It felt strange to recognize him.
This twinge of guilt flashed when I saw him, though I couldn't tell in that instance why. I guess looking back on it, it was due in part that this man was, and is still, a stranger to me. Or maybe its because it just felt wrong to recognize someone purely from their most glaring physical attribute, or in this case, their handicap.
But there he was.
This man that I had written about two years ago in one of my first blog entries on this site.
The man in the red bathing suit.
You see, every May for the last thirty some years the High School where I work hosts a Special Olympic Swim Meet. They invite many of the local high schools, and specialty facilities to attend and compete.
This was my third year at the event, watching from the balcony, and cheering on the many participants that took to the water. I've witnessed some truly great moments. Down to the wire finishes, proud parents snapping pictures, and countless smiles. More smiles than you could possibly count, the ones that echo off walls, filling the empty space between each of us, making it impossible to tell where your smile ends, and theirs begin.
And yet, for all the races I've seen over these three swim meets, the race that sits atop them all is the one with the man in the red bathing suit.
It was my first year at the event. The meet seemed to be drawing to a close, all of our students had finished their races, when the announcer called out the next heat. That's when I first noticed him. A tall, slender, African American man stood up, shedding the towel that had been wrapped around his waist. He walked gingerly, being led with cautious eye by a helper of some kind. His steps were uneven, as though one leg were longer than the other. His right arm, bent at the elbow, was contorted and held rigidly against his chest.
When the gun went off, he thrust himself forward in the water. His arms and legs worked in spastic fury, propelling him away from the wall. I recall the way my eyes felt deceived by the fast pace of his stroke, compared to how slowly it translated in the water, as though physics was playing some kind of cruel trick on the man.
But he kept going, kept plugging along until he just a few meters from the wall.
And then he stood up.
And your heart sank.
With just a few short feet to go, he stood up. And the longer he stood there, the more your heart broke for the man who came so close. But just as I began to wonder why he didn't just take the few steps forward to touch the wall, something strange happened.
He dove back down into the water.
And he finished the race.
It's something I'll never forget.
The way he stood there, the look in his eyes. The way he dove back into the water to swim to finish, when the easier way was just a step in front of him, an easier way that no one would have begrudged him.
And the lesson, that despite all else, when you reach the end, it matters how you finish.
But, I'm afraid, I'd be lying to you if I ended the story there. I'm afraid I'd be guilty of painting a sunny portrait, and that just doesn't feel right.
Cause, you see, I wanted to write this story last year. I wanted to write this update after last year's meet. To tell you all about the man in the red bathing suit who once again looked these long odds in the face and dove in anyway.
But I couldn't.
I couldn't bring myself to write about last year. How he climbed down the ladder, only to thrash about in a panic. I couldn't bring myself to write about how he needed to be pulled out by the helpers standing close by.
It hardly seemed like a fitting end to the story.
But as it turned out, the man who once tricked me into assuming he was finished, had yet another surprise in store for me.
For there he was this year, standing up after it appeared the final race had been completed, leaving the towel once again on the bench behind him. It seemed he was walking even slower, with a light blue floatation belt wrapped tightly around his waist. This time being helped over to the side of the pool, instead of the far end. He eased down, feet touching the bottom of the shallow end of the water.
The announcer came over the PA system, alerting the crowd that there was one last race to come, one last racer. The hushed whisper of the starter's call, allowed him to get set, and then, the horn.
And just like that, the man in the red bathing suit made his way across the shallow width of the pool, one painfully, jerky stroke after another until he reached the end.
And this seemed like a relevant topic, as I sit here trying to mark the second anniversary of this blog.
It's relevance coming to us in the form of a lesson.
That as time passes, whether over two years or two decades, you'll find yourself changed, sometimes for the worse, sometimes for better, but in the races we run, in the trials we face, the manner in which we finish them still matters.
Thank you to all who read this blog. To the runners, the non-runners, the moms, the dads. Thanks to the friends, the co-workers. To the people who I've never heard of, and to the people who've never heard of me.
And tonight especially, thanks to the man in the red bathing suit, who taught me that even though the race may change, how we run it never has to.