Evanston/North Shore

Four Moments in the Life of a Flying Fish

by Peter Raffel 
Posted September 6, 2015


Peter Raffel (r) with CJ Smith (l), both of whom grew up swimming for the Flying Fish, spent the 2015/2016 season as assistant coaches in the program.

The following are four recollections from my fifteen years as a Flying Fish, both as a swimmer and a staff member: 

At eight years old: 

I am eight years old, swimming in my first inter squad meet after a few months of rigorous training. This is my freshman debut as a member of the Flying Fish.
The pool is massive, a shimmering fluorescent surface crowded by swimmers, timers, coaches, parents. The water, however, is oddly placid, unwavering in the impending upheaval.

This is the first time I feel a sensation later identified as Butterflies, a swallowing of the stomach into a vortex of anxiety. After three races I’m ushered via a chaotic queue back to the blocks for the fourth twenty-five, the aptly-named Butterfly. One of my cohorts bravely attests that, unfortunately, none of us know how to do Butterfly.

This is when we receive our introductory lesson. The head coach, a stoic man named Pete, sits on the hose reel container before us and waxes poetic about how to do this so-called Butterfly. Right there, in a thirty-second tutorial, I receive wisdom that informs me to kick like a dolphin and swing my arms over my head. And so, after Pete is finished with his explanation, we are routed into lanes. And when the starter sounds his horn we dive in, and I do Butterfly. I can only assume it was less than perfect. But I can also assume that for my parents, and perhaps even Pete watching, it was the very essence of perfect.

At ten years old: 

Two years later, at Indianapolis’ prestigious IUPUI campus, I’m swimming in what appears to be the largest pool ever commissioned. It includes: one fifty-meter pool converted into two twenty-five-yard pools, a shallow-depth warm down pool, and a heated diving well that’s really fun to try to touch the bottom of.

At this point it has been determined that I am a breaststroker. This was determined because my legs literally refused to do freestyle kick, even at the urging of a screaming Jamaican man. The screaming Jamaican man is Oswald, my coach: former reggae star, now a swim instructor and pool operator. Once he laid me across the block and pretended to chop me in half with a rusty saw. For a shy kid who has difficulty mustering the slightest conversation with teammates, it was wondrous. As a hero, there’s not much more you can ask for.

Now, though, it’s the Big League: apparently there’s this thing called Finals, in which after swimming your race in the morning, you re-swim it that night for your definitive placing. So Sunday AM: I swim the 100 Breast, coming in fourth overall for 9-10’s, out-touching fifth by hundredths of seconds. Those Butterflies (see previous section) have bred new Butterflies and are having some sort of Butterfly Dance Party. The idea of getting beaten by #5 is horrifying, and a repeat performance seems impossible – might as well scratch, go home, pick up tennis or something. My parents take me to Johnny Rocket’s for lunch; I can’t eat anything, and when the waiters get up on the table and boogie I don’t even break a smile.

So when finals comes around I’m naturally distraught. IUPUI’s arena is roughly the size of an upper echelon Sting concert. There’s an eerie silence before the start, before I’m expected to defend my title. I look over at Oswald: arms folded, heat-sheet in hand, nodding silently. The horn sounds, I burst from the block. Every bit of unwieldy energy is expended, every breath an affirmation more than a gasp, every pullout a silent shout towards the hurtling crowd’s roar. I know that last twenty-five was real rough – video footage could probably verify this. But when I two-hand touch I see that #5 is still at the flags – in fact, he finishes four seconds behind me. In fact, I dropped four seconds. In fact, I did better than I did in the morning.

The ribbon I receive in my folder is black and yellow with a snowman on it. I expected something more triumphant, honestly – like, say, an Edible Arrangement. But, needless to say, it’s the most important ribbon I ever earn.

At fifteen years old: 

Now I’m fifteen. My body has grown, so has my mind – so has the YWCA, adding a downstairs pool (colloquially know as The Warm Pool). I’m scheduled to begin employment that summer as a swim instructor, following in the footsteps of the great Natalie and JoAnne, who have changed more lives than most presidents I can name.

Still, though, there’s something growing inside me: a sadness, inescapable. It ebbs with the water, manifesting: so taking a stroke becomes physically painful, beyond willpower; so sometimes my goggles swim with what may be tears or may be pool-water; so sometimes I take a bathroom break to the locker room and just sit on the bench or stare in the mirror.

Things climax at our Charlotte meet, where Saturday night I’m overcome and end up crying unabashedly in the hotel bathroom. Dad hears me, we talk, but words don’t encompass what’s happening. Part of me wants to go back to Evanston, to some centralized location – namely, home. But also I’m on relays, I figure – and, subconsciously, the decision to not swim Sunday seems synonymous with giving up something larger, more internal. So I swim. And then I go home, and take Monday off school, and Dad and I walk to Walgreens and he says I can buy anything, and I choose a Sugar Free Red Bull because their commercials are cool and I’m dumb.

After this the winter clears up, the sun shines, and one day Seth takes me outside for a talk. Seth is, to a fifteen-year-old kid struggling with identity, the coolest guy. He’s introduced me to most of what I now enjoy, and championed my writing, film, music, whatever creative thing I’m throwing against the wall. After learning that he writes in all caps, the transformation is swift and exacting.

Anyway, Seth takes me outside to talk in the employee parking lot – which already has a Mecca-like feel to it. He’s leaning against a four-door and I’m standing there sheepishly, the sun warming earth, the leaves unfolding, a soft wind on us.
This is all I have from the memory. I don’t remember what Seth said, or what I said. I don’t know if he was aware of what was happening – whether my parents had spoken with him, or Oz, or Pete. I don’t know if Pete even knew we were talking – I don’t know if this was protocol, or his initiative. I don’t know how long the conversation lasted. I only remember him leaning against that four-door and the way he looked in the sun, where things seemed to be getting better already, maybe, if I worked at it.
And I remember how I felt afterwards – and so maybe the words weren’t so important. I remember thinking that that sadness didn’t have to encapsulate me if I didn’t want it to – that it was real, like fear, or desire, or water, but it was only a small part of something much larger inside me, and everyone swimming by my side. And I remember thinking I wasn’t as alone as I thought I was. And somehow, those ideas became affixed in my mind along with the image of that day more than any words ever were.

At twenty-three years old: 

I’m going to abandon my framework here, like all good writers do, because now it becomes not so much a moment as a feeling. I am twenty-three years old, and am writing this at 2:00 AM CST from the McDonalds in the Delhi airport. I have worked, in some capacity, for the YWCA Flying Fish for the past eight years.

And I know that feeling – it’s a feeling we hear about often. Much of the talk surrounding the Fish is about its life-changing qualities, its care with regards to the child both in and out of the pool, its place as a home away from home, its tireless staff and its heart-warming, family-centric attitude. These are comments we all relish, obviously – but to me they live in the abstract, in the far-off revelations of long-term relationships. We tend to look at the final puzzle as opposed to each individual piece we used to complete it – and so that feeling, for me, is not a moment, but infinite moments, patched together to create something that traverses time and space. Because practices exist, meets exist, games exist, more exists. Anne stands in the lobby laughing with a parent while a kid pleads to get something from the vending machine. Rom gets stonewalled by three out of four kids for his corny jokes, but then that fourth one breaks into a smile you didn’t know existed in modern times. Terry and Kim come up with innumerable ideas, every one of which seems more ingenious than many art installations at MOMA. Pigeon/Penguin is played, times are made, sets are completed, goggles are loaned, conversation swirls regarding everything from what you had for lunch to what’s worth getting out of bed in the morning. Those are all those moments – and they’re real, and they happen every day. And these intricacies are what to amaze me – not so much the big stuff, but the little stuff that seems to continue of its own accord, unchecked and unadulterated, but existing all the same.

A lot of kids ask me if we can do races to see who’s the fastest – and I tell them what I was always told: You’re not racing who’s next to you, you’re racing yourself. And maybe for the first few years, I said that out of habit – but at some point I began to mean it. Because swimming really isn’t about the person on either side of you, or even the clock timing you. Those are enablers for something larger – if anything, they’re your friends. It’s about you, and the water, and what you’re capable of both inside and outside of that pool. It’s about pushing yourself to limits you saw in a mirage far away, hurdles you didn’t think you’d be able to overcome, places you didn’t think you’d ever reach. It isn’t a stretch to say that what I learned at the Y is what led me to where I am now: unafraid, carving out a space in this world, exploring even further into what I know I must explore. It’s about the pool, but it also isn’t about the pool. It’s about the physical and the mental, but it’s also about something that can transcend both of those. The Y gave me that in those moments – moments that formed the puzzle that is me and everyone I swam with. If Pete is reading this, or Seth, or Oz, they’re definitely rolling their eyes – and I kind of am too. It’s hard to admit that something you do, something you created, changed so many. It’s hard to admit that living in those moments was something larger than expected: something timeless, malleable – cliché, yes, but apparent.

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