Sunday 21 February 2016

Against the Tide Chapter 1

Against the Tide

Chapter 1
Darryn Fredericks stood at the edge of the Olympic-sized swimming pool in the large swimming stadium of Ridgemont University. He felt his heart racing wildly, and even though the crowd was cheering and excited, he could hardly hear a thing. He was laser-focused on what he had to accomplish. Get to the other side first. Stroke, pause, breathe, stroke, pause, breathe. He mentally went through the race then, and saw himself gliding across the water gracefully. He couldn’t make a single mistake, and in the hours of practice over the past months he had perfected his form and technique. But he was not about to become complacent or think that winning was a sure thing. He had always had to work hard for everything in his life, and it had gotten him onto the Ridgemont University swim team as a first year student, on the path to make the national team in a few months if he could keep on winning. This was the time to be more focused than ever.

Darryn noticed the stands growing quieter. The moment was approaching. His muscular chest was rising and falling as he breathed deeply. His caramel skin glistened with small beads of nervous perspiration, accentuating his muscled, toned swimmer’s physique. He adjusted his goggles and swimmer’s cap to make sure everything was in place. He bent his bare legs and kicked out some of the tension he was building up. He was as ready as he would ever be.

The announcer’s voice boomed over the loudspeakers: “Welcome everyone to the Ridgemont University swimming championships quarter-final match 3. The winner of this race will go on to compete in the semi-finals in three weeks’ time, and will be considered for the intervarsity team. We are also happy to welcome the scouts for the South African national team who are in the stands today. Please give them a round of applause!” The crowd responded with a loud roar. There were at least a hundred supporters. Swimming was one of the most popular sports at Ridgemont University, and next to the rugby championships, the swimming finals were the most attended event on the annual sporting calendar. Darryn knew that this was the only reason he received such a sizable scholarship for being a gifted swimmer, as the swimming team was well funded and had many sponsors. The scholarship was almost enough to cover his entire tuition at Ridgemont, and since it was one of the most expensive universities in the country, this was saying a lot. He knew that if he wanted to make the national team and make a career out of swimming, losing was not an option.

The announcer spoke again when the crowd became calmer: “In a moment we will turn over to the referee who will signal the start of the race. Good luck to the swimmers!”

Darryn looked into the crowd, seeing the expectant faces and the signs supporting particular swimmers. He wished then that his father and brother could have been there to support him, but he knew that it would not be possible. He felt slightly selfish for not being at home, where he could help his father on such a difficult day, but he knew that he had to be at the race. He had to win and hold on to his scholarship so that he could at least support them with some of the funding that he received. He had to win for them.

He noticed his coach and the rest of the swim team at their spot on the benches. Coach Tyson was chewing his nicotine gum furiously, making it look like the veins in his neck were about to explode from stress. He nervously gave Darryn a thumbs-up and managed a smile that looked more like a grimace. Coach Tyson was the reason that Darryn’s swimming had improved so much in the few months that he had been on the swimming team, and Darryn respected him immensely. He returned his coach’s gesture, and saw that he was being leered at by a particular set of piercing blue eyes that stirred immediate anger in him.

JP Terreblanche was giving Darryn a smug look, his eyebrow raised. He had his short blond hair styled in a spiky, boyish style, and his sharp jaw and heavy mouth gave him a look of mischief that only fueled Darryn’s distrust of him. JP adjusted his Ridge U jacket, but his gaze did not move from Darryn. Even though Darryn knew that JP was good looking, with his high cheekbones and strong jaw, the arrogance that went along with it made Darryn’s blood boil. JP was one of the best swimmers on the team, but Darryn knew that he was definitely better. JP, however, acted like he was God’s gift to swimming, and he walked and talked with an air of importance that only the spoiled Ridgemont elite could pull off. Unfortunately, JP had won his quarter-final race earlier that morning, only adding to his arrogance. Darryn knew that he would enjoy beating JP in the finals if both of them made it, and a smile crossed his lips at the thought that JP would have to watch him win. Beating JP would be one of the most satisfying parts of his swimming career at Ridgemont, Darryn thought.

He stepped to his mark at the very edge of the pool, and bent down to be ready for his starting dive. He trained his eyes on the water in front of him, rehearsing his movements in his head again. He could do this, he reminded himself, and held his breath as he waited for the sound of the gun that spelled the start of the race. Everything was quiet, and Darryn’s mind was blocking out even the stray thoughts of JP’s arrogant stare which was surely still trained on him like a laser. Suddenly, the bang of the starting gun sounded, and Darryn was in the water. He found his rhythm perfectly as he hit the surface. Stroke, pause, breathe, stroke, pause, breathe. He felt his movements echo the months of training and mental preparation that he had done. He knew that he was doing everything right. He knew that the stakes couldn’t be higher, and he pushed himself even harder than he thought possible.
The thrill and discipline of swimming were intoxicating for Darryn. This was where he was happiest, and where he felt most in control. He loved the feeling of moving so swiftly and powerfully in the pool, his large arms and shoulders sliding through the water and propelling him forward, his legs finding exactly the right rhythm to facilitate his propulsion, all combining to make his movement through the water like that of an eagle swooping through the air. Coach Tyson had looked at him in amazement the first time he had seen Darryn swim, and told him that he had a rare talent. Darryn knew that he had to put his talent to use and go as far as he could with his swimming career. He had had too late a start at swimming to compete internationally earlier in his life, but he could still make the intervarsity and national college teams. He knew he had it in him.

Suddenly he felt his fingers touch the opposite edge of the pool. It was over. He emerged from the water and saw on the scoreboard that he had completed the race in a new personal record time. He had won, and the crowd was cheering in elation. Darryn raised his fist proudly and smiled. He saw his coach and the rest of his team standing and applauding. Coach Tyson looked especially jubilant. But one face was smirking between the rest of the team. JP was still sitting even though the rest of the team were standing in applause. He was not cheering at all, but merely staring at Darryn. Darryn decided to ignore him; it wasn’t worth letting JP ruin his proud moment.

He was eager to let his father and brother know that he had won, that he would be progressing to the semi-finals in a few weeks. He got out of the pool and found his towel, and his coach was immediately next to him, tapping his shoulder. “Well done, Darryn! That was excellent, exactly as we practised it. You did an amazing job. Now you just need to keep it up at the semis and you can make the first team. It’s been years since we’ve had a first-year student on the first team. Keep it up!”
“Thanks, coach,” Darryn said, with a bashful smile. He knew that his coach favored him over many of the other swimmers, and that he was secretly rooting for Darryn to do well. Maybe it was because Darryn was one of only two mixed-race students on the swim team, or “coloured” as they were called in South Africa. The rest of the team were all white, often from wealthy backgrounds. Darryn knew that he had a lot to prove, and Coach Tyson seemed to be determined to help him in any way he could.

Coach Tyson moved in closer to him and said, “Just remember to try and make it to the get-together this afternoon once the last races are done. I invited the national scouts and it would be good for you to meet them.” Darryn was thrilled at the prospect of meeting the national scouts, even if it meant attending a party with the rest of the team.

Darryn’s best friend on the swim team, Mario, came over to him and enthusiastically shook his hand in congratulations. Mario was the other coloured student on the team, who had come second in his quarter-final race as he had participated in the race that JP had won that morning. Mario was always optimistic and merely shrugged off his second-place finish, saying that he would do better the following year, and that he didn’t need to make the intervarsity team just yet. He was one of Darryn’s most ardent supporters, and was always ready to tell Darryn how much he admired his technique. “You know you’re the best swimmer on the team, and in a year’s time you’ll definitely be captain,” Mario often said to Darryn.

Darryn shook the hands of the rest of the team. It was a ritual that Coach Tyson encouraged, even though Darryn knew that he was not well-liked among the other guys on the team. They often treated Darryn like he was beneath them, but they were forced to accept that he was one of their best first-year swimmers. Last in line for the handshake was JP, who didn’t say a word as he approached Darryn and squeezed his hand tightly, almost hurting him. Darryn squeezed back, and they stared straight into each other’s eyes. JP was trying to provoke him, he thought. But he resolved not to let JP ruin his proud moment. Darryn pulled his hand free and just walked away from JP, moving towards the locker room to change.

Mario came up to Darryn again as he walked towards the locker room, whispering in a serious tone, “Listen, Darryn, I need to talk to you. Your dad just called my phone, he said that he was trying to get through to you but that your phone was just ringing. He said it’s quite serious, about Billy, and you must call him back as soon as you can.” Mario had thin, sharp eyebrows and his hair was cut short on his round face, giving him an almost comical look which suited his jovial personality. It was rare to see Mario being serious, and the contrast of his playful features and serious words made Darryn uneasy.

“Thanks, Mario, let me just get to my phone. Can you drive me home? It will take too long to get there with the bus.”

“Sure. Go call your dad and I’ll tell Coach that I can’t be here for the rest of the races. I’ll be ready to go when you are.”

Darryn rushed into the locker room and opened his locker, taking out his ancient Nokia phone. He saw eight missed calls and two messages from his father, and immediately returned the call. His father answered in his deep voice, sounding nervous, “Hello? Darryn?”

“Dad, yes, what’s going on? Is Billy okay?”

“He just had another episode. I thought he was getting better when you left for your race this morning, but it’s not looking good. Can you come back now? You’re the only one who can calm him when he gets like this.”

“I’m on my way. Mario says he will give me a lift. Listen, don’t worry. I’m gonna be there in twenty minutes. Just try and see if you can play some music for him until I get there.”

“I’m sorry, Darryn. I know it’s an important day. I just don’t know what to do.” His father’s voice was faltering, and Darryn felt sorry for him. His father was approaching fifty and not in the best of health himself, and all of the worry over Billy was really getting to him.

“Don’t worry. I’m done here and I’ll be back soon. Just stay with him.”

Darryn hung up the phone and didn’t bother showering, throwing on his clothes and rushing out. His face hung in a look of worry, his sharp cheekbones and serious brown eyes accentuating the look of sadness and fear. He knew that he should have stayed home with Billy. He rushed towards Mario’s car, desperate to get home as soon as he could.