Going the Distance Chapter 3 – Off the Deep End

January 21, 2014 in Going the Distance, itchysocks by itchysocks

The crowd of jocks beside Yuri in the lecture room had been talking up a storm. If she had to listen to another testosterone filled conversation about how much weight they could bench, she thought her head would explode. She massaged her temples to ease the throbbing ache in her head.

Hyoyeon, who was sitting beside Yuri, laughed out loud. “I’ve got some Tylenol in my purse if you want some.”

Yuri declined her coach’s offer. She liked to stay away from any drugs if she could, and her massage had helped alleviate some of the pain anyway. As an athlete, pain was something that she could endure. Stupidity, on the other hand, ticked her off like nails grating a chalkboard. “Are all male athletes this annoying?”

Hyoyeon chuckled and gave a sage-like nod. “I haven’t been at KU that long, but as a girl with three brothers, I can tell you boys are like that in general,” she said.

Yuri turned away from the crowd of jocks and faced her coach. “Two and a half more years of this and then I’m done with listening to this stuff, right?”

Hyoyeon flashed a smile, showing off her dimples. “I don’t know about that,” she said. “I’m just glad that I don’t need to worry about you getting distracted by one of these boys.”

Yuri smirked ever so slightly, giving Hyoyeon an even bigger smile. The last thing on her mind was romance. She was content concentrating on what mattered: her swimming and her education.

She pulled out her phone from her pocket to check the time. “Minwoo’s late. He’s never late.”

“Don’t worry about it. I talked to him in the morning. He’s meeting with the board of directors and the dean. I’m sure they’ve held him up talking business.”

Yuri shifted in her seat. She remembered the dean and their brief meeting last year in his oversized office. He kept things short and sweet, lecturing her about humility and respect with a sternness that reminded her of her own father.

However, Yuri didn’t feel much guilt for refusing to shake Seo Joohyun’s hand in front of her team, the crowd, or the press. She knew it was rude, but Yuri was too passionate, too competitive, to regret it. The public apology was the dean’s idea and Yuri couldn’t refuse him. How could she? She loved swimming and it was her dream to compete against the best in the world. It would be too risky to lose her opportunity to shine over something trivial.

The more the meeting lingered on her mind, the more she wanted to jump out of her seat to be pro-active. The only way she could avoid another embarrassing situation like that was to train. Train to win. Train to beat all of her competition so that everyone would respect her.

Her smile faded.

“Everything okay?” asked Hyoyeon.

“I could be practicing.”

Hyoyeon shook her head. “As your coach, I love the initiative. As someone that’s known your work ethic for more than a year now, you need to take it easy. The season’s just getting started.”

“You guys aren’t giving me a scholarship to take it easy.”

“You’re a student athlete. Notice how student comes first. Sitting in lecture halls, making friends, and going to parties, are all part of being a student. Live a little.”

“I go to class, I have friends, and I go to parties,” she argued back.

Hyoyeon didn’t believe her. Her face said it all. “You’re a great athlete, Yuri, but you need to expand your horizons. You can’t always have a one-track mind. Swimming isn’t everything.”

“You’re not being a very good swim coach right now.”

“No, I’m not,” Hyoyeon replied. “But I’m being a very good friend.”

Yuri hadn’t expected to hear ‘that word’ coming out of Hyoyeon’s mouth. It was true that Hyoyeon was one of the few people that she saw on a daily basis, but Yuri took it as a professional connection. Either way, Yuri didn’t want to push her coach away. She preferred indifference.

Minwoo, on the other hand, preferred charisma. Yuri saw it in the way he walked into the class with a swagger that drew everyone’s attention.

Today, he was wearing a sharp suit with a checkered crimson tie – KU’s color. It was a stark contrast from his normal ensemble of sweat pants and a polo shirt. He apologized for his tardiness and went around the room dispersing handouts from a folder that he carried while catching up with all the coaches and captains. The room was reduced to whispers as he made his rounds.

After settling down the rowdy jocks beside Yuri, Minwoo made his way over to the two representatives of the women’s swim team. “Coach Kim and Captain Kwon, glad to see you both here,” he said with a warm grin. “How did tryouts go this year?”

Yuri thought of Jessica, the 7th member of the team. They had met on a penthouse balcony overlooking Seoul. The girl had fire in her from the get-go, a determination to prove that she belonged on KU’s team.

“We recruited a new member.”

Hyoyeon corrected Yuri. “A new Tiger.”

“What’s her name?”

“Jessica Jung.”

Minwoo raised an eyebrow. “Doesn’t ring a bell – you’ll have to introduce me to her some time. I trust that you’ll take care of her as the new captain?”

Yuri wasn’t sure what taking care of another person entailed, but what else could she say other than: “I’ll try my best.”

“How’s being a captain so far?”

Yuri’s knee jerked. “It’s okay so far.”

“Not bothering your training I hope?”

In truth it did, but Yuri didn’t want other people to worry about her problems. She could handle it. “Nope, everything’s fine.”

Minwoo smiled. “I’m glad you’re adapting so well.”

Hyoyeon had a pleased look on her face. “I picked her for a reason.”

“I’m sure it was a very good reason.” Minwoo reached into his folder to hand them the papers that he had been dispensing, but paused. He searched Yuri’s face with eyes soft in understanding.

“If you need any advice at all, you can come to me, okay? I was a captain too, once. If you need help, my door is always open.”

Yuri nodded. Minwoo pulled out the paper and handed it to the both of them. “This is from KCAA. The standard rules and regulations for this year. They’ll e-mail you the PDF or you can download it on their website.”

As Yuri looked over the form, a finger tapped a line on her sheet under the heading of ‘Codes of Conduct.’

The line read: ‘Good sportsmanship is mandatory.’

“I heard they moved that up a few spots on the codes of conduct just for you.”

Yuri kept her face composed despite the fact that she was glaring through the paper and gritting her teeth behind closed lips.

Minwoo stepped away to finish distributing the forms after a friendly goodbye. Hyoyeon patted Yuri on the small of her back. “Cool it, Tiger. I know you’re tired of hearing about that day. It’s in the past now.”

Yuri felt the fire in her eyes fade, but her motivation to win only heightened. Nobody would joke about her if she won. If she was the best, all of it would go away: the pressure, the bad girl reputation, and the stress.

Her heart raced as her mind lingered on the what-ifs, the worst case being bested again by another swimmer. The only remedy was productive activity. After this meeting, it would be the exercise room for Yuri. She reached for her water bottle at the table and took a long drink.

Minwoo made his way to the front of the class.

“Alright everyone thanks for coming. I hope you guys are having a great semester so far…”

Yuri tuned Minwoo out as she glanced over at the paper on her desk. She comprehended his words, but gave them little regard. It was stuff she knew about, proper training, how to deal with injuries, academic standards for KU athletes, and the like. She waited for him to talk about something more important.

He finally caught her attention.

“As for competitions this year, there’s none bigger than the KU-Yonsei Festival.”

There was a nervous cough that interrupted Minwoo. For the last three years, Yonsei had won the festival every time the two schools met. The rivalry was starting to become more one-sided then many of the alumni had hoped. Everyone in Korea knew that there was tremendous pressure to win from both sides, but KU desperately needed a victory after such a long drought. Especially since this year’s festival was being held on KU’s campus.

Minwoo’s face was grim. Yuri could see the same expression in her peers around her. Everyone waited with bated breath for him to speak. Loosening the tie around his neck, he finally spoke up.

“We have to win the festival this year. Losing is not an option.”

The room went dead silent.

“I spoke with the board. It’s why I was late. If we don’t win this year, the board is thinking about cutting back on the athletics program here at KU.”

The silence broke with one or two coaches slamming their desks while most cried out in disbelief.

Minwoo raised his hand high to silence the crowd. They listened only out of respect for the only man that cared more than they did about KU’s sports program.

“KU and its alumni donors spend the most money on sports in the country and we haven’t won a festival against one school in three years. Three years.”

“But it’s just one school!” someone shouted. “We’re fine throughout the collegiate season.”

Minwoo shook his head in disgust. “It is one school, but it’s also Yonsei. They don’t give us millions of dollars to beat other schools. They want us to beat Yonsei. That’s all that matters to them – the bragging rights. They feel like their money is being thrown away.”

Another coach at the front of the room couldn’t hide his shock. “How much are they going to take away? What about our jobs?”

Minwoo shrugged his broad shoulders. “They told me vaguely that they were planning to cut some personnel, some wages, and maybe some grants and scholarships.”

The crowd erupted even louder than before. This time Minwoo couldn’t silence them with a mere hand gesture.

Hyoyeon, normally optimistic, looked worried. Her eyes were dazed and her mouth looked frozen in place. KU’s rich sports history was beginning to fade. The jocks to Yuri’s left looked absolutely devastated. Gone were their smug smiles, replaced with looks of uncertainty. No matter what their differences, Yuri understood that everyone in this room shared the same fate.

Minwoo calmed everyone down with a loud plea for silence. He was now wearing an angrier expression. “I am just as upset as you guys are,” he said. “I let them know it. Trust me.”

He got even closer to the crowd, unafraid of the anger and frustration in their eyes. “I know this is a lot to take in, but none of that will affect us if we win.”

He paused to let the message sink in. “This year is the defining year for the future of our athletics program. We win and none of this happens. I know it’s a lot of pressure, but at least we can control our own fate. Let’s go down fighting, shall we?”

Shouts of agreement met Minwoo’s words of war. The jocks beside Yuri were quite vulgar in expressing their determination, and for once, Yuri didn’t mind.

Minwoo ended the meeting on that note, letting everyone go their respective ways.

Yuri’s shoulders had never felt so heavy. She got up from her seat, picked up her backpack, and headed to her dorm to change for a workout. Maybe Yoona would join her.

Before she could take another step, she felt someone firmly grab her wrist.

Hyoyeon stared at Yuri with a concerned look as she held her back. “Forget what Minwoo said about the cutbacks, okay?”

“Okay,” Yuri replied quietly. She turned to leave but Hyoyeon didn’t let go.

“No, listen to me. Winning was always important to the team, but I don’t want you to get hurt pushing yourself too hard because a bunch of chaebol families are upset with a sports score.”

“I won’t.”

“Where are you going then?”

“The gym.”

“Did you even eat dinner yet?”

She hadn’t. “Dinner can wait.”

Hyoyeon shook her head. “It can’t. You’ve got a date with me in the cafeteria tonight. Call Yoona too. Eat and let the food digest before you train, okay?”

Yuri shook her head in disagreement. “I’m not hungry.”

“You don’t have to listen to me, Yuri, but you should. I know you better than you think.”

“Then you know I want to win.”

“We all want to win,” said Hyoyeon. “What athlete likes to lose? You’ve got all the swimming talent in the world, but that doesn’t mean anything if you get hurt.”

“I’m not going to get hurt. I’m going to get better.”

Hyoyeon gave Yuri a stern stare. “Sports are physical activities, but competitions are more mental than anything. You have to be healthy in the mind and the body.”

“I’m healthy. I’m the best swimmer on the team.”

“I know, but you’re like a loaded gun. You’re always ready to compete, always ready to fire, but don’t you think you need to know what you’re shooting for? What if you miss the mark? What if your target isn’t what will really make you happy?”

It was the second time Yuri had been caught off-guard by her coach. Happiness was something Yuri had put behind her because of a past that she wanted to move on from. She sought glory instead. However, bitter-sweet memories came flooding back against her wishes. They extinguished the competitive flame in her heart like a cold wind. It was painful. Most would let it show, but Yuri had learned to conceal it. As an athlete most of her life, she was trained to endure, to be strong, and to never show weakness. 

“Winning is all that makes me happy,” she replied, flatly. 

Hyoyeon couldn’t hide her disappointment as she let go of Yuri’s arm. “I can’t stop you from doing what you want. I can’t punish you with more laps in the pool. You’d probably enjoy that. I can punish you in other ways, but I don’t want to unless I have to.”

Hyoyeon didn’t blink. “I made you captain so that you would do more than swim. You would be here, doing other things outside of the pool. You think you’re some perfect athlete, but you aren’t. You’re a young woman who happens to be incredibly talented in the water, but you’ve still got a lot of growing up to do.”

Yuri wanted to leave. She didn’t want to hear Hyoyeon lecture her, but something inside her made her stay. She couldn’t walk away from Hyoyeon. Much to Yuri’s surprise, she was remorseful, though she didn’t show it on her face.

“I’m sorry.”

Yuri wasn’t quite sure if she was saying sorry to Hyoyeon or if she was apologizing to herself.

Hyoyeon smiled as she got up from her seat. She had put the brake on Yuri’s relentless drive, at least for tonight. “No need to apologize. Just have dinner with me, and we’ll call it even.”

Yuri followed Hyoyeon out of the classroom, but wobbled a bit as they walked down the hall to the cafeteria. Her mind was still spinning with memories that had been locked away. She needed a moment to herself.

Her heart was a mess.

“I just need to use the bathroom, is that okay?”

Hyoyeon, as much as she thought she knew Yuri, was oblivious to how her star was feeling. “I’ll wait out here,” she answered with a smile.

Yuri entered the bathroom without another word. As she walked to the stall in the far corner, she glanced at herself in the mirror and wasn’t happy with what she saw staring back at her. She entered the stall and slammed the door shut. Now that she was alone, her calm and tough demeanor had faded.

Yuri cried.