Going the Distance Chapter 2 – A Deep Breath

July 28, 2013 in Going the Distance, itchysocks, Uncategorized by itchysocks

There was tension in the air, but Jessica, who was seated in the stands, barely noticed. The chattering voices, the nervous laughter, and the heated whispers : all of it went through one ear and out the other. Jessica’s mood was rarely ever dictated by the crowd around her, and today was no different.

Relaxed in a form-fitted black swimsuit and swim cap, Jessica toyed with the elastic band on her goggles as she waited, the scent of chlorine oddly comforting.

A few short breaths later, the women that the crowd had all been waiting for emerged from the locker room.

The KU Swimming Tigers.

They were all sporting the crimson jackets that had become synonymous with the athletics program. It was a status symbol; If you wore one, you were part of the social elite, practically a campus celebrity. There was no doubt in Jessica’s mind that many of the girls in the crowd were merely here for the jacket, but they would be hard-pressed to earn one. Her motivation was far better – genuine and true.

As the team got closer, the crowd grew more excited, clapping and whistling as they started chanting the school song. Standing to join them, Jessica grinned, swept up by the sudden outburst of school pride. The KU Swimming Tigers were the defending collegiate champions, so she understood the jubilation. They were hometown heroes.

Reaching the front, the shortest girl in crimson came forward and eyed the large crowd. Around her neck she wore a whistle, and in her hands she held a clipboard and a stopwatch. A black pen rested above her right ear.

“Thank you all for coming out,” she said, giving everyone a good once over. “I’m the Head Coach, Kim Hyoyeon. There are a lot of you ladies here today, so I’ve brought the rest of the team to help me out.”

Behind Hyoyeon, the girls on the swim team waved to the crowd with smiles, except for Yuri whose face was unreadable.

Jessica waved back, wondering if Yuri noticed her in the crowd. Swim cap covering her characteristically long blonde hair, she knew it would be difficult for anyone to recognize her, especially if they had only met once before. If there was one thing Jessica disliked about swimming, it was the fact she needed to hide her hair.

“We’re going to start with breathing exercises in the pool, followed by time trials,” announced Hyoyeon. “If you ladies would divide yourselves into groups of at least eight, we can get started.”

Looking around, Jessica managed to spot an acquaintance from her freshman year and joined her group. Most of the girls appeared nervous, and others wary of who they were in a group with, but Jessica didn’t think twice about her competition. She was here to swim.

Blowing her whistle, Hyoyeon divvied up all the stragglers and assigned each of the groups a lane.

Yuri and Hyoyeon exchanged a few whispers, and then the Coach called the team in to deliver specific instructions. After a short huddle, the Crimson Tigers split off to spearhead each of the six groups of tryouts with the exception of Yuri, much to the dismay of her fans.

All of the girls on the swim team were varying definitions of ‘tall’, but the one that approached Jessica’s group had a reputation for not only being tall, but also for being a beauty. With a milky complexion and a warm expression, she greeted them with a polite bow. “Hello, I’m Yoona.”

Everyone in the group welcomed her in kind. Yoona grinned. “You guys all look so cute in your swimsuits,” she said good-naturedly. “You guys ready to kick some butt? I think we’re going to be up first, but you guys are all right with that, right?”

The girls in the group gave a mixed response. Jessica nodded.

After some additional instructions, Hyoyeon called them forward, assigning each girl to one of ten lanes at the pool before calling out the objectives to the entire crowd. Despite her petite figure, the girl had a surprisingly commanding voice.

“Hold your breath for as long as you can. We’re testing the strength of your lungs.”

All the girls entered the water; Jessica dived into lane 6 near the middle. The water was cold, so she and the others moved around to warm up.

Yuri and Hyoyeon approached the pool, taking a seat on the starting block of lane 5. Hyoyeon held a stop watch, while Yuri had a clipboard and pen in hand. After a few more whispers, Hyoyeon turned to the girls in the pool. “When I raise my hand, take a deep breath. You will hear a whistle shortly after signaling you to dive down. We’ll keep a record of all of your times. Anyone who doesn’t submerge themselves on time will be given a time penalty.”

Hyoyeon held the whistle in her right hand and raised her left.

On cue, everyone in the water audibly drew breath.

She blew the whistle.

Jessica closed her eyes and slipped beneath the surface, focusing solely on controlling her heart-rate as she drifted lazily downward. She could feel the vibrations in the water as many pairs of legs tread above her. Jessica exhaled a steady stream of small bubbles from her nose to decrease her buoyancy.

She didn’t bother to count in her head. Instead, she imagined herself in the comfort of her bed, body at rest and mind at ease.

However, it wasn’t long before a familiar urgency rose in her lungs. She could feel herself beginning to rise and knew she would reach her limit in another second or two. She let herself float upward.

Finally, feeling slightly dizzy, Jessica shot up from the water and took a deep breath, extinguishing the fire in her lungs.

Everyone was staring at her; she was the last to finish.

“Well done,” Hyoyeon said with a smile.

Jessica watched Yuri jot down the time from Hyoyeon’s stopwatch onto the clipboard.

Afterwards, the two exchanged a glance, and upon realizing that Yuri remembered her, Jessica was happy she had left an impression.

“What’s your name?” asked Hyoyeon.

“Jessica Jung,” she replied.

“I’ll be seeing you later, Jessica.”

Hyoyeon called out for the next group of tryouts from the crowd as Yoona helped Jessica out of the pool.

“Good job,” Yoona beamed. “That was really impressive.”

Jessica responded with a shy smile.

“Just wait in the stands until we call you for the time trials, okay?”

“Okay, thank you.” Jessica made her way back to the stands where she had left a large folded towel. Drying herself , she walked up and down the stairs to warm up her body before coming back to her seat and wrapping herself in the cosiness of her towel.

Jessica noted that Hyoyeon only asked for the names of the girls who impressed her with their times or their physique. All of those individuals joined her in the stands for the next stage of tryouts. After all the groups had gone, only seven girls along with Jessica had been selected to actually swim. All the other girls were dismissed.

Jessica also noted that out of the final group, she was the shortest, and the least physically daunting.

Yuri stepped forward to assign each of the girls to lanes 2 through 9. She stopped in front of Jessica.

“I’m glad to see you here.”

“Oh? Fallen for my charm already?” Jessica grinned.

Yuri shook her head.

“I want to see if you can really swim. Holding your breath is one thing, but 4:35:18, right? Let’s see if you can live up to your time.” Yuri’s tone was filled with disbelief, but that didn’t bother Jessica.

The blonde hidden underneath the black swim cap replied, “You’ll see.”

Yuri nodded. “You’ll be swimming in lane 6, Jessica. Good luck.”

All the competitors headed towards the starting blocks, sitting down to await further instruction. Armed with stopwatches, Hyoyeon, Yoona and Yuri came forward from the Tigers. The coach directed the captain to the other end of the pool.

“Well, now that it’s just you girls left, I’ll explain to you how this all works. Our swim team only needs 6 swimmers to compete in four events. We have seven members returning from the previous year.”

The math didn’t add up, but Hyoyeon continued.

“The minimum is six, but this year we’d like to have eight swimmers compete. That means that only one of you six swimmers will get the final spot if you impress us. You’re a luxury, not a necessity.”

Hyoyeon pointed up to the rafters in the aquatic center, drawing everyone’s attention to the celebratory banners for each of the school’s twenty-seven national championships. “It goes without saying that being a part of this team is an honor, so you must meet our standards.”

Hyoyeon had made her point. She cleared her throat, never lacking a flare for the dramatic, and added, “Make no mistake. There’s a lot of pressure and stress that comes with the jacket. If you don’t think can handle it, don’t even bother to stay. Leave right now.”

She waited for a reaction.

Not a single one of the swimmers budged.

Hyoyeon nodded her head in approval. ‘Typical KU attitude,’ she thought. ‘I didn’t expect anything less from Tigers.’

“You only have one-shot. Swim in whatever style you like. You will do 4 laps of 100 metres. Take your positions. You will hear an electronic bang that will trigger the start of the race. Good luck.”

All of the girls got-up to step on the blocks, but Jessica took her time adjusting her goggles before she stepped onto hers.

“Swimmers ready!” shouted Hyoyeon, activating the remote for the electronic gun on the PA. She pressed the button, and waited.

Jessica heard a gentle hum through the pool’s speaker system and hunched forward, ready to leap into the air. Jessica’s heart raced, but she wasn’t nervous. She was excited.

Bang.

She leapt into the air without a second thought. The cold water embraced her as she dove in, greeting her with a chill kiss . Using her muscles to power her along, she nimbly cut through the waves. All around her, she could feel the vibrations of the swimmers in the lanes beside her. She powered on, ignoring her surroundings and focusing solely on her swim.

With each stroke of the arm, and push of her legs, she propelled herself forward in the water, trying her best to focus on proper technique. Skimming the surface for air for her burning lungs, she continued to move down the lane with agility.

Yuri, at the other end, watched Jessica move through the water towards her and was impressed at her speed. However, there were other girls ahead of her, and she wondered whether Jessica could surpass them. She was the smallest, the most petite of the girls there. Did she even stand a chance?

Jessica answered that question, as five swimmers reached the other end neck-and-neck. They dove into the water and somersaulted to push off the pool to turn back in the other direction. Using a powerful and fluid dolphin kick, Jessica got a surprising burst of speed that pushed her slightly ahead of her competitors.

Yuri raised an eyebrow and looked at her stopwatch.

She was on pace to beat 4:35:18.

Always easy at the beginning, the girls started to slow as the laps progressed, including Jessica. That final spot was still up for grabs, and now it was a matter of who wanted it the most, who had the will to win.

Coming out of the final turn, there were three lanes that were still neck-and-neck. Lane 6 was one of them.

Jessica knew this was the home stretch, and she was determined to finish strong. She pushed through the waves with desperation, fighting the fire in her lungs and the pain in her muscles to goes as hard as she could for the final 50 metres. Eyes on the prize, she finally touched the starting end of the pool and emerged from the water.

She gasped for air, closed her eyes, and plucked her goggles off. Rubbing her brow and cheeks dry, she glanced around and saw that a few of the other girls were finished with their swim. She panicked, wondering if she had finished first, second, or third.

When everyone finished with the trial, they all got out of the pool with varying expressions.

Yuri came back from the other end and the Swimming Tigers huddled together by the stands to examine the winner’s time on the stopwatch.

“That was a pretty close race. What do you guys think?” asked Hyoyeon. “Is that good enough to be a Tiger?”

All the girls looked at each other, then at Yuri who was their designated leader. “It’s okay, I guess,” Yuri replied. “We’ve all swam better times than that.”

Hyoyeon nodded. “So it’s just us seven Tigers, then?”

The proposition was met with nods of approval, though Yoona disagreed with the general consensus. “What could it hurt to have one more member? It’s another training partner, right? It’d be good to bring in some new blood.”

Sooyoung seemed to agree. “7’s an odd number. Eight is nice and even. We can partner up for stuff.”

“So what you’re saying is we need a warm body so someone doesn’t feel left out?” Yuri retorted.

“Yes, exactly,” Yoona replied, pointing at the stopwatch. “The thing is, at least we know this warm body can swim a decent time. She’s not faster than us at our best, but she’s good enough to compete.”

Another one of the girls interrupted, “Still better than some of Yonsei’s times.” The Tigers laughed mockingly, save for Yuri who took her competition seriously.

“What do you think, Captain?” asked Hyoyeon, seeing her stoic expression. It took her a while to answer, but after a short exchange, they had made their decision.

Jessica could only watch as the huddle broke-up. Hyoyeon came forward to announce the results as all the swimmers waited on their starting blocks.

“The girls and I have decided to accept an eighth member to the team. This individual finished first in the heat with a time of 4 minutes, 35 seconds and 22 one-hundredths of a second.”

Jessica’s heart skipped a beat as Yuri gazed at her. She knew right then and there, who had made it.

“Congratulations, lane 6. Jessica Jung.”