’ve never liked sports. For as long as I can remember, they meant mild boredom at best and intense dread at worst. In my childhood home, Sunday was dedicated to huddling around the television for a football game. I loathed it. I didn’t care who went to the Super Bowl as long as my mom made her bean dip, a recipe so dense in calories that it was a once-a-year treat.
Gym class was also a nightmare. I’d fake a fever and hide in the locker room where I read Harry Potter novels. I don’t know who LeBron James plays for, or the rules of baseball, or how anyone can be so devoted to “”their team”” that they tattoo its logo on their body.
But swimming was different. My mother never learned to swim. She made sure her children took lessons at the local country club pool mostly because she knew she’d never be able to save us if something ever went wrong.
My pool memories are hazy mixed of stories and smells. I remember the melted Snickers candy at the snack bar and odor of of chlorine. I remember feet spiked with splinters thanks to walking barefoot on the patio.
I didn’t think of swimming again until the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. I was a 15-year old high-schooler, and Michael Phelps had burst onto the scene. He was a phenomenon, a freak of nature, a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. His body, the newscasters said, was eerily perfect for the sport, down to his 6-foot-7 wingspan and size 14 feet which acted as propellers in the water. His abs were sculpted in a way that made me blush. But when he talked he had a slight, endearing lisp. I was in lust.
That summer, I learned the length of an Olympic-sized pool, each member of the family of swimming strokes, and what a disqualifying “”dolphin kick”” looked like. All this while dreamily watching Phelps slice through the water, winning medal after medal. I imagined what I’d name our future children (if it was a girl, certainly Leona after his maternal-grandmother). I became a subscribing member of MichaelPhelps.com, his top unofficial fan page. I joined a lively message board of fellow girl fans who giddily referred to their favorites as “”Mike,”” “”Bren”” and “”Ry”” as if we were all close friends.
One evening, over a dinner of Shake-and-Bake pork chops and peas, Michael Phelps announced in an interview that his celebrity crush was Lindsay Lohan. She was curvy, with an impressive cup size, and rich and famous, everything I was not. I was crestfallen.
But my love affair with swimming didn’t end after Athens. I travelled to Nebraska and Montreal to watch my heroes up-close. I was so fueled by adrenaline I barely ate. While I never saw Phelps — he was far too famous to take the subway like the rest of his team — I did get my photo taken with other Olympians, Polaroids I still have to this day, my face blotchy with embarrassment.
At a clothing boutique in Montreal, the salesgirl asked if we were in town for the championships. “”Yes,”” my mother answered, flipping through the racks. “”Do you know any of the athletes?”” the girl asked with a charming French lilt. “”Oh yes, we’re family friends of Michael Phelps,”” my mother replied with a poker face. We rushed out of the store, and burst into laughter.
My age, my youth, pained me throughout this time – after all, I was way too young for any of the swimmers. I’d never even had a boyfriend or a first kiss. I wanted to be older, sexier. Preferably with a job as the team’s physical therapist.
A week ago I was invited to cover a professional swim meet held annually in Rome and known as the Settecolli. After years of neglecting swimming, of going to college, having boyfriends, of moving abroad, I’d all but forgotten the sport I had once adored. Michael Phelps, meanwhile, after winning eight gold medals at the 2008 Olympics, had gotten DUIs, gone to rehab, dated ex-beauty queens, and most recently became a father.
Time had passed. But the teenage girl in me quickly resurfaced, surrounded by the smell of chlorine and orders of “”on your marks,”” and the immaculate, Davidesque bodies strolling around half-naked. A press pass let me weave in and out of the staging areas. I even asked athletes to pose for photos, partly because it was my job, partly because I wanted to make my friends jealous.
Later, I feverishly googled the swimmers I’d met, only to find they were all born in the mid-1990s, college freshmen or sophomores. This time, I wished I were younger. And while I’ll never get Michael Phelps’s likeness tattooed on my body, I will be watching his fifth and likely final Olympics this summer, organizing my calendar around his schedule, with luck eating bean dip.