Swimming to Tokyo

What a journey.

By Kristen Bollinger Shah

Riddle me this: What if I had a body like Michael Phelps’? 

Then I too could be an Olympic G.O.A.T, right? Unless…what if I missed a series of clues and my life’s purpose eluded me? Things could get weird along my journey to self-actualization... I would likely use my earliest aqueous environment (my mom’s heated womb) for my first swim practices; sonograms during this period would be positive for “racing movements make fetus difficult to image”. Years later, during group swim lessons, I would effortlessly swim circles around the entire class, creating a hurricane named Ryan. Huddled together in the eye of the hurricane (the bottom of the pool), the other kids would happily play games instead of practicing their strokes. Back at home, while feeding my goldfish named Medal, I’d sense a mysterious kinship between us...likely a shared “wavelength” between two aquatic creatures. Medal would swim vigorously around the fishbowl whenever I’d watch Harry Potter movies…likely hoping I’d release him as Harry does with the boa constrictor. But alas...at this point I would interpret my impressive wingspan to mean I might just grow feathers one day, or possibly even turn into Superwoman! During adolescence, my odd physique would be an embarrassment, and I’d blame my parents for their useless genetics. Surly and irritable, I’d find myself at the local pool - drawn to the water and to the strangely intoxicating smell of chlorine. I’d relax in the pool but would seldom swim the length of it…always with a gnawing sense that I was neglecting something. But what? I would watch lap swimmers and think, “What’s the point? It’s not like they’re getting anywhere. Idiots.” Every summer I’d spend a week at YMCA Camp Butterfly. Here I’d swim the butterfly across the lake and back before other campers could complete a loop around the buoys. The camp director, Mr. Freestyle, would advise me to join the swim team, but I would think, “How is swimming the dumbass butterfly going to be helpful in life? Will it be useful in getting a drivers’ license? A person can’t butterfly their way through parallel parking.” And finally, “What kind of job requires 8 hours per day of butterflying?” Eventually, I’d hang my head in disappointment, convinced that even top-notch butterfly skills were completely fucking useless. I would go off to college, feeling compelled to major in something practical, like marine biology. But again I’d be distracted — this time by my huge feet. Believing them to be a sign, I’d begin a journey around the world on foot, in search of purpose. Like Steve Jobs, I would end up in India. But instead of insight, meditation and Buddhism, I’d find all-you-can-eat buffets full of tandoori fish. Satisfyingly full, I’d nevertheless be no closer to realizing my full (or any) potential. Why was I born a bizarre woman-eagle, light on the lactic acid, with bendy ankles and a chest that kicks?* Might I be of interest to touring circuses? Alas, the answers to all my existential questions would elude me. Finally, I would throw in the towel and begin working as a marine biologist for a company willing to provide a proper office setup for my long torso and short legs. One day, while observing the dolphins, I would notice them watching me…beckoning me toward their enclosure. Our eyes would meet, and I’d hear them taunting, “Wanna race? Beat you to the other side of the pool, sucker!” And in that critical, climactic moment I’d dive into the pool, finally knowing that I’m destined to race with the dolphins (and also open the underwater gate to release them into the ocean). I would abandon, forever, my ergonomically designed desk and join my new friends in the open water. Together we would swim across the ocean, ending up on the shores of Japan. It would be Tokyo, Summer 2021, and I’d have a strange feeling that I’m supposed to be there. *Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, possesses physical features (long torso and short legs, extra-long wingspan, extremely high lung capacity, size 14 feet, hyper-jointed chest, double-jointed ankles that bend 15 percent more than other swimmers’, and lower lactic acid production) that make him well-suited to competitive swimming. It’s fair to say that Phelps is self-actualized, which, according to Maslow, is a phenomenon that rarely happens…i.e. in less than 1% of the adult population.

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