AT THE 2008 SUMMER OLYMPICS in Beijing, Michael Phelps won a record eight gold medals in swimming. He’s readying himself to win more in London over the next two weeks, because really, why not. Here are eight things that I won during my childhood instead of gold medals:
I was a runner at twelve months. Just ask my family. I learned to walk in Goa, and learned to run in Bombay. Once, I ran so fast around our glass coffee table, I couldn’t be caught—until I fell onto one of its corners. We ran to Canada shortly thereafter. It’s ludicrous to think that if I had fallen but an inch differently, I wouldn’t be able to see. That is to say, I wouldn’t be able to see that my parents skipped the chapter on child supervision. Why was I ever permitted to run around a low table with hazardous edges?
Thanks for nothing, Mom and Dad.
2. A broadened knowledge of science.
I went skating with my fourth grade classmates. Now, if you’ve ever seen an Indian on ice, you let me know, because I felt like the first—especially in our then-small town of Pickering, Ontario. I held onto those boards like I had held onto my new citizenship card. Triumphant. Maybe a little tentative. That’s when Matt jumped on my back, bringing us down to the ice. Many colours soon immigrated to my wrist. They were gross excretory colours like piss yellow, puke green, and shit brown. Importantly, it was the day I added the phrase “coagulated blood” to my lexicon. If I ever see Matt again, I probably won’t kick his ass, but I’ll sure as hell link him to this post. Angrily.
Revenge is a dish best served online.
Puberty made us eager, didn’t it? I had done surprisingly well in the high jump lesson at school, and wanted to prove it to Alicia when it mattered most: Track and Field Day. You laugh, but in 1990s Pickering, Track and Field Day was when boys became men, winning girls over with their athletic ability. Or so I was told.
I overshot the mattress and humped my leg open on one of the vertical support beams.
4. A strong work ethic.
Mr. Legacy had us run suicides in eighth grade phys. ed. It’s the aptly named exercise where you sprint to a line, sprint back, sprint to a more distant line, sprint back, and so on until you’ve sprinted the length of the gymnasium or kill yourself trying. Well, it was suddenly the home stretch, and I was excited to see that I’d be first to the end. Perhaps too excited. Seven weeks later, a man in white removed the cast from my arm.
Some might say I ran into a wall, but I prefer to think that I gave 110 percent.
5. Hands-on lessons in gender theory.
If suicides had an evil cousin, it would be the beep test. Both exercises are line-to-line runs, but while the former is a sprint, the latter is a slower measure of physical endurance. You know what else is a slower measure of physical endurance? Torture. Mr. O’Hare inflicted the beep test upon us in ninth grade phys. ed., and despite what you may have heard, I did not give birth after running it. Catholic school health class taught me nothing about safe sex, but it did teach me—crucially—that I had a penis.
So why did Dan call me a pregnant woman after the test? Because I was belly up with knee supports due to injury?
Tenth grade came around and I decided to focus on my academics. I’m glad I did, or else I wouldn’t be what I am today: an underemployed college grad.
7. The power of forgiveness.
Isobel threw a backyard party in the summer of ’05. It was a rager. We were getting high on 7UP and Miss Vickie’s when I suddenly found myself in the pool. Sara had pushed me in—a common prank. She had pushed me in—she didn’t realize that I was a poor swimmer. She had pushed me in—and I was drowning—I was drowning—and then I wasn’t drowning—but I was mortified. The only scene more awkward comprised Steve and Lisa’s public make-out session, and the ensuing public boner. After an hour spent damning Sara with waterlogged curses, I was able to forgive her for what was ultimately an innocent act. We’re still friends.
I can’t say the same for Steve and Lisa.
8. A sense of place.
The summer after high school came and went. My friends and I had graduated to bigger things, and in late August, I was set to leave for college in Montréal. So naturally, we thought it the ideal time to throw a slumber party. Yes, we called it that. There were board games. There were fizzy drinks. There was laughter. There was Manhunt—glorified Hide & Seek for teenagers—well into dawn. Nothing makes you feel young quite like running around with your friends at sunrise. And we needed to feel young.
I evaded the hunters with a mix of stealth, agility, cunning, and luck. Honestly, it was probably all luck. But that luck sure worsened when I dared to run up that bunny hill. I tripped, loudly, and scraped my elbow. Tragic mistake. The hunters were on me like curry on rice. I was disappointed because I had just started to feel like a ninja, or at least a subpar athlete, or at least someone who wasn’t leaving his friends behind. What I didn’t know then is that it mattered little.
The scar on my elbow saved me in college. Like most first-year students, I went through some shit. There were bedbugs. There was binge drinking. There was heartbreak. There was a crisis of identity. Nothing makes you feel old like a crisis of identity. You begin to question everything that preceded your new failure, and looking back has never made anyone feel young. What pulled me out of my depression was that bit of weird flesh: my catharsis was knowing that I had won it fair and square, that it located me in a specific time and place, that I had been among friends, and that in that moment I had lived. I can write about my mishaps precisely because they don’t embarrass me. They’ve produced scars, and what are scars if not personal identifiers? I wear mine with pride because each represents a time that I was striving toward something—the finish line, academic success, a girl’s affections—with the fullest extent of my being. And although I struggle with identity even now—what does it mean to be Indian? Canadian?
I’ve been adding a piece to the puzzle with each scar I earn.
Kudos to Michael Phelps. I applaud anyone that can even swim, let alone win 16 Olympic medals (and counting) for that same feat. But I don’t envy the cost of his success. He lives in a bubble, like, almost literally. To aid his underwater endurance, Phelps sleeps in a chamber that simulates high altitudes, as he revealed to 60 Minutes: “Once I’m already in my room, I still have to open a door to get into my bed, uh, so that’s kind of strange… It’s just like a giant box. So, it’s like the boy in the bubble. That’s what it kind of is.” And when asked about retiring after London 2012—he’ll be 27—Phelps replied, “I’ve been able to go to all these amazing cities in my travels. And I haven’t been able to see them at all. I see the hotel and I see the pool. That’s it. I’m just gonna go and do whatever I wanna do… I’m excited. ‘Cause, you know, it’s something new.”
He has yet to find that sense of place.