TO travel back to my swimming days is to return to a time when student bus fares used to be 25 cents per trip, regardless of distance. The exact change would sit in the pocket of my school uniform so that when I boarded the bus, I didn’t have to fiddle with my coin purse. There was no air conditioning back then, and double-deckers were still a novelty. The OMO (one-man operation) service was in its early days, but would soon replace all the conductor-assisted buses still plying the roads. And so whenever I hailed down a bus without the OMO sign peeping out from the bottom left of the windscreen, I always felt I had lucked out because it was strangely fascinating watching a conductor at work, made all the sweeter knowing you weren’t going to see him in action much longer.
The conductor was the guy who would either be daydreaming at one of the back row seats in a near-empty bus, or hanging out in front chatting with the driver, butt pressed against the grip pole by the entrance. On more diligent days, he’d work the aisle, sometimes tapping away at the tops of the seats with his ticket puncher, a cool wordless way of saying, “Your fare, please.”
Then, there were those bright jingling sounds: coins would tumble into his coin pouch from scruffy fingers that would sometimes grovel within for change. These same fingers would peel out a ticket from one of several stacks lined up in various colors, a different color for each fare, all strapped down by individual elastic bands on a palm-sized metallic board. I’d watch intently as his nut cracker-like ticket puncher chewed off a number, no larger than a newsprint letter, from a series of running ones that tracked the four columns across the slim ticket.
I suspect I wasn’t the only one who liked conductor-assisted buses. Most worried mothers like mine probably did as well because conductors could provide change. More importantly, they could help not-so-tall folks reach for the buzzer, a black rubber strip that ran the entire length of the bus’s ceiling, secured by two parallel strips of ribbed metal with a magenta sheen.
Only Primary Four and just ten years old then, I had to tiptoe to reach the buzzer, which was something of a feat and stupidly dangerous in a moving bus. For one who had to take the bus three afternoons a week—Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays—from my home in Farrer Road to the Farrer Park Swimming Complex, I had to be brave about approaching a fellow passenger tall enough to help me get at the buzzer in a conductor-less bus. Alternatively, I would walk down the aisle to the driver himself. This repeated itself on another connecting bus before I arrived in good time ahead of my swimming training at five o’clock when the real test of bravery began, all two hours of it.
A dread would always settle over me the moment I began shedding my uniform by the poolside together with at least ten other schoolmates. The skirt came off first, then the blouse, which had a way of traveling slowly up over the head so that I would see nothing but the inside of my graph paper-print cotton uniform, faint gridlines of green on white. It was here that I hid, a precious three to four seconds of quiet, a safety zone unto myself. As my arms stretched upwards, blouse now finally off, I could feel more keenly the tautness of the swimsuit on my body. The clock at the far end of the pool—Olympic in length, but not width and depth—would announce the misery that lay ahead. Mrs. Thwaites, our school’s swim club teacher, would take our attendance before blowing a long, shrill whistle at the top of the hour.
First, the land exercises, always led by one of the seniors in Secondary Three or Four. Simple stretches and twists before the next shrill whistle screamed for us to plunge in for the real thing: our 20-lap warm-up.
One by one, girls started jumping in feet first, reemerging with hair slicked back as they pulled their rubber caps over their heads. My routine was to wear mine over dry hair, though caps over wet hair made more sense since rubber wasn’t likely to tear at hair that’s neatly plastered on the scalp, which also meant that the cap would slip on with greater ease and no stray hair would likely poke out from behind.
My way was obviously not better, but practical because the moment I hit the waters, I could start stroking away. This minimized the sudden shock of coldness at the first dip, and the jitters that sat somewhere in the heart. I’d hear it distinctly from the bubbles that brushed past my lips as I exhaled, the liquid rattle melding with the energetic splashing of front crawl kicks before me, beside me, foamy trails everywhere as my goggles began to fog up slowly.
With no lane ropes and lane markings on the floor of the pool, all of us swam along lines carved out by an instinctive sense of pool traffic, veering left or right as we gave way to each other, especially on Fridays which always yielded the full attendance of over 30 of us. The approaching faces always looked formidable by virtue of the goggles, particularly if they were black and no eyes could be seen—faces made even fiercer as hands with tightly squeezed fingers sliced through the waters, charging at some imaginary midline ahead, left and right. Even if your friend were to smile at you as you passed each other, you couldn’t help wondering if she had become half a friend. After all, the bubbles that streamed past her flashing teeth would make her look almost menacing, ruthless.
The underwater view of the world always vibrated with this sort of darkness amid the cool chlorine blue of the pool. Competition was a fact of life in the pool and at school, but somehow, I always felt more vulnerable in the water, more open to the elements, not helped at all that I didn’t have very much on. Just a sheath of lycra over the body, a film of cranial rubber, and two wee cups of plastic sucking at the eyes. All else was skin.
There were times I would cry in the secret sockets of my yellow-tinted Eyeline goggles, particularly in that first year when I said yes to competitive training. No one would see, no one would even know when you tore them off at the end of the training. Because by then, your eyes would have been puffy anyway, tender especially within the ring marks the goggles had made. Or you could simply say: “My goggles are leaky!”
I’d cry shamelessly, cry with utter self-pity, cry even to incite a vengeance in the heart after Jinny B., that bitchy, arrogant, and incredibly busty girl kicked me in the face at the start of one of our sprinting laps across the width of the pool. She had swerved an abrupt left after a split-second cheat start, so that a hard-hitting blur of blackness came at my face, socking me in the left eye. I felt a sudden explosion of water in the eyes and my goggles no longer where they should be: the left socket was tugging at the brow, the other pressing into a half-shut eyelid.
My strokes and kicks came to a halt. I stood up in the chest-high waters, fingers tearing at the goggles. Then the coughs came, twice, three times, each sending up tortured, guttural sounds, sounds that protested against the foulness of the water I had just gulped. I felt a sting inside the bridge of my nose and a hot twitch below my left eye, consumed by the idea that my childhood asthma would suddenly return, swimming down my nostrils into my throat and lungs, and back up again, choking me, killing me.
The look of the loser drew the ire of Mr. Chia, the tan, handsome salt-and-pepper-haired coach who took over from Mrs. Thwaites at six o’clock, the hour our training would take on a certain belligerence as though he had stuck in the pool a metallic rod that leaked electric current, one he’d ratchet up every five minutes.
“Who says you could stop?” he screamed. “If you must fiddle with your goggles, just don’t wear them!”
He promptly sent the next troop of swimmers across the width with a raspy “Ready, hup!”—his clipped, no-nonsense way of saying “Go!” There I was, in the middle of the pool, a lost lamb, beaten and forlorn, just as a furious froth of freestyle kicks came charging in one long jagged line, led by determined arms muscling into the waters. I couldn’t help feeling as if the noisy, foaming waters would consume me, or that whoever who was about to pass me on the left or the right would knock me over or box me in the face just because I was criminally blocking the way.
It seemed to me then that it would have been a gloating victory for Mr. Chia, whose fierce, piercing gaze only made his nasty, dirty look even nastier and dirtier. It would have been enough to make me get back in the water as soon as the swimmers passed, but no! It was Jinny B. less than 10 meters before me, sloshing off fog from her black goggles with a quick backward head dip in the water. It was the sight of her that sent me pulling and kicking wildly in her direction only to hear, once I touched the wall, that feisty “Ready, hup!” again. The adrenalin would come, colored by a shiver of rage at Jinny B. I made a swift turn and flexed my knees as tightly as I could before releasing them like coiled springs. Tucking my chin slightly so that my biceps met my ears, I thrust forward as powerfully as she did, my body perfectly lined up next to hers to my left.
Lap after lap though, she’d touch the wall first, leaving me trailing half an arm’s length behind her, so that whenever I looked right in one lap, or left in the next, my eyes would always level up with her breasts. They seemed to give her a buoyancy, twin buoys doubling up as cylinders that powered up those whipping kicks and devastating pulls, an edge I certainly didn’t have, scrawny as I was.
But my edge lay elsewhere: the breaststroke. And some frog I was, for no one could touch me. The gold medals for the 50 meters and the 100 meters breaststroke were always mine at the school’s swimming carnival, though best at school was merely good at the national level, where even a bronze medal would make me happy, or my mother proud, or Mrs. Thwaites smile. I remember how giddy I would be, just finding my name in the sports section of the papers the day after, one among many others in a tiny column listing all the medalists–the column that always attached itself below the headline story spotlighting the most bemedaled swimmer, or the champions who had smashed records or clocked personal bests.
Who would have known then at Primary Four that when I started my three-times-a-week regime with Mrs. Thwaites and Mr. Chia, swimming would become more than just an extra-curricular activity, an ECA that would last merely a year or two? After all, my parents had first thrown me in the pool at the age of seven or eight, not exactly with medal hopes, but the heartfelt wish that swimming would cure my weak constitution, my asthma in particular.
And for my father, nothing delighted him more than watching me learn how to tread water, first in six-feet waters, before graduating me to the deepest end at 12 feet. “Kick, kick!” he’d say in an excited, animated way by the pool side, sometimes lapsing into a “No!” when I didn’t quite get the kick right or a “Yes!” when I did, with always that reaffirming “Good!” The more I got at it, the longer I could keep my chin well clear above the water that looked bluer and felt colder than the shallower end, water deep enough to welcome a diver diving from the highest eight- or nine-meter platform.
Not only did swimming help me overcome my bronchitic troubles, it would stay with me for so many years after, 13 years to be exact, filling my life with such unforgettable moments set against the cool chlorine blue: the wound-up tension on the blocks, the lung-bursting lunges at the wall, the insistent pulse of the strokes, the intricate kick and glide of the legs as the body undulated, all breathed upon by some inner voice that always directed me to swim with eyes on the wall, and mind on the breath: the breath of perseverance, the breath of not just calm but go-for-it, the breath that’s ultimately life-giving.
I had swum so many races—inter-class, inter-house, inter-school, inter-club—but I never went below 40.06 seconds for my 50-meter sprint, my all-time best set at an Asian Inter-Collegiate Meet in Jakarta in 1991. It was my fourth and final year in the National University of Singapore as a Japanese Studies major, the very last year of my education, and the last I would ever compete in the pool. I would never realize the goal to go sub-40, but I guess a gold medal and a meet record were good enough. It’s true that good enough does reek of mediocrity, but sometimes it teaches us to chill: I had no regrets, I had fun, and it was my best shot.
What would sometimes visit me though as I reminisce my swimming days is a wonder at how those spectacular bodies were once us: the glorious lightness of youth; the flying feeling of being so young and so good; and the amazing fire and vigor of the appetite.
Sure, there had been tears at the start. There had always been tears all my life, some wept in the quiet chambers of the heart. But the tears of the pool wept their definitive last after I clinched the Individual Champion trophy at the school’s annual swimming carnival in 1981, the year I turned 12, the year I sat for my PSLE, and two years after bagging my first trophy ever, a bronze for the 50 meters freestyle.
The trophy was about 30 centimeters tall, twice as tall as any other I had ever won. The bulk of it was a tacky imitation of a Roman pillar washed in faux gold, upon which stood the figurine of a lady, also in gold, with arms spread out and back, feathered like wings, as if she were some faceless beauty perched on the bow of a mythical ship. Certainly, she was more elegant than the asexual mannequin-like figures in gold, half-squatting with arms thrown back in a plunging pose, gracing a less impressive pedestal on the four trophies I had won: two team relays and two of my pet events. Four coveted golds in one single meet.
The champion trophy would sit in a display cabinet in my bedroom for years, keeping company with six or seven other medals from my most memorable wins. It stood dormant and proud in this way through the days I started working, to the days after I left home for New York, and even after I had returned. This homage to a time in my life, to Mrs. Thwaites and Mr. Chia, was finally packed away in April 2010 when my parents were preparing to move out of the home my brothers and I practically grew up in. I lay this grand trophy in an empty gift box stashed away in my pack-rat closet, as if tucking it into its final slumber upon a bed of medals.
Three or four of such boxes went, home to other trophies and medals. I don’t want to say that I had junked them. Rather, I had sent them off at the dumpster one street from my home. I even whispered goodbye. Not that I didn’t love or cherish them. It’s just that when you’ve moved eight times in 12 years, you learn to live light as best as you can, light enough just so your years wouldn’t feel so crowded and noisy. Why keep remembrances when we have memories? Besides, nothing beats the portability of memories: they weigh practically nothing, except for the weight they give to our lives, our journeys, and our relationships.
But if ever I needed something tangible to remember my swimming days so fondly lived and swum, all I have to do is look deeply in the mirror, and find, just below my left eye, a line no more than a centimeter, tracking down at an angle as if it were tracing the path of a tear. It’s hardly visible, but it’s there, thanks to Jinny B.
This essay was written in November 2014.