Mel and I got through physics lab and went on to practice with relief. On the pool deck, the mood was somewhat subdued. Coach sat in wait for us as we filed in and took our places in the bleachers, a grave expression on his face. No one said anything, waiting for him to explode. Once we assembled, he sipped his coffee, then took his time looking at each one of us. An awkward moment passed before he started speaking.
“I’m going to say this once. What’s been going on for the last couple of weeks has to stop. Everyone knows the school’s code of conduct: zero tolerance for harassment of any student or athlete. I understand you’re all caught up in the excitement of the Allison Singer challenge. We have two athletes here today who can meet that challenge, and I’m confident one, if not both of them, will.”
I focused on the pool deck, sensing twenty-six sets of eyes boring into the back of my head.
“This is going to be a fair contest,” Coach continued. “Any harassment or bullying of either of these athletes will result in an immediate suspension from school and the team. Jordan Hastings is not here today for that reason. We are a team, meant to support one another, to help each other be the best we can be. Backbiting, sniping, and defamation affects all of us. Jordan’s actions over the last twenty-four hours have harmed the team’s reputation. She’s hurt all of us, including herself.
“Anyone who continues to spread rumors via social media or any other method will share Jordan’s fate. We have four meets until the Division Championships. Two of them are against our toughest competitors. You girls are having an excellent season. I don’t want all of your hard work to be wasted because of one person’s actions. Am I clear?”
Heads nodded all around.
“We need to focus on nothing but swimming and bringing home that division title. Now get in the water and start the Monster set.”
A few groans erupted from the swimmers. The Monster set was the worst Coach could dish out. We’d only done it once this season and it ended in tears for many of us. A stern glance from Coach quieted the complainers. We rose, tugged on our goggles and caps, walked to the blocks, and dove into our lanes. I swam behind Mel, Erica, and Charlie, all of us concentrating on meeting the intervals. As the set progressed, I was soon in the lead and kept my pace, straining after each lap to go faster next time, getting into the rhythm of the swim, controlling my breathing as I emptied my mind of all of the stress of the last hours.
Near the end of the set, most of the girls had dropped off, maxed out and unable to continue. Soon me, Mel, Erica, and Tatiana were the only swimmers in the water, all of us exhausted and out of breath, meeting the intervals by just hundredths of a second. The other girls cheered from the sidelines. A few shouted encouragement to me, and as I launched into another lap, I smiled, touched by their support.
Minutes later, Mel dropped out and Erica dropped out right behind her. Tati and I were now the only swimmers making the intervals. After the pain and humiliation Jordan had caused, there was no way I’d let Tati beat me. I was determined to complete the set in record time.
I pushed on, ignoring my burning muscles and overtaxed lungs as I pulled and kicked my way across the pool, while Tati matched my pace in the lane beside me. When I surfaced for air, I heard the shouts and cries of our teammates as they urged us on.
We had one interval left. I pushed off a half second before Tati, and we raced each other, neck and neck, stroke to stroke, the water churning as we kicked our feet and plunged our arms into it. The girls on deck erupted into a frenzy of cheers. Most of them allied with Tati’s team, but a few voices shouted my name. They spurred me on, and at the last turn I was ahead.
I took advantage of Tati’s faltering and pushed off the wall as though my life depended on it, streamlining across the first ten yards before popping the surface and clobbering the water with my arms and feet, Tati right behind me, her hands at the level of my hips as she tried to draw even with me. She didn’t have my determination or my drive and I streaked ahead of her, flipping off the wall in my final turn, leaving her in my wake as I plowed ahead, reaching the finish a full second before she did.
The noise on deck was deafening as the girls cheered for both of us. I clung to the wall and panted, straining to catch my breath. Tati came up beside me, also overwhelmed. We looked at each other, and she smiled. I smiled back, puzzled by her unusual response to losing. She climbed out of the pool and joined her minions on deck. Mel leaned down and offered a hand as I climbed out of the pool.
“Good job,” she said. “That’ll show them.”
“Don’t be too confident,” I said, still breathless. “This will motivate her to train harder. I just give her another reason to break that record.”
“She’s not a shoo-in,” Mel said. “If she were, she would have already broken it.”
No one on the team knew Tatiana better than I did. We weren’t friends - we rarely spoke - but we were both winners, and I knew all about winning.
A winner wants to win. A winner has a burning desire to come out on top. She needs a challenge, an inner drive, something chasing her toward a goal. Perhaps Tati was biding her time, working slowly toward breaking the record, waiting for the last event to make her mark. That’s how I’d play it. Creep forward, fall back a little to enthrall and entertain the others, then leave them all shocked and screaming when I break that record at the last possible moment, winning the challenge and all its glory and prizes.
That’s how I’d do it.
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