Our daughter Veronica, affectionately known to us as Rocky, joined her high school swimming team this year, as a sophomore who’s never completed a lap outside a YMCA swimming lesson.
She’s the worst swimmer on the team. And it doesn’t bother her one bit.
Rocky has always been our adventurous child who anticipates exciting things around every corner. Literally. As a little girl, she was obsessed with a particular road sign. She would see it, throw her hands in the air, and say, “Oh Mommy! Blind Hill. Let’s gooooo!”
That spirit has stayed with her into high school. Last year, Rocky decided to join the girls water polo team. This lead to a rather amusing exchange with Coach Lum. I’ll summarize the conversation, which took place over email and in person at the school.
Rocky: “So I’m thinking of joining the girls water polo team.“
Coach Lum: “That’s great. We are always looking to add more girls, particularly freshman.”
Rocky: “I can’t wait to get started. I want to mention one thing. I don’t swim.”
Coach Lum (somewhat baffled): “Alright. Well, it’s a no cut sport. And we do need goalies.”
Rocky: “I’d love to play goalie! That’s awesome!”
Coach Lum (circling back to the troubling statement): “Great! Just to clarify something you said previously. When you say you don’t swim, do you mean you can’t swim at all?”
Rocky: “Oh,no. Like, I can swim. I just don’t swim on a team.”
Coach Lum (completely relieved): “Perfect. We can’t wait to have you join us.”
Rocky played goalie on the junior varsity water polo team. It was one of the highlights of her freshman year.
But she wants to get better and prepare for the next season. The two varsity goalies have graduated and she’s the only player with any experience at the position. She figured the best way to improve in the off-season was to join the swimming team. This likely meant losing in the hopes of one day winning.
In early August, I dropped her at a morning train for the first two-a-day practice. When she returned later in the evening, I was curious to hear all the details. Rocky summarized the day succinctly, “Mom, I’m undoubtedly the worst one in the pool.” She wasn’t discouraged, just stating the facts. There was no reason to argue with her assessment.
Like all the other girls on the team, she kept going to practice. These kids are incredibly tough and committed. Not to mention hungry. Her first timed 100 free was 2:10. After two weeks, that time dropped to 1:35. Last Wednesday, she set a personal record of 1:20.87. The current world record in this event it 51.71. There’s room for improvement.
The team culture is just fantastic and very supportive of each girl. I’ve enjoyed getting to know the other parents. At the first family party, Becky was named honorary team mascot. We’ve got to put together an appropriate costume. I’m leaning towards gold lamé and maroon tulle to match the school’s colors.
Recently, I ran into Coach Lum at a parent meeting and she gave me some additional insight into Rocky. She told me the head coach was a bit hesitant to take a sophomore who had never been on a swimming team before. They would have to teach her just about everything: how to dive off a block, how to do a flip turn, all the specifics around racing. Coach Lum told him to take a chance on Rocky, asserting, “There’s not an ounce of quit in the kid.”
Angela Duckworth wrote a fascinating book called “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance“. In the book she argues that “the secret to outstanding achievement is not talent…but a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal”.
Grit is the name she gives to that special blend.
For Rocky, grit looks like joining a high school swimming team and grinding it out with her teammates. It means taking a 4:26am train into the city some days or climbing into a car with a family friend at 5:15am on others. It means standing on a starting block next to girls who have been swimming club for years. It means setting goals that are appropriate for her but may seem lackluster to a casual observer.
Case in point.
I went to the meet last week and sat in the stands to watch her second career start. She had laid out her goals and was focused on achieving three things: not to come in last in the 50 free (she placed 7th of 8th), to set a PR in the 100 free (she clocked in at 1:20.87), and to not cause her 200 free relay to lose (they placed 7th of 8th).
As I watched the whole thing unfold, parents around me shouted, “Go, Rocky!”, “C’mon, Rocky!”, “Finish strong, Rocky!” It just about brought tears to my eyes. Here they were, joining me as we cheered for my child, struggling to catch the pack. She was positively beaming after the meet, having achieved each of her goals. And asking for a vanilla milkshake and hamburger.
Duckworth includes a chapter in her book called “Parenting for Grit”, which honestly makes me chuckle. Rocky joined a swim team, knowing she would likely be one of the worst swimmers. But her goal is to be one of the best water polo players. She’s going after that personal goal, one lap at a time. And doing it in front of a stand full of people, hunched over on a starting block in a racing suit and a funny cap.
That is a valuable lesson for me personally. About goal setting. About sacrifice and perseverance. About not caring what other people might think. After watching Rocky these past weeks, I’ve learned more from her than I could have possibly taught her.