This is part three of our series called “Inspired By Sound,” where writers use a song as the muse for their story. This piece by Sarah Koubek takes influence from “Mercy” by Shawn Mendes.
The injury was sudden. I didn’t feel it coming on; I had no shadow of a doubt when I dove off the block that I would be fine. Maybe if I had doubted, I would’ve switched the position of my feet or pushed off lighter or rounded out my back in mid-air. Instead it hyperextended. The muscles around my spine tightened past the point of no return. No amount of physical therapy or muscle relaxers could change that.
“Sarah, Sarah, what’s wrong?” I felt my mom touch my shoulder. I knew she wanted me to look at her and tell her everything was fine, but I wanted to stay hidden behind my closed eyes for just a little while longer. My eyelids were red; the pain made it brighter.
“I need to swim, mom,” I said finally. “I’m gonna be okay. I just need to swim.”
“Sarah, you and I both know that isn’t happening.”
My mom dragged me out of the pool area. I wasn’t able to do the whole “kicking and screaming” part because I could barely walk. I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep on the car ride home, and only nodded yes or no when she tried to talk to me back at the house.
The worst part of an injury isn’t the actual injury, not even the surgery that comes after. No, it’s the recovery. It’s the endless hours of physical therapy that get in the way of everything. It’s trying to remind people time and time again that you aren’t as good as new, even if you might look like it. It’s trying to ignore the people who whisper behind your back, wondering if you’re just “faking it.” And then, of course, it’s trying to get back in the water at some point, and that’s pretty damn terrifying.
I stood behind the blocks pressing my goggles on tight every two seconds or so before they fogged up and I had to repeat the process. I pulled my swim cap down another inch or so, just in case, and fidgeted with the towel I set on the block. Wouldn’t want to slip.
The whistle called me onto the block and I sat down, waiting for the, “Take your mark.” I looked over at the lanes next to me, at every swimmer standing up. I wasn’t allowed to stand; it hurt too much.
“Take your mark.”
I raised my back, flinching. I held my breath.
I felt it. I felt my back crack. I felt the pain shoot up and down my spine. My hands broke the surface of the water and the rest of my body followed. Except I didn’t come up. My back felt frozen, I couldn’t remember how to use my limbs and I couldn’t breathe. I inhaled a mouthful of water and tried to turn around.
I found the wall quickly and heaved myself onto the concrete with every ounce of strength I had left. I coughed up water and wheezed, and the officials had to come over to pull me out of the water.
My back was fine. Healthy, almost healed. Nothing happened when I dove off the block; it was all in my mind.
I put my head between my knees and breathed and closed my eyes and saw red again.
“Do you want to keep swimming, Sarah?” my coach asked me later in the season. I was able to swim my whole race now, but I still had a panic attack when I hit the wall. I would cry and gasp and try to remember how to breathe. My mom told me to stop making a scene after my races, even if I was upset. I began to run to the bathroom after my events and “make a scene” by myself in a stall.
“I don’t know,” I told him.
“How do you feel?”
“Washed up. It hurts.”
“Your back?” he asked.
I wiped the tears from my eyes. I pulled my knees up to my chest and looked at the swimming pool. I watched my friends practice and wanted nothing more than to be with them. But I wanted to be fixed; I wanted to be healed.
“The doctor says I won’t ever go back to normal.”
“Really?” my coach said.
“Not until I’m done swimming.”
He paused. “Is that what you want? To be done?”
“No,” I said into my knees. “But I need to.”
I walked out of the pool area. I took a shower and got dressed and drove home. I sat in my car in my driveway for a while, sobbing. I wiped my tears and snot with my sleeve and hit my hands on the steering wheel and yelled at nothing.
Sometimes you have to let go of the things that hurt you, even if you love them.