A Champion Reckoning by Bruce Harris

Tuesday, October 2, 2012
A handsome teenage swimming champion with an unpleasantly arrogant attitude learns his lesson, by Bruce Harris

As a teen swimming champion, very conscious of his sporting prowess and sensational appearance in an unsubtle little costume, I probably arrived at my obnoxiousness apex in the autumn following my seventeenth birthday. Following a recent swimming gala, the local reporter had referred to me in print as having 'film star looks and a Greek God's body'; at my school, girls had started asking me for autographs and one or two other things we won't go into, and various photos of me training or competing were apparently on some girls' bedroom walls. Middle-aged ladies at the sports centre pool seemed keen to engage me in lengthy and largely pointless conversations, their eyes straying hither and thither, as did one or two gentlemen in the male changing room after swimming. I regarded them all as sadly but understandably stricken, and more to be pitied than censured. I'd been swimming since babyhood, and both of my parents had cupboards full of trophies, so the success wasn't entirely unpredictable, but by then it had undoubtedly gone to my head a little.

One afternoon in late September, Dad drove me about a hundred miles to take part in an evening competition at a big new leisure centre. I wanted to get there early, which was mostly about nerves and conscientiousness; there were one or two questions of technique which I needed to work on if I was, as expected, to romp away with the championship title and make myself the top boy in the whole area, guaranteeing a national trial. I also needed to be in the water, to get the feel of the new pool. Dad dropped me off and said he'd be back for the competition proper; he always had been ace about fetching and carrying me around.

The receptionist eventually allowed me through, her hesitation leaving me unimpressed and showing it. She said a local special school had about twenty five minutes left of their booked session in the shallow end. I remember saying to her, 'Fair enough; as long as they keep out of my way,' and then I walked off, feeling a kind of burning in the back, her eyes presumably pursuing me like lasers.

I don't mess about getting changed and I was out into the pool in less than ten minutes. A bunch of about ten to twelve kids of various ages were in the shallow end, with a man and a woman, the woman older than the guy and probably most kindly described as comfortably built, while the man was younger and a great deal hairier, both on the body and round the chin. I stood and watched them all for a couple of minutes. The kids were what's generally called special needs children; they were unaccomplished and a bit clumsy, in the main, but very game, and having a good time of it. They grinned at me, one or two of them, but they didn't get one back, I'm afraid; all I could think about was their haphazard movement, drifting right across the pool.

I sighed - I did a lot of that at the time - and walked down towards them, my face getting tighter as their grins got wider.

'Excuse me,' I said to the woman, who wasn't really so large or ungainly at closer quarters - I think her costume didn't do her any favours - and she raised one eyebrow.

'Could we keep at least one lane clear? I need to get right up and down the pool.'

'We have booked, and we're only actually going to be another ten minutes or so,' she said quietly. 'Is your business so desperately more important than ours?'

I sighed again. The man was just watching me, steadily, unnervingly.

'I'm racing in an important championship final in a few hours' time,' I said. 'It could lead to selection for the national team. That's the Great Britain team, right? Perhaps a little more urgent than a few kids messing about in the shallow end.'

I stalked off down to the deep end. When I turned, she had shooed the kids off to the right, leaving me at least three lanes free on the left. I raised one hand towards her, briefly, and then dived in.

For about five minutes, everything went well; I moved easily up and down one of the left hand lanes, checking out all the salient movements and muscles, working on the improved leg propulsion I had in mind. I had the impression that the woman with the kids had left the pool at some stage and then returned, but I didn't much care. Then, just as I was approaching the finish at the shallow end, a little boy of about eight or nine suddenly lost his bearing and skewed right across me. I almost collided with the side wall.

'You silly little sod!' I shouted, getting up on my feet, the water there only about five feet deep. The lad's face puckered up and he burst into tears.

'Please do not swear at these children,' the man said, a deep, quiet, resonant tone. The woman seemed to have disappeared momentarily.

I looked at him and sighed ever more deeply. I got out of the pool and stormed back up to the deep end, where I sat on the edge and dangled my legs, staring daggers at them all. A few minutes later, they left, and I dived straight back in, noticing nothing more about them than an inexplicable sort of sly grin in my direction from the woman.

I had the pool to myself now, blissfully, and a few more uninterrupted lengths calmed me down; I even had the grace to feel a little ashamed of myself. It only needed about ten or fifteen minutes to convince me that I was in as good a shape as I needed to be; since the pool was still deserted, I could quite easily have waited for the kids' session to finish.

I grabbed a towel from a pile the management seemed to have thoughtfully provided on a bench near the changing room entrance; save me using mine, I thought. For a moment, I hesitated outside the changing rooms; something seemed to be different, but without doubt the one on the left had the male symbol with trousers and the one on the right the female symbol with a skirt, so I took the left door and did what I usually did, placing my towel on an empty bench and walking straight into the showers. When I'd checked that the water was flowing a comfortable and controllable heat (not always the way, believe me) I stripped my costume off, wrung it out and put in on the bench next to the towel. I took no notice of the hanging clothes; it only registered that the room was empty, which was OK by me.

There are few more pleasant experiences than a warm shower, and as I relaxed, I realised that my behaviour in the pool had not shown me in a very favourable light. I really would have to do better, I thought - being a champion meant handling the PR and the ever-present media.

I'd had the shower bashing away at full tilt for a while and the shower area was getting distinctly steamy. Then three things happened, not simultaneously, but closely enough together to allow me no reaction time. Firstly, I noticed, just outside the shower area, a full length mirror, and this struck me as a little odd - not many changing rooms had full length mirrors near the shower area, I thought. Not more than five seconds after this had given rise to some appalling possibilities, the changing room door clattered open. For a moment, I could see only a square of light, blurred with steam, and then, appearing as if a conjuring trick in smoke and mirrors or a figure exiting a burning building, someone was silhouetted in the door.

The realisation dawned instantly that the someone was female - a girl, in fact, of about my age, with a hockey stick, talking over her shoulder to another girl with a hockey stick, who was also followed by another, over and over again as if created in the square of light. Within thirty seconds, an entire hockey team had arrived and the first girl, tall, with her long hair tied back, was gazing, bemused, at my costume.

Then she moved across and stood at one end of the showers looking directly at me.

'Well, well. Heaven must be missing an angel. Come and take a look at this, girls.'

I felt my face colouring up and moved towards the other end of the showers. Three girls were already blocking the exit.

'I'll say this for you, buddy. As flashers go, you've got class. Very tasty, very tasty indeed.'

There followed a period of time, resembling an eternity but probably only about four or five minutes, which still ranks as the most embarrassing interlude in my life so far. Whistles and catcalls accompanied my every move; without a towel, I had no chance of concealing everything which needed to be concealed, and my efforts to do so simply caused more merriment and a range of comments for which the word 'personal' is a scarcely adequate description.

Several girls had approached me from both directions, and it dawned on me suddenly that, within a very short space of time, whistling and catcalling was not all they had in mind to do. For any young guys who might feel that such a situation is about as near to heaven as they are ever likely to get, well, try it is all I can say, though when I point out that the girl holding a tube of some kind of ointment or other was probably the one with the least evil glint in her eye of the lot of them, it might not work out to be quite the sexual Nirvana that you think. I can remember feeling that my face was probably about as red as a face can be without bursting like a trod-on tomato, and I had an almost irresistible urge to do something, right there and then on the nicely-tiled floor, which would without a doubt have fully completed my abject shame. I had abandoned all hope as the first fingers began to land on various parts of my anatomy when the noblest sound I have ever heard resounded through the room.

'What on earth is all this noise about? Girls - what is going on?'

A lady in her thirties, redoubtably tall and tracksuited, appeared at one end of the showers as the girls moved back, muttering amongst themselves.

'Who are you? What do you think you're doing?'

'A towel, please, a towel,' I croaked at her, nodding down at the bench where I'd left it. 'For God's sake, miss, give me a towel.'

She saw a clean one, picked it up and flung it at me, to a range of boos and whistles from the girls.

'Cover yourself and get out, you stupid boy; we'll assume stupidity rather than evil intent.'

My hands were shaking a little, but I got the towel round my waist somehow, and, for the first time, summoned up a little dignity and tried to fight back.

'I simply got the wrong changing room; it's easily done -' I said, finally realising that the sly little grin I'd seen from the woman supervising the kids might perhaps have meant a deliberate swapping round of the ladies and gents signs. At this precise moment, my towel loosened itself and fluttered slowly to the floor.

Something went pop inside me at the sheer absurdity of it, and suddenly I found myself standing there, completely naked in front of twelve females, screeching with laughter, so infectiously, apparently, that they all joined in. Even the teacher was chuckling as, several minutes later, I finally placed the towel strategically and made a comedy exit to the changing room next door, where a few boys who'd got wind of what was happening joined in the general hilarity.

I made my peace with the special school not long after that and deliberately did some charity stuff with them. I also won the race, helped by a hefty dollop of female support.

'One more chalked up, son,' my dad said. 'Well done. And after your spot of bother, too.'

'Oh, yes. Right, Dad. You heard about that, then?'

'Yes, Simon. Judging by some of the conversations I was hearing amongst the evening crowd, I don't think you did yourself any harm. And some people who have watched you several times in the past also remarked favourably on a novel aspect of your competitive performance.'

'What was that, Dad?'

'You smiled, Simon,' he said. 'You smiled.'


  1. very good indeed, what goes around comes around, sounds like a mixture of reality and fantasy. i´m also a passionate swimmer and it sounds convincing.
    well done

    michael mccarthy

  2. I really liked the narrator's voice - reminded me a little of an early Martin Amis character. I thought it was pacey too, and quite cinematic. Well done.

    Jack Lawrence.