He reached for another fistful of water and brought it in a half circle before releasing it behind him as he gasped for air. In the same motion, he twisted and reached out his other hand to repeat the process.
“Go, Long! You are doing well!” The cry of his sister’s words in their native tongue pushed him to kick a little harder and grab a larger fistful of water as the black mark on the pool wall drew closer. He brushed it with his finger tips and he pulled his legs under himself to get a maximum push off the wall. Eleven laps to go.
Long still laughed inside himself about this moment. Here he was, at the finals. On a world stage. The Olympic Games. Who would have dreamed that the one who finally represented their country at the Summer Games would be a poor farmer’s son?
After clumsy attempts at winter sports, Long finally dove into their icy pond and never stopped swimming. Only by chance did a foreigner see him one day. Or rather he spotted Long’s sister, Short. The romance was brief. She laughed at the foreigner, but still convinced him to help Long achieve his lifelong dream of making the Olympics. A former champion swimmer, the man had all the connections and enough interest, at the time, to help. Short still laughed about the man. Long never knew his name.
His shoulders began their familiar burn. Good. That was the point when he could really get some speed. He checked the time before brushing the wall. Record! A record loomed if he kept this pace. The thought revived him.
He’d never swam in a pool before diving into the practice one three weeks ago. He could sense the laughter at his attempts to master the wall turn. He studied the others, but couldn’t imitate their body movements.
He approached the next turn. Short had encouraged him to do what worked best for his style, not everyone else’s. She helped him master his full thrust position that always sent him ahead of the field at the start. He used it now after checking the time. He’d fallen off slightly.
Long took another quick breath, a grin on his face he hoped Short could see. She shouted encouragement again, just as she had standing on the banks of that icy pond.
The thought of Short’s illness crowded his mind. Doctors said she wouldn’t live much longer, but Long had made her promise that if he did good on his first Olympics, she would help him get to the next. She’d promised. Short never broke a promise to him.
At the next turn, he was a full second under the record.
Laughter bubbled from his lips as he continued thoughts of their bazaar circumstances. Every kind of mistake had been made to bring them to this moment. The disqualified trio that allowed him in the semi-finals, and then the disqualifications that put him in the finals, giving him a chance to churn water with the best the world had to offer.
And then a fellow swimmer had given him a book. When Long cocked his head in question, the guy said in broken French, which Long could barely speak, “Didn’t you say you wanted one?” Long shook his head. The guy laughed and slapped his back. “Keep it any way. I have more.”
Long gave the book to Short, who could read French. He chuckled, but she was interested. He asked her what it was and she smiled, almost sadly. “It’s a Bible.” Long had always feared the exposure Short had to the world at a young age. But something about her demeanor was peaceful. Perhaps another mistake for their good.
Long made the final turn. He could hear Short’s cheer, then all went silent. He glanced at the time. She would watch it, breathless as well. It was going to be close.
Every muscle in his body a sheer burning mass, Long extended his fingers and touched the wall, pulling up for air as he checked the time. A record. He had beaten his personal best.
A single clap sounded. He looked toward the lone observer who rose to her feet as she continued clapping. No matter the rest of the contestants had finished ten minutes ago. No matter no one else stayed to watch the end. All that mattered was his sister, his world stage. Her smile shined through her tears.
Long raised his arm in victory.
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