It’s not women’s beach volleyball—although that’s pretty sweet. It’s not the NFL or the NBA or the MLB. It’s not women’s tennis. It’s not LeBron James or Michael Jordan or Kevin Durant. It’s not Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Harry Potter or Rocky.
It’s not Danica Patrick—although she’s pretty nice. It’s not Anna Kournikova—although she’s pretty nice. It’s not the women’s steeplechase. It’s not the Main Event poker match in Las Vegas. It’s not the X games or the Y Games or the Z games.
It’s not Muhammad Ali. It’s not Greco-Roman wrestling. It’s not Lance Armstrong or Joe DiMaggio or Pistol Pete Maravich. It’s not Carolina tag football—what a lame game—trap shooting, the Nordic Combined, the combination of hydrogen and oxygen, the hammer throw, rowing, the Tour de France, or Alpine skiing.
It is this weird sport in which the athletes spend most of their lives with their heads underwater alone with their thoughts, unable to speak with anyone.It’s not Donald Trump or Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders, all three of whom have major issues. It’s not Republicans or Democrats or Indepenents. It’s not Lyin’ Ted or Crooked Hillary or Pocahantas.
It’s not historical novels or Sports Center or Clubber Lang, who once hit on Rocky’s wife on the stairs of a Philadelphia government building.
It’s not the Ryder Cup, which Americans always choke away anyway. It’s not Yvonne Goolagong. It’s not Tom Brady or Giselle Bundchen.
It’s not America or China or any of the seven other planets.
It’s not even God Himself or the other gods themselves. It’s not the Holy Trinity either or the Holy Ghost of Ms. Muir. It’s not the creation of the Earth, the size of the oceans, or the stars in the sky. It’s not Pluto or the Starship Enterprise. It’s not Spock or the Lone Ranger.
It’s not any of these things. It’s not any of these people. It’s not anything of this world as we know it. It is more important, more cosmic, and more metaphysical than Heaven and Earth and the afterlife that awaits us all.
It is this thing, this act, this spectacle, this Hell on Earth happening that is about to unfold next month in Brazil at the Summer Olympic Games.
It is this weird sport in which the athletes spend most of their lives with their heads underwater alone with their thoughts, unable to speak with anyone, not even their coaches or teammates, because you can’t talk when your head is underwater. It is mental torture, torment, and self-inflicted tyranny. It is this questionable thing, looking at a black line underwater and staring at it. It is a twisted pursuit.
Staring at the line, it guides you to nowhere. You move your arms and kick your legs in quiet, by yourself, for a huge part of your life, missing countless conversations with friends, parties, normal things almost everybody else does. Your life is abnormal, a form of interpersonal imprisonment.
And for what purpose? Sixty seconds of racing on NBC? Two minutes, maybe. And then it’s over. All that time underwater, living like a fish when you aren’t one, to have a one in a million chance of finishing first, second or third and only getting your national anthem played if you finish first, which is pretty much impossible for almost everyone.
It is this whacked out thing of wonder we know as swimming.
If you have ever stood on a starting block before a swimming race, you would understand why swimming is the greatest sport of all, the most demanding, the most stressful, the most exhausting, the most scary, the most humbling, the most embarrassing, the most brutally honest test of your strength of character and ability to fight through physical pain to finish a race.
Swimming asks a simple yet profound question of you every time you race: How tough are you? And another key question: Are you a loser or a winner?
There is nothing like swimming in any other part of life. It’s the epitome of pain and strain and going away by yourself to have mental wars. It is being naked in front of people for them to see if you have the talent and toughness to swim faster than the others on the starting block alongside you.
You dive in the water at the start of the race and within five seconds you feel terrible. You want to stop. Everything about the experience is unpleasant and gets worse as the race progressed.
When you dive in the water you find out what a weak person you are, how dominant water is compared with you. You struggle to breathe.
You want to leave. You want to heave.
Swimming is bigger than the world, more vast than all galaxies, and the most mind-crushing thing you can do with your life because the pain is so great, so constant, and so much more intense than anything else anywhere.
By comparison, basketball, baseball, and football, politics, and the open seas are jockstraps.
Compared with swimming, Donald Trump is clam chowder and Hillary Clinton a slice of celery. Compared with swimming, Bernie Sanders is an aardvark.
Compared with swimming, Earth is a footnote.