I went to a youth swim meet recently.
The viewing gallery in the natatorium was jammed with several hundred alternately thrilled then bored parents and friends of the competitors. Time moves so slowly at a swim meet until the kid you’re there to watch swims that you can actually feel yourself aging.
I was sitting there trying to age gracefully when I noticed a girl in a wheelchair moving up to the edge of the pool as her race was getting ready to start. Since she was paralyzed from the waist down she could not start with a great leap into the water. So she lowered herself into the pool and pushed off with her arms. I wondered if her parents were worried about her being embarrassed by having to compete against kids whose legs didn’t act as two great anchors, but instead provided a large part of the thrust to carry them through the water.
She lost the sprint by a wide margin and received a smattering of applause for finishing, but now she was getting ready for a much longer race and the stroke was the breaststroke. I tried not to stare as the girl lowered herself without aid into the water and the race began. Don’t stare and embarrass her, I thought, and resumed my conversation with the parents around me.
As I sat there talking, I noticed the swimmers with working legs had just finished as our little swimmer with the useless legs was just coming to the last turn. She was far behind, but still she was determined to finish.
Then I saw the next race was being set and the swimmers were taking their marks. The Starter thought everyone had finished and was about to fire the pistol. I was on my feet, shouting, pointing at the little girl pumping so mightily, so far without legs that kick, lungs burning, arms aching, forging on in spite of the pain. Then there were many of us standing screaming, “Wait!” and the Starter lowered his pistol and turned to look at our girl.
We began to cheer in one great roar. We were with her now; we could not look away anymore for we had stood as one to demand she be allowed to finish. Now we had to acknowledge what we had known all along. We looked away from her as she lowered herself into the water so we would not have to wonder what her struggle might be, what her life might be like, how could she struggle so. Now, we knew: She was not racing the other kids, she was just racing life, making it come with her and follow her path. She was not following a path forced on her by life; she was just doing what she had done all her life, living well.
As she finished the race, she grabbed the edge of the pool gasping, turned to the crowd, and raised her goggles. She looked amazed at all the people standing and cheering; what was their problem? Once again, as she had earlier in the day, she refused a hand offered to her and boosted herself out of the pool then awkwardly into her chair. Unlike earlier though, we did not look away; we stood a moment longer just watching her…amazed.
I firmly believe the world is full of cowards and thieves and idiots; it also has innocents and saints and heroes. I believe that we who wear a badge and a gun have chosen the warrior’s path and that is one of the paths of the true hero.
We should celebrate that, and we should seek out those who choose other paths of the hero, for they are our brothers and sisters. That is why I had to write this to tell you something. I saw your little sister swim a race today…She was marvelous.