a good idea. I’ve always wanted to be closer with my dad, but swimming always got in the way of that.

The next morning, my dad is eating breakfast in the same outfit he wears every time he goes golfing. He looks at me, the same question he’s been asking for weeks dangling on his lips. Before he can ask, I tell him yes. I tell him that I’ll golf with him. The biggest smile spreads across his face, and it makes me wonder why I haven’t asked to go before, even if it’s just for fun. I realize, maybe he’s never asked me to play with him because I never put any interest in his sport in the way he did mine. It only took a pain-numbing injury for me to realize that.

When we get to the golf course, he goes over how to swing the club correctly and warns me to go easy, as my shoulder is still very much recovering.

I look out to the bright green course and feel a weird feeling in my stomach. It’s almost like the one I felt so long ago when I hopped up on a swimming block for the first time. I line up how my dad taught me, and swing.

Alexis Wallman

Alexis Wallman is a junior at Butler University in Indianapolis studying Digital Media Production and Creative Writing. While she doesn't play much golf, she has a lot of experience in the water as a swimmer for 10 years before going to college.