t h e i n t i m a t e s t r a n g e r

What do you have to lose?

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The point of competition is to compete. It’s to take on the biggest challenge. When you compete against the very best, it makes you better; I don’t care if someone is twenty times better, or one-tenth better. I want to race the best.

I hate to lose. But I was not afraid to lose. I am never afraid to lose.

~ No Limits: The Will to Succeed. Michael Phelps on why he wanted to race in the 200 free in the 2004 Athens Olympics, against world-record holder Ian Thorpe and defending champion Pieter van den Hoogenband. It was not his best event and would jeopardise his quest to win 7 golds.

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I will miss the breezy days and cooler temperatures when the Northeast Monsoon ends. Already, the nights have gotten a little warmer and I no longer need to pull on an additional sweater (or 2, at times!) to sleep at night. And the last few days have been gorgeous — blue skies, sunny weather and lovely, oh so lovely, breezes.

But I’m really glad I no longer have to swim in cold water :-P

Yesterday’s swim was a welcome return to more tolerable temperatures after a couple of sunny days. The pool was relatively empty; it was Day 2 of the Chinese New Year and there was maybe slightly more than 10 people there to tan or swim.

And I got paced during my set of 1000 m freestyle.

I had started my set about half a lap behind him. Shortly after, he changed his pace and caught up from behind; he stayed just slightly ahead, and at the turns, he would pause a while underwater, feet planted on the wall and facing my way, eyeballing me before he pushed off. He increased his pace after a few laps and widened our gap to a body length, and then two.

It’s not unusual for stronger swimmers or regulars to get paced by (or pace) strangers at the pool. Swimming is largely a solitary sport and it can get dull at times, especially if you don’t incorporate variety, or some kind of challenge, into your work-outs. Sometimes though, it’s just nice to have some ‘company’ or something else to focus on during long swims.

I’ve seen him around in the evenings, doing laps. His strokes could be neater, his streamline and kick could be improved, and he’s not in the best shape, but he’s strong, and he’s tried pacing me before.

I didn’t meet his challenge yesterday. My right palm was starting to cramp (??!!!) and my back was stiff and sore. And I didn’t want to lose. 

So, I chose not to pull harder and faster, or to increase the tempo of my kicks. I chose to swim at my pace and he gave up trying to pace me.

I conceded, by assuming defeat. However, to me, it would never be a definitive loss. Or so I’ll’d like to convince myself. You can say I’ve already lost by not even trying but in my warped psyche, an alternative reality in which I triumph remains to be proven otherwise. I hate losing. But more than that, I fear losing. I am afraid of facing failure — my failure, proven beyond the shadow of a doubt.

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When I got home and downloaded the swim data from my Garmin watch, I saw that I had swum each lap more than 2 seconds slower than my usual pace. Hmmm. I reckoned that my strokes and streamline must have been off. And I also realised that I could have kept up with the stranger.

And even if he had then cranked up the pace, which he seems to have the capacity for, so what if I lost?

What is there to lose? Indeed.

This was just an inconsequential, impromptu race at a swimming pool. But it is a symptom of something much bigger — my fear of losing, and not knowing how to deal with failure. I take myself too seriously. (Burden of the first-born?)

As I look back at the many times in my life that I’ve backed off from a challenge, or anything at all, I realise that I really had little, if not nothing to lose. There is no shame in losing. There is however, regret in never knowing for sure, and how far I can go. The loss is not (always) an end in itself.

There are certainly worse things than losing. It’s not seeing and realising my ability to rise up to a challenge, the courage to dream and dare, and belief in myself — that a loss does not define me but it is how I respond to it that does; and more importantly, that I can win, for real.


Written by The Intimate Stranger

February 2nd, 2014 at 4:13 pm

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