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"Shorts, Outtakes and Rants"
A short prequel to the Dawnwalker Cycle
Copyright ©2002, ©2011
By Wes Boyd
Who is this girl?
The coaches, manager, and athletes of the Michigan Tech Women's Swimming Team were all staring in wonder at this big, unknown girl cutting through the water, pacing their team's star swimmer – and so effortlessly!
The two lead swimmers were three quarters of the way through the grueling mile swim, and the Northern Michigan University swimmer was basically matching their own entry – last year's regional champion no less – stroke for stroke. Better than that, actually, as the favored Tech swimmer would gain a little on each turn at the end of the pool, but before the next turn, this amazing NMU home-team sleeper was up even with her, every time. And timed splits indicated that, if their own ace could hold out, she was being pushed to a new personal record for herself. It would certainly be a new Tech school record, as well as smashing the pool record here in the NMU pool. Amazing! Hopefully it wasn't a game of cat and mouse, the competition would fade at this pace she was forcing, and their swimmer would prevail in the end against this unknown upstart.
The strange part was, no one had ever even heard the name of this NMU swimmer before. Crystal Chladek? An unusual enough surname that anyone who'd heard it in relation to a swimmer this good would remember it. However, no one knew anything about her. Where could she have come from? Certainly, any swimmer of this caliber would be well known throughout the conference, if not even more widely! None of the freshmen knew of her from high school days, and the coach had not heard of her to try and recruit her for their own team. NMU had almost always been considered a school to not worry much about for the won/loss statistics, though some years' scores were closer than those of other years. But this year, and this late in the competition, all because of this new unknown girl, it was looking as though they could actually lose this meet. Could they still pull it out? Who is this girl?
* * *
Several hours earlier, a hurried voice on the phone had said in the NMU swimming coach's ear, "I'm sorry, but Abby said to call you and tell you she couldn't make it today. She's got the flu, and she's been barfing all night. She's lying on the bed with a bucket beside her . . . oh, shit, there she goes again." There was a distinct click as the phone disconnected.
"Well, that tears that," Erica Pearson said, still holding the dead phone in her hand. There was a lot of flu going around the Northern Michigan University campus, and Abby was the third member of the women's swimming team to have to skip this afternoon's meet.
Erica was sitting in the coach's office in the building everyone called the "PEIF," pronounced to rhyme with "beef." As it was, the PEIF, while a nice facility for a small college, had its limitations. The coach's office near the pool was small, but there was enough room for some of the team members to hang out. Often there were several girls there, shooting the bull and talking about boys and swimming, but with the exhibition meet this afternoon, only one was here now. "More trouble, coach?" the tall blonde girl leaning in the doorway asked.
"Afraid so," Erica nodded, putting the phone down and looking at Michelle, who as much as any was the team's star swimmer. Women's swimming was not a big sport at Northern, it being first and foremost a hockey school. But Michelle was a good swimmer for a small state school. She might or might not have made the team at some place like the University of Michigan, but she was good enough to be one of the top swimmers in what was really a pretty small-bore conference of institutions of higher learning scattered around the northern Great Lakes. "Abby's got it now," she added.
This far north the sport certainly was hockey right now because every school in the conference was buried in the depths of winter, an ice-covered Lake Superior only a few blocks away from where she sat underlined it. The odd juxtaposition of swimming while there was snow hip-deep on a tall moose just outside didn't quite fit, and that may have accounted at least partly for no one taking their sport seriously.
Michelle shook her head. Another freestyle swimmer out for the day. "That means we don't have enough people to swim all the freestyle relays, right?"
The coach nodded, mentally categorizing who she had left, what their specialties were, and if she could switch someone around, but nope, sheer numbers said it wasn't going to work. All her swimmers were in use in other events much better suited to their talents and the resulting point totals. Not that an exhibition meet counted other than on a moral stance, but they kept track anyway. "Unless we can come up with a last-minute replacement," she said. "We'll probably do all right in everything else as long as you and Andrea and Leesa hold out, but I sure hate to lose those relay points. The extra free relay we agreed to tack on for this meet is the killer. Even if we come in last in the relays, we'll still get more points than we would in a forfeit. You know anybody?"
Michelle shook her head again, and long blonde hair swung in a shimmering wave. The coach had long wished she'd crop her hair – it might save a few tenths of a second – but there was a limit to what she could ask of a student who wasn't a scholarship athlete, and was just competing for the fun of it. Michelle liked her hair long and thought it made her look sexier. She was probably right, and it was why she only wore a swimming cap for meets. "Not really," she sighed, obviously thinking hard about it. "There's a girl in my dorm who said she swam in high school, but she said she wasn't very good. Besides, I think she was taking off for the weekend."
"Use the phone and see if you can track her down," Erica suggested. "She may be our only hope. Call Andrea and Leesa and anyone else. See if anyone knows anyone. Anybody at all. I'll go out to the pool and see if there's anyone there who looks like they can swim."
"I doubt it," Michelle said doubtfully, with a hint of disgust. "There was only a handful of people in it when I came through to see you, and half of them were in kayaks."
"Damn, I wish they wouldn't do that," the coach snorted as she got to her feet. "I know those boats are supposed to be kept washed out, but they always leave all sorts of crap in the water." She headed for the door, while Michelle picked up the phone.
Erica thought it was probably a hopeless mission, like the blonde swimmer had said, as she headed for the pool. But, she might be able to find someone who could swim eight lengths. Or, at least one. That would help a little. Erica now regretted her months-old decision agreeing to add the extra relay to the event list, an 800-yard freestyle relay that required four girls to each swim 200 yards, one girl after another. On top of that, she could help but wonder why she's also agreed to the longer 1650-yard mile swim event over the more usual 1000-yard distance. Both the 1650 and the longer relay distances were normally only done in multi-team championship meets, not in dual meets against just one other team like this one. There was too much expensive traveling involved to have the heavy schedule that would be normal for an area where schools were closer together. This exhibition meet with a traditional rival had been added in an empty slot on the schedule as much to keep the kids sharp as anything else.
With several girls down with this flu bug, she just didn't have enough middle- or distance-freestyle swimmers now to do them unless she or one of her swimmers could scare up a capable warm body in the next couple hours.
Her first look at the handful of people in the pool confirmed both Michelle's and her own opinion as to the hopelessness, but it was good to get out of the office and steal a short respite from the worries there for a moment. There were a few people screwing around, but no one was really trying to so much as swim a lap. There was one girl swimming across the pool, but slowly, with absolutely no apparent skill. Erica walked down to the middle of the pool then sat in a deck chair to watch, anyway. Even though there was no noticeable chance of any help visible, it was nice to see people in the water having fun.
Down at the far end of the pool were people in a couple of white water kayaks, probably from the university's Outdoor Club. The group was also headquartered in the PEIF, and they stored boats and gear in a back room there. The Outdoor Club was a big deal at Northern, given that the school was surrounded by the wild country of Michigan's Upper Peninsula and was also bordered by the even-wilder big lake Gitche Gumee to the north.
Though much of the big timber had been cut a century before, and ongoing lumbering and iron and copper mining had ravaged the landscape, what was left was some of the wilder country in the Midwest. The wild and rugged countryside drew a significant number of students to Northern from out of the area. Many students here were interested in the wild and the recreational opportunities like skiing, snowboarding, and snowshoeing during the nearly endless winters, or white water and sea kayaking, climbing, and other outdoor activities in the short spring and fall seasons. The latter, however, seemed hopelessly far off in the middle of a February that was frozen worse than normal. That meant the Outdoor Club was a big plus for a college in a beat-up iron-mining town clearly past its prime; the railroad ramp up to the big iron-ore loading dock over Main Street just underlined that higher education was distinctly a secondary priority in Marquette.
"Hip snap, hip snap! Give it more hip snap!" she heard a female voice break through the splashing and babble. Erica glanced across the pool to where the kayakers were messing around. Apparently someone was teaching someone to roll, and after a moment, she realized that the voice belonged to a tall girl in a conservative bikini top who was standing waist deep in the shallow end of the pool. She was hanging on to the nose of one of the short white water boats, which was most of the way upside down. Erica watched her grab the bow toggle of the boat and reef on it, but her leverage was bad, and before she could get it upright, the guy in the boat popped the skirt and dropped out of the cockpit.
"All right, I'll show you again," the girl said as the guy popped to the surface and stood up. With nothing better to do, Erica watched as the girl lifted the nose of the kayak, dumped some of the water out, then picked it up by the cockpit to drain it some more. Then, leaving it upside down in the water, she used an unconventional reentry method of ducking under water, pulling herself into the still upside-down boat, and using just her hands – no paddle – righted herself and the boat. That kid is at home in the water, the swim coach thought, realizing now that she did look a little bit familiar.
"OK, give me the paddle," the girl in the kayak said. "This is just a simple sweep roll, but you've got to get the sweep going to support yourself, and then you come back up with the hip snap, not trying to muscle the paddle. Technique, Randy! I'll do this slowly, but watch me and notice the timing."
Even though the girl looked the right age to be a student, she was evidently an instructor from her confidence and teaching demeanor. Erica now remembered seeing her occasionally around the PEIF before. If she was teaching rolling, that would be the reason why, even though she'd never taken specific notice of her. That proved absolutely nothing to Erica. Since her coaching was only part-time, she didn't hang around the campus or the PEIF much except during team practice sessions and meets, so it would have been easy for her to overlook a non-swimmer, even if – like this girl – they'd been coming to the pool for years.
The girl rolled the boat over, hung upside down, hung the paddle out to the side, swept it back, and s-l-o-w-l-y rolled it about a quarter of the way upright. Then when the paddle was about halfway back, the boat suddenly snapped upright. "It's all in the hip snap," she said, looking the guy straight in the face. He was smaller than she, slender, but muscular, but didn't look like a swimmer – even looking through the water, Erica could see that he didn't have the thighs for it. "Even if you're doing a handroll, it's the hips that do the work," The girl went on in a firm voice. "Once you have that, everything else follows."
She did another roll, then another, much the same way, then one quickly. "You see?" she said to the guy.
The girl did several other rolls then rolled the boat upside down, pushed herself out and popped to the surface. "Okay," she heard her say. "Dump it out, get back over to the wall and get back in, and we'll try it again. I need to loosen up. I'm going to do a lap while you get set." She peeled her spray skirt off and started from mid-pool for the far end.
Now she really caught the coach's attention. She had a nice-looking stroke, powerful, but smooth and graceful, and with elbows up – and she was fast. There was no wasted motion; she just went, and quickly, seemingly without effort.
Erica had watched a lot of swimming for many years; she'd swum competitively herself since grade school down in Chicago, and even though she was now long past the prime years for a swimmer, she still worked out and raced Master's class when the chance arose. To her practiced eye, it was clear this girl knew how to swim – so much so that Erica lifted the stop watch from its normal position of dangling around her neck. She punched it as the girl in the water executed a decent open turn – not a flip turn and not fast at all, but pretty good anyway – and started back, now with the stopwatch running against her. Surprisingly, the girl didn't swim straight back to the guy with the kayak but did a full length and another turn before heading for her student, completing the full lap she'd mentioned. Erica got a one-length split and let out a low whistle. It was a few seconds over what Michelle might have managed on a good day, but this girl hadn't been racing, just stretching out her muscles. Holy shit! Erica thought. How in hell did you get missed?
Intrigued, the coach walked down the deck for a closer look as the girl worked with the guy in the kayak, oblivious to her audience. "I'm going to hold your hand," the girl in the bikini was saying as she stood next to him, not out of breath in the slightest. "We're going to work on that hip snap, and I'll be able to tell when you're trying to muscle it."
Erica sat in a deck chair and watched, interested in the process and the instruction and style, yes, but much more interested in the instructor. She could see that the girl in the water was big, five-nine, maybe five-ten, and big-boned. Not slender, but well muscled with no fat on her. She was obviously strong, though not like a body builder; Erica could see the girl's muscles working, with muscle tone maybe even better than most female jocks. A bigger bust than normal for a swimmer, but not overly large. Her skin was a touch on the dark side, not from a tanning booth, either. In any case, an impressive physical specimen, sort of like Erica had been twenty years before, when she'd been a nationally ranked college swimmer.
Erica watched the girl go through more instruction with the guy making progress after each tip was introduced. After a few more successful rolls, the girl put her hands behind her on the deck, gave an effortless little spring, and sat there on the edge watching casually. Erica got up and squatted down next to her. "He seems to be getting it," she said conversationally as an opener, pretending more interest in the goings-on than she actually felt.
"Nailing the first one is always the hardest," the girl said, not taking her eyes off the guy in the boat, obviously ready to spring into action if there was any sign of trouble. "Once you get it and prove to yourself you can do it, it gets easier."
"Are you an instructor?" Erica asked.
"No, I'm just in the Outdoor Club," the girl said, Erica noticing she kept her eyes on the guy in the boat like any water sports instructor should do. She'd had good training somewhere. "Randy was having a little trouble figuring it out, and I told him I'd help him. I'm not really the best at rolling around here, but I'm probably one of the better rolling teachers. I first got a roll at Adventure Camp, while I was in high school, but I didn't really nail it down bombproof until I had some good instruction at OLTA. I can do most of the regular rolls pretty well, but I've never worked on the trick stuff much."
"Outdoor Leadership Training Academy," the girl explained. "Instead of a good car, I leaned on my parents real hard to send me there for the summer after I graduated from high school."
Now that the girl had expanded the acronym, Erica realized that she'd heard the name. It was a special school out west, Idaho or somewhere, that taught people how to lead outdoor groups, and helped them develop various outdoor skills, like hiking, climbing, and kayaking. It had a reputation as being a tough school, almost an outdoor boot camp, and turned out graduates competent in almost any back-country situation with a reputation as being pretty hardcore outdoor people. From what Erica remembered, though, it was more of an adult school, so this girl must have been pretty dedicated to want to attend right out of high school. "You're a student, then?" Erica asked.
"A junior," the girl said noncommittally. "Secondary ed with English and PE minors."
"You're a very strong swimmer," Erica complemented her, again wondering how such talent right here on campus could have been missed. "You ever swim in competition?"
"Just in swimming classes in high school," the girl in the bikini replied, only glancing quickly at the coach before returning to watch the guy in the boat. "I did good enough that they wanted me on the team, but that takes so much time and excludes too much. I had other things I liked to do better."
Not surprising, the coach thought. A girl like her could choose from many different sports. Swimmers had to be pretty dedicated to not get entranced off into other, easier, much more fun things. Many did, and apparently this one, too. What a shame. "You swim a lot?"
"Not really," the girl said. "I get over here, oh, once or twice a week, usually pretty late in the evening, and I try to get in a couple miles when I do, along with other things like work on my kayak roll. It's a little tough to stay in shape up here in the winter."
"Any idea of your times?"
"No clue," she said, shaking her head. "I never time myself, but I can get where I'm going." She raised her voice. "Hip snap, Randy! Head down. You're trying to muscle it again!"
"Look," Erica said, remembering why she was out on the deck of the pool. "I know we've never met, but I'm Erica Pearson. I coach the women's swimming team."
"Crystal Chladek," the girl said, not taking her eyes off the kayak. The guy in the boat had done several good rolls by now, but they were getting sloppy again. He flopped over again, and managed a clumsy roll where he barely got upright. "Randy, eddy out and take five. You're getting tired," she called. "Just sit there and try to visualize what you're doing, translate that to the movements you need to make to accomplish them."
"Crystal," Erica said. "I know you don't know me from Adam, but I'd like to ask a favor of you."
"What?" the girl in the bikini questioned.
The coach explained how the flu had left the team short-handed for the meet, scheduled to begin in just a couple hours. "I need someone to fill in on the two freestyle relay events, just so we don't have to forfeit them. I'm not much concerned how we finish, but I do want someone I'm sure can swim 200 yards and get there."
"I was planning on going up to Sugar Mountain and getting in some snowboarding this afternoon," Crystal said with a frown. "Look, Erica, I don't do competition stuff, and especially not team sports."
"Look, I know there's nothing I can offer you," she began, feeling flustered. Potential like that, wasted. It was irritating. From what little she'd seen this girl swim, with any kind of coaching, she'd be better than Michelle. With the right kind of training, well, she could go to nationals, maybe even further. Erica was used to working with kids who were at least used to competing, if not eagerly so, and she knew how to motivate them, inspire them, and get them working to the best of their ability, knew what would bring them to the peak of performance. But this girl was different. How to approach someone like this, not interested in the battle to be number one? Well, try being honest. "Swimming isn't exactly a team sport like volleyball or hockey, where true teamwork is required; it's almost entirely all individual efforts, one on one, to accumulate points, like track. And besides, if I wasn't desperate and didn't want the school to make at least a decent showing, I wouldn't be asking."
Crystal turned and looked at her; Erica could see the lack of interest, almost boredom in her expression – not quite disgust – and hoped that maybe Crystal could see the desperation in her own face. "Oh, hell," the big girl in the bikini said, finally. "They say the snow is pretty crappy up there today anyway. Just this once. Don't try to talk me into joining the team."
* * *
There was a huge crowd for the meet – well, for NMU. Maybe fifty people were in the stands surrounding the pool in the PEIF, not counting the athletes. Erica shook her head and wished again that people in "da You Pee" took swimming half seriously, or even took any interest at all in women's sports. Now hockey, they could take seriously. Calling hockey a sport? Nothing but a bunch of bruisers with missing teeth body-slamming each other around the ice and hitting each other with their sticks more often than they did the puck? Get real!
A real sport, something like swimming – pure dedicated athleticism not dependent mainly on fighting ability – seemed to leave them cold. Cold enough that NMU didn't even have a men's swimming team; the women's team was it for aquatics of the unfrozen sort.
Mostly, though, Erica's attention was on the third leg of the 400-yard freestyle relay, which the Chladek girl was now swimming. They'd had to switch the order of events around a little to accommodate the changes they'd made, bringing this relay to earlier than normal, but they could do that since it was an exhibition meet and didn't count for conference standings. Anyway, it was still going to be really tight for the home team to make it work with short rest between events for some of her swimmers.
It had turned out that Crystal was enough bigger than the other girls, that they'd had trouble finding a Speedo in team colors large enough for her, and she was stretching the seams in the only one that came close. Michelle was about the same height but much slimmer, without Crystal's musculature – and once in the water? Good grief, was Crystal moving! Leesa had finished the second leg just about neck and neck for the lead with the girl from Michigan Tech, but Leesa was a good sprinter, and Erica figured that they'd lose the lead in the third leg with this untried new swimmer she'd found. It wasn't without hope, since with Michelle anchoring the relay, they might be able to gain some back. She didn't plan on winning it, but maybe they wouldn't look too bad or be too far out of contention.
But, that wasn't what was happening. There was an obvious need for some coaching and practice – her start had been a bit late, water entry from the starting block was poor, and her turns, while adequate, could clearly have been faster. But that didn't quite matter – Crystal, just on raw power and speed alone, was opening up a pretty good lead on her Techie counterpart. Erica glanced at the stopwatch; even with the technique handicaps, Crystal's fifty-yard split was more than a second faster than the best she would have expected out of Michelle! What an impressive swimmer! Again she thought how this kid could go far if she wanted to. She had a three-body-length lead when she touched, and Michelle sprang from the block to swim the anchor leg.
It was a close race. Michelle still had a couple body lengths at the halfway point, and went hard the second half, but the Techie on anchor was faster and closing on her steadily. Michelle's 50 split indicated she wasn't doing as well as she normally should, but it wasn't until the last few yards that Erica realized that the girls were going to actually pull out a win on this thing!
She shook her head. Three hours ago she'd have been happy to finish, period, and now they were winning. If Crystal hadn't handed Michelle a big lead, they wouldn't have been even close. She glanced at her stopwatch – Crystal's leg was almost two seconds faster than Michelle's personal record! Good grief . . . it was the first time they'd won a 400 free relay all season, and if Abby hadn't have gotten the flu, they wouldn't have won it this time, either. Where had this girl been hiding? Erica shook her head in disgust again. Out on a snowboard, someplace, probably. What a waste.
The girls obviously didn't know the newcomer, either – she apparently didn't live in the jock dorm – but they knew who had made the difference in the relay for them. There was some hugging and some smiles and congratulating and thanks going on. There hadn't been enough winning this season, and to pull off a surprise like that against the strong Tech team in the home pool made the victory even sweeter.
But, once things settled down, Erica got together with the girls where she received more bad news. "Coach," Michelle said, hanging her head. "I'm sorry I was so slow on that last leg. I'm not feeling real good. I think I'm coming down with it, too, and maybe I'd better skip the 1650."
Erica looked at the blonde. She did look pale and wan, and she wasn't one to give up easily. If she had to sit it out, there went having enough girls to do the relay. "Do you think you can do another 200 yards for a leg of the 800 free relay later?" she asked hopefully.
"I can try," Michelle said, looking more hopeful than confident.
Erica nodded. She had to support what spirit the girl had left; there was no other choice. "I'll pencil you in for the first leg," she said, then added the obvious thing, under the circumstances, "Crystal, I'd like you to anchor." After all, she was clearly the fastest swimmer on the team today.
"No problem," she shrugged indifferently, as if she didn't much care one way or the other. And, Erica realized, she probably didn't.
"Also, do you think you'd be up to the mile swim, the 1650-yard individual event?" Erica asked, shooting for the moon. "I could ask someone else to trade it for their shorter distance, but with Michelle now under the weather and everyone else having to fill in for her and the other girls who are sick, well, I really don't have any other swimmers left good for that distance. You said you've swum that far before."
"I guess," Crystal replied, unconcerned, or at least without any enthusiasm. "Put me where you want in the freestyle events, but I practically drown myself every time I try backstroke. I'm not any good at butterfly, and my breaststroke kick probably isn't exactly legal, either."
Yes, Erica thought, she'd need some coaching, and God, the potential! But was anyone ever going to get it out of her? "Works for me, and thanks for helping out," she replied, relieved at the response. "Okay, Leesa, that means you're up for the 100 back, Andrea the 100 fly, and the 1650 for you, Crystal."
"Right, coach," Andrea said with a big smile. "Hey, thanks, Crystal."
* * *
Andrea was not normally a lead swimmer – NMU was weak in butterflyers this year – but she came through under pressure, managing a second in the 100 fly. It was also just a few hundredths off her own personal record, too; because of swimmers in a few other events, the point totals were in good shape for the moment.
Once the 1650 was under way, though, with Crystal off and swimming seemingly well, Erica went over and sat down in a chair on the deck. There was absolutely no point in standing and yelling at the swimmer; coaching one in the water does nothing as they can't hear much when their head is mostly underwater anyway – she'd either do it or she wouldn't. It was obvious that none of the normal things Erica usually did to motivate a swimmer were going to work with this girl. It seemed clear that pushing her too much when not in the water when she could hear would lead to a quick "Fuck you" and a quicker view of her backside as she headed for the locker room.
Dennis Shaffer, the sports guy from the Mining Journal, came over and sat down next to her, camera dangling from his neck. "How did you get Killer Chladek to swim for you today?" He asked.
Erica turned and stared at him. "Killer?"
"That's what the guys on the hockey team nicknamed her," he grinned. "I wouldn't call her that to her face, though. Back when she was a freshman, she was at a party, and some of the hockey players were there and a bit drunk. One of the bigger ones tried to hit on her, muscled her a bit. She used him to break a little furniture and knocked out a couple more teeth. Turns out she's a black belt, some kind of karate, I think. The word on the hockey team is, 'Don't hit on her. She might hurt you, even if she said yes.' So, how did you get her to swim for you today?"
"I'll be honest. Begging was involved."
A big grin crossed Shaffer's face. "You must beg pretty good. It didn't work for Mykkanen, out at Suicide Hill."
"Huh?" She looked out at the pool. They were on the tenth lap now, out of thirty-three total, sixty-six lengths of the pool; Crystal – "Killer Chladek?" – was doing well, in second, obviously drafting the Techie girl in the lead. The coach wondered where she'd learned that little trick; it wasn't something you'd expect from a rank novice at competition swimming, which is what Crystal was turning out to be. The other swimmers were definitely falling behind the two leaders. "She ski jumps, too?"
Erica had of course been out to Suicide Hill in Ishpeming, fifteen miles west of town, just for a look. Who in Marquette hadn't? The ski jump was a big deal in the area because it's probably the American hotbed of ski jumping. There was an Olympic training center at Northern, mostly for cross-country skiing and ski jumping, and there were kids around the school who had both the dream and good prospects of going to the Olympics one day. Erica had done some downhill skiing, but the thought of that jump made cold chills run up the coach's spine.
Shaffer didn't appear to notice her discomfort. It was scary to Erica to even think of just climbing to the top of the big ramp, much less shoving off and racing down it at – what was it, 50 or 60 miles an hour, then getting flung out high over even more hill, continually dropping away. "Apparently she just wanted to try it so took it up this winter for the hell of it," he explained. "She went over there a couple weeks ago when they had a local warm-up meet on and signed up for the event. Took sixth on the 90-meter jump. There were some kids from the Olympic team there, just for practice. She beat several of them. Mykkanen told her that with a little training and practice, she could be beating many of the better US Olympic team members. She turned him down. There's no women's jumping at the Olympic level, anyway. She thought it was a lot of fun, though. Hell, she asked him if he knew if the Copper Peak Ski Flying Hill over near Ironwood was going to open again soon 'cause she wants to give the Big Hill a try sometime, too."
Holy Christ! An even higher tower and hill and bigger jump, and with a longer approach and more speed than Suicide? This girl was really crazy! Erica shivered visibly. "A little stroke mechanics training and practice at it and she'd have a good chance to go to the Olympics as a swimmer," Erica told him. "She could be better than I was, and I only missed them by a couple of tenths."
"Dream on," Shaffer smiled as Crystal made another turn, still dogging the Techie's wake. "I asked her about it out at Suicide Hill. Turns out she likes the doing, and wants to do the best she can, but she just doesn't give a damn about competition. She marches to her own drummer and is just not interested in anything but the fun part. Does things with people, not against them, and not much indoor stuff. Big outdoor girl, very ballsy. You must know about her kayaking 'cause the club does their basic instruction here in the pool. Does rafting, canoeing, and sea kayaking, too. She's also one of the better rock and technical climbers here at school, big at teaching it in the Outdoor Club. Long-distance hiker and backpacker, some downhill skiing and snowboarding, and God knows what else."
"Good God," Erica shook her head. "All that?"
"Oh, yeah, almost forgot. You remember back in November, when we had that big nor'easter blowing, and we had a picture of a kid out on the lake on a board, surfing in that stuff?"
Erica blinked in surprise. "Her?"
"Yeah, I took the picture," he grinned, letting a little awe of his own show through. "I was standing out there on the beach, wind blowing like a gale, cold as hell, and she comes trotting up wearing a wetsuit with a surfboard under her arm, just like this was Malibu, not Marquette. She said 'Hi. I was hoping it'd be up,' flashed me a smile, and headed for the edge of the sand. She threw the board in the water, hopped on, and paddled out on it. I didn't know whether to grab my camera for a picture or find a phone to call 9-1-1. The next thing I know she's out there, just carving faces, wave after wave, and having a blast. She rode waves till it was almost too dark to see. Finally she came back to the beach, picked up the board, came up by the car and said, 'Hey, that was pretty good,' and went trotting back up the street in this direction. I had a heck of a time finding out her name, but I asked around, and it turns out that might be the only surfboard in the U.P. One of the kayakers told me she stores it with the kayaks here in the PEIF."
Erica just shook her head. This was not a typical undergrad. She was beginning to wonder if this kid was a typical anything, from what Shaffer was saying.
* * *
As the race progressed, the Tech gal couldn't seem to open more than half a body length on Crystal, and every little bit she got was all on the turns. They'd come into the wall just about even every time, but the Chladek girl would fall back a little on her open turn when the Techie did a faster flip turn, then "Killer" would make it back up going down the pool.
By the time they reached the gun lap, 50 yards to go, the two were well over a couple pool lengths ahead of the nearest of the rest of the field. The splits were incredible, Erica thought in pure amazement, especially for Crystal, who was keeping up with a swimmer experienced at pacing for a race of this length. It was going to be close. If Crystal could hang on and close in on the Techie after the last turn, like she'd been doing the whole race, she might stand a chance to win by a touch.
While Crystal was in the pool and couldn't overhear, Erica thought about telling the other girls that she was only a junior and had another year yet if they could only convince her to come out for the team or even show up for the occasional meet. Because of her half-stated promise to Crystal, she'd have to mention she didn't want any blatant pleas made by anyone. But, maybe a team member who "just happened" to see her in the pool and who made a low-key offer to assist her in improving on some technique might increase her competitive interest. It couldn't hurt, that's for sure. She could point out what everyone already knew; if Crystal had a decent freestyle flip turn, she'd have a pool length or more likely two on her competitor in this race right now, and even if she faded in the homestretch, she might still pull out a win. If Erica did mention this to any of the team members, they'd certainly have to keep it low-key! She'd think about it.
The two swimmers came into the last turn neck and neck, and as before, Crystal lost a little during her slower turn – but when she kicked off the wall, it was clear that she'd been just toying with the Techie. Erica could almost hear the "clunk" of gears shifting – Crystal came off the wall like she had an outboard attached, and in an all-out sprint she surged past the obviously tired and swum-out Techie the first quarter pool length. With the handful of spectators in the bleachers, the kids on the team, and coaches and kids from the other team yelling and screaming, she kept the power on and wound up winning, going away by maybe four body lengths.
Although wound up by the thrilling finish, Erica's neck was getting sore, mainly from shaking her head. According to her, this was the first time Crystal had ever swam in competition outside of a PE class, and she'd just humiliated last year's regional champion in what most swimmers consider the most grueling event in the pool. What an emergency fill-in! The coach of the Tech team, along with most of her swimmers, must be wondering who this sleeper was, too.
Several events had to take place before the 800-yard free relay, and Erica had had to give attention to Andrea, Leesa, and some others. Their times were good for them, if not spectacular. Still, when it came down to the final event, the NMU team was again just behind Tech in total points, and a win in the relay would pull out a victory overall. Was there any chance?
Michelle didn't look good now, but she was a game girl, and Erica stuck with the plan of putting her on the opening leg, not that she had any choice. It was far from the best swim that the coach had ever seen her make, and obviously against the weaker swimmers on the other team, but she managed to give the Northern girls a little bit of a lead at the end of the first relay leg. She'd shot everything she had to do it and had to be helped from the pool; in a way, it may have been the best effort the coach had ever seen her swim, husbanding her energy to get absolutely everything out of what was available. Leesa, who was normally a backstroker, lost the lead, but by less than a body length, and Andrea put on a heck of a performance herself to not lose any more.
It looked like it was going to come down to a battle between the Techie girl and Chladek, a short, eight-length rerun of the 1650 with Crystal against the same girl she'd beaten in the mile. But now, the Techie knew what sort of competition she was up against and managed to keep the lead through the first two laps, four lengths. Crystal was sneaking up on her, though, making up the distance that the previous two girls had lost.
The third lap really proved to be the race – perhaps out of pure panic the Techie opened up with everything she had, but too soon. Crystal stayed right with her, then passed her easily on the final lap as the Techie faded fast, exhausted, and swimming so slowly that the girl from Tech's B team came from far down the pool to finish ahead of her.
Michelle by now was dazed and out of it, just sitting in a chair on the deck with her head down between her knees, but Andrea and Leesa and their coach and others were there to greet Crystal as she clambered out of the pool. "Great race," Erica exulted. "That's the first meet we've actually won this year, and you four set a school record in the process. Thanks a bunch!"
"Glad I could help," Crystal nodded, apparently about as excited as she would have been to hear that the meat loaf had been marked down ten cents in the cafeteria. "That all you need me for?"
"Well, I thought I'd take everyone out for pizza to celebrate," Erica smiled, still beaming at the success.
"Thanks, but I'll take a pass," Crystal said distantly. "Since the afternoon is shot in the butt for snowboarding, I guess I'll change and work on my off-side roll a bit." She turned and headed for the locker room. Erica frowned, then turned to follow, motioning the other girls to stay back.
Crystal was already peeling off the Speedo when Erica reached the locker room. "What do you want me to do with this?" she asked, naked, holding the suit in her hand.
"Oh, toss it in the laundry bag there," the coach told her. "Thanks again, Crystal," she said. "I appreciate it, and the girls appreciate it. You turned what would have been a lousy day all around into a pretty good one for the rest of us."
"No big deal," the big, muscular girl shrugged. She reached in the locker, pulled out the bikini bottom she'd been wearing earlier, and stepped into it.
Erica took a deep breath. "I know you don't want to hear this," she began. "But you have the most potential as a swimmer of anyone I've ever seen. If you were to train and practice seriously, with a little coaching, you could be world class." After all, it was obvious that Crystal liked winning from the efforts she put out when in the heat of the race. Maybe, just maybe . . .
"Maybe, maybe not," the half-dressed girl replied, lifting her arms up to get into the bikini top. "Like I told you before, I have no real interest in competition. I mean, I like to be pretty good at the things that I do, and I do as well as I can when doing them, but to get to the top you have to focus on one thing so much that you exclude too many other fun things." She pulled the top over her breasts and adjusted it slightly. "I don't want to do that. There's just too much else to do that's fun. I'd rather be number one thousand in several different things and enjoying myself in all of them than be number ten in one sport and be pissed that I can't make it to number one, and not have time to do those other things. But, like I said, glad I could help."
Erica knew she was defeated, but she'd been pretty sure of that even before she'd gone into the locker room in the first place. It was as Shaffer had said – this gal marched to a different drummer, if in fact she marched to any one drummer at all. "Thank you again for helping," she smiled in gracious resignation. "I said I wouldn't ask you to join the team and I won't. But, if you'd like to show up for practice sometime I can teach you how to do a quicker turn off the wall. And if you ever have a dull afternoon when there's a meet on and you're looking for something to do, well, you're always welcome to drop by."
"You never know," Crystal smiled, and headed for the door.
A hell of an athlete, but a strange, strange girl, Erica thought as she headed back out to the pool, passing Andrea, Leesa, and a sick-looking Michelle coming in. Things were dying out around the pool; people were filing out. Shaffer was waiting for her outside; she'd promised earlier to talk with him. "Any comments?" he asked.
Erica frowned. It had definitely been one of the stranger afternoons she'd ever had as a coach, but she couldn't say it that way. "On the record," she began, "It was one of the more interesting and exciting afternoons I've ever had coaching."
Shaffer smiled, "I take that to mean you have some thoughts off the record."
She nodded slowly, trying to collect her thoughts. "Dennis," she said finally. "Are you old enough to remember watching The Lone Ranger on Saturday mornings?"
"No," he smiled. "That was a little before my time."
"It was a little before my time, too," Erica smiled, looking out across the pool. Crystal came in from the storeroom on the far side, wearing a spray skirt over her bikini bottom and carrying a white water kayak on her shoulder. She threw the kayak in the water, tossed a paddle down beside it, dove in, and did a re-entry and hand roll like she'd done earlier. She grabbed the paddle and headed out toward the center of the pool as the coach sighed over the lost opportunity.
"It was on reruns," the coach continued. "My brothers and I used to like to watch it. The formula was always the same. The bad guys are raising hell with the townspeople, and then this dude in a mask and this Indian companion ride in, and they have some thrills, pop some silver bullets at the bad guys, kick their butts, and ride off into the sunset after saving the day. Then some guy in the town would say, 'Who was that masked man?' And, someone else would say, 'That was the Lo-o-o-one Ranger.'"
"I remember hearing about that," he nodded, wondering a little what that had to do with anything.
Erica nodded her head toward the sole occupant of the pool, and smiled. "That's her."