In the NYC Park and Recreation swimming pool down the block. I swim faster, vigorously, since on my retina the Rio Olympics unfold. I don’t understand the rules of the swimming competitions, or even swimming styles. All I engage in is my frog stroke. It’s an approximation of breast stroke and butterfly, I was told by savvier swimmers at the gym swimming pool in winter. They insisted I should sink my head in the water, but I can’t do that at our neighborhood pool. Swimmers share wide lanes during the early morning lap swim hours. I rotate my head like a periscope. I have to watch out for the careless back-strokers to avoid frontal collision. I surely don’t want to start my day in a Titanic wreck.
During day there are no lap swim lanes, the pool turns into a zoo. Crab hermits congregate on the pool ramp and steps, blocking your access. The floor is dangerous to step on, since queen conch shells covered in barnacles don’t budge, busily working on their pink pearls. Your serene swimming is hindered by papa sea lions dipping their squealing pups in water, majestic whales snorting menacingly at you, their calves frolicking under their protective bellies, or by dazed catfish with their fingerlings pulling at their barbel-moustaches, or alarmed frogs, basking on pool edges, squawking loudly as they dive to rescue their overconfident tadpoles engaged in underwater breath-holding contests, or teenage sea horses clutched amorously, or islands of rapping seagulls, or the occasional mermaid, slaloming through clusters of ponderous pelicans, searching for their mermen, attacked by quarrelsome Medusas, or lazily hanging out with Rastafarian octopuses, anyway, not to belabor my point, playful bathers pop up in front of you from the water, splash, jump, ignoring your ‘efforting’.
So when a teenage girl follows me around and finally asks me smiling what kind of swimming is that, I apologetically say it’s my one of a kind frog style. When she asks me how I move my legs, arms, I realize she wants to learn to swim. I demonstrate. She eagerly imitates my arm moves. She moans she’ll never be able to swim. I encourage her, she will swim in no time, much better than me, if she registers for free swim classes. I want to get on with my ten-lap quota, that is ten pool lengths. In the morning I manage twenty pool widths. I’m a slow poke, but I came a long way.
I grew up in a dusty little town with no river or lake or clean swimming pool, the seaside was 400 kilometers away, and mom was terrified of water, fearful I’d drown or catch diseases. When I swam my first lap a few summers ago I thought I’d die, my heart was pounding out of my chest, my lungs were agonizing, my feet were shackled in cramps. All this in a sad four-feet-deep pool surrounded by eight lifeguards. So to me frogging twenty laps in half an hour is winning gold at the Olympics.
What those swimmers do in Rio is unbelievable. I’m in awe that they manage to jump into the water timely. I’d be still gasping for air on my trampoline, debating if I heard the start signal or not, while they’d be finishing the race, go on the podium, take their medals, travel back to their countries.
But according to my Yoga teacher I’m a gold medalist just for the mere fact that I show up on Thursdays at her Yoga class. As far as she is concerned, I could snooze on the matt in Child’s Pose, well, maybe that would be uncomfortable, but in Corpse Pose, and still win a medal for my ‘efforting’. Well, the municipality pays for this class, so some follow her advice, but were they to pay from their own pockets I bet they’d like to get more bang for their money than a nap on a matt. Anyway, the teacher’s point is that Yoga class is not a competition arena. No judges, no judgment.
If only I could reach that stage of enlightment, life would be so much easier, so much rosier. It’s a daily struggle not to pass judgment. I blame it on being raised during Ceauşescu’s socialism. My theory is that officially we were supposedly all in it together, so everybody goaded everybody, criticized one another. Everybody’s choices and actions affected everybody else. We all had to attain Epoca de Aur/The Golden Age of Communism as a group, not individually, slow pokes and Olympians alike.
We stand tall in Mountain Pose, eyes closed, listening to our teacher about the new women’s gymnastics world champion, a nineteen-year-old that smiles effortlessly and treats herself to pepperoni pizza even when she doesn’t win gold. She is the greatest gymnast of all times ever, the teacher enthuses, she can do poses that even male gymnasts have trouble with, she is so strong, so playful. The best.
I just can’t keep my eyes closed. I squeeze my eyelids, but I just can’t meditate. How could this American girl, the new world champion, be the best ever?! Nadia Comăneci is the best ever. Ever, ever, ever! Without Nadia there’s no modern gymnastics! Plus Nadia was born in Romania, and so was I, and you are now telling me Simone Biles is the greatest ever, ever? No, no, no! Nadia Comăneci is ever, ever, ever! I was a child when I watched wistful Nadia, a child herself, competing in Montreal, making the billboards go 00.00, because the machine had no 10.00 score for her perfection. I watched the world go berserk with wonder.
Then when she competed in Moscow the Russians cheated and stole the gold from her, because Russia’s might would trample us under its boot. I watched in tears her trainers withdrawing the team from the competition. That was the last sports competition I ever watched. It made me sick for decades. Only this summer visiting a dying friend I indulged her and watched together one evening’s broadcast to see if a Hungarian swimmer would make us proud. To my surprise I was so happy to see so many driven youth. Nowadays it’s cool to drift aimlessly, alas. Those swimmers, faces so young. It was endearing to hear their rehearsed speeches of gratitude. If you beat your competitor with just one millisecond you became the winner. Ridiculous. I’d give all finalists medals.
And then, at the gymnastics there was Nadia in the bleachers. And Marta Karolyi. And the American team wins. There’s only one lonely Romanian gymnast competing, not even a team. It was heartbreaking. What happened?! Romania was a powerhouse! We defined modern gymnastics! And now America wins it all?! What happened?!
Well, dear Ella, funny you should ask. Where do you live? In America. Where’s Nadia? In America. Where are the Karolyis? In America. Who wins? America. The safe harbor we all seek.
Simone Biles is a sweet girl, from foster care to gold medal, what an inspiring, from-rags-to-riches story, sure, but don’t tell me she is the greatest of them all. There’s an entire team of Romanians behind her. The Karolyis gave America fifteen world champions, nine Olympic champions, over seventy medals, and on and on the list goes. I don’t know if Nadia had privileges in Romania, if she had enough food to eat or was starving like the rest of us under communism, if she was freezing in her home, like the rest of us, or if she treated herself to pepperoni pizza, but I know that behind her was the sadness and joy, the humiliation and pride of the little country of Romania.
And now they have nothing. That is partly their politicians doing, alright. That is partly our doing, because we ran away for dear life, alright. But it is also part of beloved America’s doing, gulping in everything. Look at the many Easter European names that American champions have.
Sure, it is for the greater good, for humanity’s good.
But, please Yoga teacher, even if you were not born when Nadia was a world champion, you surely have heard of her…
New York City
August 12, 2016