For as long as she could remember Miriam had been “slowpoke”. The early polio, and later callipers on her legs had given her an awkward gait. She had tried to fit in with the others, waddling eagerly behind the tumbling, giggling group of friends.
She told herself that she didn’t care what they called her. She told herself that it didn’t really hurt when they didn’t wait for her, or when they whispered things amongst themselves and then stopped when she caught up. Over and over, she told herself that it was ok, they were her friends, they didn’t mean to be mean. With each telling, the words had sounded more hollow.
Now she stood on the edge of the diving block, the doctor’s warning of a slow start and a long journey, ringing in her mind. The callipers had finally come off.
She glanced quickly to her right and left. There were her friend-tormentors, lined up on the other diving blocks, snickering as they looked at her with her skinny pasty weak legs, like sticks of cooked spaghetti, disgust and dismissal in their eyes.
“Take your marks!”
Miriam leaned forward, grabbing the edge of the diving block.
The starter sounded.
She leaped in a slow arc, hands pointed, head down. She felt her fingers break the water, then the cool enveloped her whole body.
Her legs kicked, her arms ploughed, and she gave in to the freedom of weightlessness that the water had always afforded her. She glided through the pool, feeling her muscles stretch and strain, not even stopping to breathe on every third, the way she’d been taught.
Then her hand hit the wall. Her head burst up and out of the water. Rebirthed, she gasped her first breath since diving in. She closed her eyes and turned her face to the sun. It didn’t matter where she’d placed. She was in the place she loved the most, the place she felt the freest.
“Miram! You came first! Did you hear me, Miriam? You came first! I’ve never seen anyone do the 50 free so quick!”
Someone was pulling her out of the water, someone else was pressing a blue ribbon into her still wet hands, and the crowd was chanting. Miriam strained to make out what they were saying.
“Speedy! Speedy! Speedy!”