As I swam in the outside lane of the Marmion pool, I glanced across the surface to measure my pace against the better swimmers in the middle lanes. They did not seem to be going much faster me, but I knew too well they were.
I’ve never been scared to compare myself to others. But I am competitive, and it sucks at my soul to be the slowest swimmer in the pool.
So I was growing a little empty as I swam along, wondering if I would ever improve enough to keep up with the morning crew at Marmion.
At that moment, I felt a strange little presence over my left ear. Take note: that’s not my breathing side. I pretty much breathe on my right. But for curiosity’s sake, I breathed on the left for a moment and was shocked to see what appeared to be a small goatlike creature wearing a bright red Speedo perched over my left shoulder.
He seemed to flutter above the water. When droplets hit him, small sparks flew off his body. I recalled an experiment in high school chemistry where we threw chunks of magnesium in water. They hissed and kicked out bright light while bouncing around the surface.
That’s what the little creature over my shoulder looked like. He was grinning at me with eyes narrow as slits. He looked like a cat that had way too much catnip. Then he said, “Hello there Mr. Chris. Would you like to swim faster than the rest of those buggers?”
At that moment I came to the end of a lap and purposely did a long underwater surge coming away from the wall. I thought that perhaps I did not get enough sleep last night. We got up this morning at 4:30 a.m. Sue’s alarm went off four or five times before we finally rose of out bed. So it wasn’t beyond imagination that I might still be dreaming. Perhaps the little creature above me in the pool was just the remnant of some strange dream from the night before.
But no, he was still there. “I can make you as fast as Michael Phelps,” the creature muttered as I emerged above the surface to get a gulp of air. I tried swinging my left arm a little higher to see if I could hit the little red devil, but he dodged it easily.
“That’s better!” called coach Chris Colburn from the sideline. “Higher elbows! Bring your hand into the water at an angle!” So I did that, and suddenly felt a surge of speed. “I don’t need you,” I muttered to the devil hovering over my ear. “Can’t you see? I have a coach…”
“He can’t coach you like I can,” the devil hissed in a voice that smelled of chlorine. “What you want is real speed. Let’s leave these people in the dussssst….”
“Go. Away.” I sputtered.
“Not so fasssst,” the little red creature teased. “You just did your last 100 in over 2:00. How would like to do a 1:20 without even feeling it?”
“That’s impossible,” I blurbled. “That’s a forty second improvement.”
“Nothing’s impossible with me,” he sneered. “You want to be best in the pool? Win Masters races all over the Midwest? Be first out of the water in the Pleasant Prairie Olympic Triathlon this summer. Let’ssss talllllkkk…” he pleaded.
I did another turn and came up for air again. “Think of it this way,” he continued, sparks dropping into the water from his body like fireworks over a bucket on the Fourth of July. “No one needs to know! We’ll take it gradual-like. Just improve a few seconds every week. At first, they’ll all just be happy just to see you keeping up. We won’t let them know how you got so good. No one needs to know! Look at that woman and her daugther over there in lanes three and four. Do you think they got that good just by working out all the time?”
“I can just imagine what you’re asking,” I sputtered. “What will this cost me. My soul?”
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” he admitted. “But you can have it back when I’m through with it.”
“And how long will that be?” I wanted to know. “Do I get my soul back before I die?”
“More like when you die,” the little devil told me. “But you don’t really need a soul if you’re getting what you want in life, do you?”
“Now that’s an interesting question,” I replied. “I know a few people that have sold their soul lately…”
By then I’d completed four out of five 200s. My average was just under 4:10. So the temptation to accept his offer was definitely there. I stood there breathing. The pool water felt extra warm. I could taste the salt coming off my own face.
He hovered over my shoulder offering his Faustian bargain after every lap I swam. “C’mon, slowpoke!” he’d tease.” You want to keep going like this the rest of your life? A freakin duck could keep up with you at this pace.”
“Okay, that’s enough,” I scolded him. “I happen to like ducks.”
“That’s good, because you swim like one. Piddle paddle piddle paddle. You’re pathetic,” the devil said.
Finally he got impatient. “Now how about it, Michael Un-Phelps. Are you going to take me up on my offer, or let this offer of swimming glory just pass you by?”
But having completed the last of the prescribed 200s, I stood by the shallow end of the pool while the rest of the gang was getting instructions from Coach Colburn at the other side. “Okay,” he barked out. “We’re doing 8 X 25s on the 30. Ready, go!”
I watched the other swimmers tear into the first 25. Then they paused in a neat row on the same end of the pool as me. So I waited, wondering if anyone else could see the little red devil perched above my left shoulder. He whispered: “Don’t even try to keep up with them. You can’t do it.”
But when they took off, I dove into line with them and swam as hard as I could for 25 meters. Lord knows, I actually kept up with them. But I’d finished in 25 seconds, so there was only 5 seconds recovery before we went again. This time I faded toward the finish.
But when I popped up for air on the other end of the pool, that little devil was gone. I looked all around me, and even dipped below the surface of the water to pop back up with rivulets dripping off my goggles. And at that moment, the rest of the swimming crew had arrived back at my side of the pool. So I gathered myself and took off swimming again the 30. And kept up for yet another lap. “Hey!” I told myself. “I did it!”
By then I admit I was exhausted. So I finished the last two 25s on my own. I can in at 28 on one, and 29 on th eother. But in that moment, I realized I did not need to make a deal with the devil to become a better swimmer. Working hard and getting as good as I can on my own power is good enough.
Yet I’ll admit it. For a moment there, I was tempted by life in the Faust lane.