An excerpt from "So That We May See Eternal" from This Is Not a Confession.
You wouldn’t think a boy of six would be excited to get an alarm clock for Christmas, but I was. To me, the clock meant maturity. The clock meant I could be trusted to keep time, but more than that, the clock meant I had a reason to keep time. It meant I had places to be. It meant I had things to do.
There is a photo of me holding that analog alarm clock. Smiling. It is Christmas morning. I am in a red and blue flannel robe. My two front teeth are missing. I am six years old. It is 1979.
The time on that clock is forever frozen at 11:25. And that forever-frozen clock face, that perpetually mid-morning moment, would happen in a non-photographed version of that exact same scene if I were to move away from myself at a speed faster than the speed of light. The subsequent seconds would never catch up to my smiling semblance, the proceeding particles of light, a still procession. My teeth would forever remain missing. My hair, forever brown and shaggy. And yet, if I had a watch on my wrist, I would see the seconds on that timepiece tick at a rate I found to be typical. But they wouldn’t be typical to people not traveling at that rate. In fact, they would be moving slowly. And while my teeth would continue to grow out as crooked as they eventually grew, and my hair would gray and go gone, it all would seem to happen much more slowly the faster I sped.
This is the revelation Einstein had in Bern, Switzerland in 1905 while observing the clock tower there and it eventually led to the now-famous equation for energy, along with a controversial shift in the study of physics. It forced us to consider the possibility that time, previously considered an absolute, was actually relative to our movement through space.1
The faster we go, the more time slows down. The slower we go, the more time speeds up.
The reason the sport of swimming caught on for me is this: In the end, it was always me against myself. And holy shit, myself was one hell of a competitor. Relentless, that one. Always swimming just a little faster than me. Always working just a little harder. His stroke, always just a little more streamlined. I hardly ever beat him. And even when I did beat him, he always made me feel like he had let me.
I was both at my best and at my worst when I was against him. On the one hand, nobody motivated me more than he did. But nobody psyched me out more than he did, either.
There were surely better swimmers than myself, but myself was the only one I cared about.
I hated that bastard.
Nobody with my level of neurosis has any business being involved in a sport like swimming. I feel like I might have been a much better competitor if, when I got up on the blocks, I was able to externalize my anxiety, place it on the guy next to me. Make him the enemy. That way, I might feel more like I was part of a “team”— my ego, my id, and my many, many voices. But the guy I was most scared of was always swimming in the same lane as me. And I had no idea what kind of crazy shit was in his head, or what kind of dirty trick he was going to pull.
Another way of looking at it isn’t that I was always swimming against myself, but instead that I was always swimming against the clock. With swimming, it is really just you against time, over and over. I remember how happy I would feel if I beat my personal best by a tenth of a second. That was a lot of time in a sprint. And I will admit that even hundredths of a second (hundredths!) over or under my time would either be cause to beat myself up or to celebrate.
This seems crazy to me now. When you’re referring to hundredths of a second, you’re essentially referring to almost the exact same time. That is, if you’re considering things within the context of normal human perception.
Maybe the best swimmers are not those who swim well against themselves or against other swimmers. Maybe the best swimmers are those who swim successfully against time.
This time, just before you dive in the water, when you are on the starting block and the announcer says, “Swimmers, take your mark,” and the pool and the crowd fall silent. In that moment, it seems as though everything you have ever done and everything you have ever thought has led you to this inflated now. So much now that it is on the verge of popping. And there you are, bent over, with your fingers at the edge of the block, simultaneously as calm and as charged as a full balloon resting on the point of a nail.
This time lasts forever.
Then the sound of the buzzer and the spring off the block and through the air and you are slicing into and within the cold water, which is now around you and you are one with it and you are either pulling yourself through it or you are becoming it—it’s hard to tell. There is no sound, even though everybody around you is yelling. There is no movement, even though your coach is walking fast beside you and pointing his finger in front of you every time you take a breath in his direction.
Everything melts away and there is only this energized now and it is forever and swollen and you touch the wall and it is 54.27 seconds. And that is all.
This time you have—this is it.
In the 100-meter butterfly at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Michael Phelps trailed behind Serbia’s Milorad Cavić the entire race. Then, in the final ten meters, he began to pull close to him. And then, in a magical moment that nobody could believe, not even when you slowed the footage down to single frames, Phelps out-touches Čavić and wins the race by one one-hundredth of a second. When you watch it in super slow motion, frame by frame, you would almost say that what happened was some kind of time warping voodoo, like somehow time sped up for Čavić while time slowed down for Phelps.
And really, who’s to say that didn’t happen?
Rowdy Gaines, who was announcing the event on NBC, said it best during the slow-motion replay of the race. Speaking about Phelps, he exclaims, “He is...magical! He is...Superman!”
Clocks do not lie. Phelps beat Čavić by one one-hundredth of a second.
But here’s the question in my mind: Can we really say that Phelps was faster than Čavić? I mean, really? They were both extremely fast swimmers in the 100-meter butterfly. And in that race in 2008, they both swam what was essentially the same time.
But Phelps won it.
Maybe what these great swimmers have in common, the ones we remember and record in the history books, isn’t just the physical ability to go fast, or the fierce competitive spirit, but some otherworldly, other-dimensional, ability to bend time.