I've never felt so humiliated in my whole life, and the worst of it is, I can't even tell anyone. They'd think I was the most arrogant man alive.
Man? No, boy. I'm sixteen years old and right now I feel about six. I thought I had all the answers. I believed I knew best. I'd swum faster than anyone else this year, so that would be it, right? Me, up there on the top step of the podium, waving to the crowd and holding up my gold medal. Gordon Tracy, national champion in the 200 metres butterfly event. Provided I showed up, I'd win. Guaranteed.
No, not guaranteed. Everything that could go wrong, did. I made a terrible start. Didn't concentrate, lost track of the distance I'd travelled underwater, had to surface early or risk disqualification. Panicked and forgot everything Coach had ever taught me about race tactics. I should have taken my time and worked my way back to the front steadily. I certainly had the speed and strength to do it. Instead, I blazed down that first length to take back my position at the head of the echelon before the first turn. I revelled in the cheers and the excited tone of the massively amplified commentator's voice, and I made the mistake of listening to him. He'd never seen anyone swim so fast.
If I'd been concentrating as I should, I'd not even have heard him. Instead, I decided to impress him even more. To make history. To go for the world record. I led by three metres at the end of the second length. By five at the end of the third. That's a massive margin in a race like this.
And then, just like I should have known I would, I ran out of gas. Almost between one stroke and the next. I went from flying to crawling to struggling even to bring my arms over for the next stroke. I could hear the note change in the commentator's voice; hear the shock. Hear the crowd willing me on, as if noise alone could keep me going. It didn't help. Truth be told, I was lucky to come anywhere at all, given the rate the rest of the field closed on me. I could feel them coming as I reached in despair for the end of the pool, willing the torture to be over, praying I would get there first. I didn't. I touched second. Silver.
Even then, as I hung from the end of the pool in nauseated exhaustion, everyone cheered - but not for me. For the young man alongside me, the complete outsider with a personal best seconds slower than mine, who had nevertheless stolen the title I thought I owned. He turned to offer his hand and, I'm ashamed to admit, I pretended not to see it, instead scanning the stands for my family. As they had promised, a home-made banner with my name on it waved high in triumph. They had a national medallist to celebrate, after all.
Silver. I wanted to curl up and die, and not just for physical reasons. I didn't, though. Seeing my family had reminded me of my responsibilities. I turned to the delighted young man next to me and congratulated him on his well-deserved victory. Then I hauled myself from the pool, buried my arrogantly pre-prepared victory speech deep down in the bottom of my mind, and headed for the warm-down pool without even looking to see if the TV interviewer planned to talk to the man who came second. I certainly didn't want to talk to him. I forced an artificial smile onto my face for the benefit of the cameras, and hoped I'd never see the footage. All the other swimmers congratulated me. I think I managed to stay polite.
That's where I still am, the last of the finalists in the water. Even given this extended warmdown, I'm going to be beyond uncomfortable once I stop moving. I gave it everything I had and then some, that last twenty metres where the world went black and I though I might just become the first person ever to drown in a national swimming final. The human body simply can't do what I asked of it. I'd been told it couldn't. But no, I had to decide I was invincible. Now, too late, I know full well that I'm only human, just the same as everyone else. Just like the young man in lane three, a complete outsider who remembered his race tactics and didn't try to show off for the audience. My biggest race ever, and I blew it with a whole series of novice screwups and ended up with silver. They'll be showing the TV footage of this one to juvenile butterfly racers for years to come. The perfect example of how not to swim a race.
Coach is sitting over on the benches, patiently waiting for me to come over and discuss the race with him. I wonder what he's thinking; what he expects me to say. He told me I should win this one. He didn't mean I'd win no matter what. I know that now. I should have known it before. Making excuses won't help.
I swim another couple of gentle lengths, on my back so I don't have to bring my arms over even once more. It's starting to get dark, and the first stars are just becoming visible in the dark blue overhead. I could lie here and watch them quite happily. But I'm putting off the moment now, have been for a few minutes, and we both know it. It's time to face him. Next time I approach the end of the pool where he's sitting, I head diagonally over to the steps in the corner, too sore to climb out any other way. Even so, I wince as I raise my arms to the bars in order to climb out. I'm sore already. I'm not looking forward to how I'll feel tomorrow.
"Congratulations!" Coach says as I approach him. "A national silver medal. Are you proud?"
His face is unreadable, and I suspect it would be even if dusk hadn't fallen. Does he mean it? Am I about to offend him?
I don't think so. This is the only man who can help me make sure it never happens again. He knows me. I trust him. He knows what I'm aiming for; he's the one who suggested I could achieve it in the first place.
"Know what you did wrong?"
I can't even speak, and I have to glance around the deserted pool rather than look at his face. Finally I manage a nod, and to look him in the eye. Details can come later. He'll know what my expression means even without them.
Coach's face breaks into a broad grin. "Then we can fix it. In the meantime, you'd best go collect that medal. Pure dumb luck you held on for the Olympic qualifying place, but you did."
I'd actually forgotten that, in my depressed haze. But now I feel the corners of my mouth twitch upwards for the first time since the race, and I head to change for the medal ceremony feeling just a little more optimistic. I'm going to the Olympics. And there, I won't make mistakes. I won't assume anything, and I won't underestimate my opponents. My next final will be at the Olympic Games. And there, it won't be silver. It will be gold.