Tessa and the Swim Team
Tessa gulped, looking down at the water. It rippled with movement, casting a distorted reflection of a frightened pink Acara, whose mouth was drawn into a tiny line. She wasn't sure if she was crying. She couldn't tell, through all of the ripples.
Her first swim practice was exactly three minutes and twenty-two seconds away--three minutes and nineteen seconds now. Her heart hammered in her chest, and her legs felt completely full of strawberry jelly. This wasn't even her choice.
If was her sister, Winona's. Winona, a blue Aisha with a serious passion for swimming, had pressured Tessa into joining the team.
Tessa wasn't even sure if she could swim. She tried to focus on her reflection in the water, but she couldn't. Her head spun, and her stomach was tied in knots.
A whistle blasted in the air, making Tessa jump precariously close to the edge of the pool. Several Neopets left the benches and bleachers and joined around a tall, athletic-looking Blumaroo, who had the whistle in his mouth, reading names off of a clipboard. Shakily, Tessa forced herself to join them.
The Blumaroo looked down at Tessa, who made a quick nod of acknowledgement. She felt shaky inside and out, even though it was 95 degrees. "Hi. I'm new," she managed to say, shaking hard.
The Blumaroo looked down at his clipboard. "Ah. You must be Tessa. Aren't you--"
"I'm Winona's sister," Tessa confirmed.
"Alright," the coach replied, smiling. "I'm Coach Blu. Welcome to the team."
I jump into the water, clinging carefully to the edge. I almost feel like crying as he comes over to the rest of the team, smiling. "Everybody, this is Tessa. She's new to the team."
"Hi, Tessa," comes the unexcited response from several unexcited swim team members.
Coach Blu nods, not noticing the lack of warmth in their welcome. "Everybody, to that side of the pool and back. Goooo!" His whistle rings in my ears.
I am at the front of the line, paddling quickly. Occasionally I raise my head for a gasp of air. I feel like everything is going good, and then I feel a warm body behind me.
A yellow Koi strokes confidently ahead of me, followed by another Neopet and ten another. I am somehow demoted to the back of the line. By the time I reach the end of the pool, I am gasping for breath, and they are already halfway back.
I go as quickly as I can, swallowing lots of water. I feel exhausted. I make it back just barely, while the rest of the team catches their breath.
Coach Blu frowns. "Everyone, one more lap," he commands. "Tessa, jump over here."
He leads me into a shallower part of the pool, where a few young Neopets happily splash about. They stare at me.
"Go to that side and back. Don't worry, and keep your head up."
I make it to the other side, painfully slowly. A few younger Neopets swimming back and forth pass me. When I feel like I am about to die from embarrassment, I touch the wall. Halfway back, I feel so tired, I want to yell, "I can't do it! I'm too tired! I'm going to drown!"
But somehow, I don't. I make it back. Coach Blu nods.
"Do you want a break?" he suggests wisely.
"Y-y-yeah," I pant, climbing out of the water and letting the sunlight dry my fur. However hot it is outside, it can't melt the icy embarrassment inside me. I watch the rest of the team glide through the water, and I want to cry.
"So how'd your first practice go?" Winona asks me over our dinner of mint tea and cheese tortillas.
I want to lie. Her fur is still slicked down from the water. She had swim practice about half an hour ago. I'm totally glad she wasn't there to see mine. I would be so embarrassed.
"It went good," I lie, looking down at my plate.
Winona nods, totally oblivious to my lie. "I'm glad," she says. "Isn't swimming great? I feel like I'm moving so fast, and everything is clear in my mind. I just want to keep going."
She sounds so excited, so successful, a stomachache begins to form in my belly, twisting it into knots. I feel weird, that Winona is so good at something that I'm not. I feel jealous and ashamed to admit that I'm not like that.
I push away my half-eaten cheese tortilla. "I'm going to sleep," I announce.
Two days of swim practice, drowning, and embarrassment pass by. I can't see any improvement. Every day, Coach Blu pulls me into the baby pool, and there we practice. I don't even feel like I'm getting any faster.
One day, I want to cry. I climb out of the pool, and Coach Blu doesn't stop me. He just stares. "Tessa, what's wrong?" he asks.
"I'm no good," I say finally, the words that have been bouncing in my head are finally free. "I'm not like Winona."
"Not many Neopets are like Winona," Coach Blu says. "Your sister is very, very special."
"Yes, but I'm NO good," I sob. "At ALL."
"That's not true, Tessa. The others have been practicing much longer."
I sit there in stony silence, even though I know it's rude.
I don't finish my third dinner consecutive, and I don't bother Winona. We eat in silence--or at least, she eats. I just sit there, staring at my cup of water and thinking of my horrific day at the pool.
"Tessa, something wrong?" Winona asks at last, breaking the silence. My head jerks up in surprise.
"Yeah, Winona. The swim team..."
"You're doing great," Winona assures me. "Isn't it fun?"
I don't want to lie to Winona anymore. I know that she loves me. "Winona, I'm so slow. I'm not like you."
Winona hesitates for a moment. "I think you're doing great," she says. "You've been working really hard. No matter how slow you are, I think you're a champion."
I'm still trying to figure out what she means when she drains the last sip of water in her cup and clears her dishes, leaving me alone at the table thinking.
Coach Blu starts the rest of the team on laps, and tells me to come into his office. I plunk down in a chair, wondering if I'm in trouble. Kicked off the team is more like it, I bet.
"I know what you're going to say. That you want me to quit."
"Tessa, I love your perseverance. And I appreciate your attitude. I don't want you to quit."
I stare up at him with tear-encrusted eyes. "R-really?"
Coach Blu nods gravely. "Yes, really, Tessa."
I stare at him. "But I'm so slow..."
"I'm willing to work with you as long as it takes until you're fast," Coach Blu vows. "Promise you won't quit, Tessa?"
I hesitate, thinking of how embarrassed I've been, and how upset I've been to be slow. But Coach Blu doesn't mind. I feel a twinge of warmth when I think about what he said.
"Then get back in, Tessa," Coach Blu orders. He blasts his whistle, and I jump into the water as everyone else is crawling out and into their towels, giving me weird glances.
I don't think this will be so painful anymore.