The Final Meet


Tattoo of a shark on a swimmers back. (Small)By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent

It was our final meet together. We, the YMCA kids who grew up slogging miles in the same six-lane pool, summer after summer, winter after winter, year after year. Our final YMCA National Championships before heading off to college. We had a group of 10 or so seniors, and many of us swam together since we were kids. We wanted this final meet to be special.


“If we win a relay,” a few of us said at the beginning of that final summer season, “we’re getting tattoos.”

We had always wanted to win a relay. It had been our goal since before we were in high school, since we had joined the team and ogled at the banners hanging on the rafters above that said, “1995 YMCA Long Course National Champions.” A few of us had trained together for years, though we went to different high schools. The summer season was like a homecoming, the time of year when we geographic outliers converged and trained for one united purpose: To win a YMCA National title in a relay. 

At those final YMCA Championships, it all happened so fast – the way many huge, mega-events in our teenage-hood years happen too fast, like prom, or the final week of senior year. After prelims, we were seeded in the middle of the pool for finals. We had a shot to win. We did our tradition of cheers and pump-up speeches. We knew this was our chance, our last chance as seniors to win it all. Then the race began, and we raced as hard as we could. It came down to the finish. We were behind, and our anchor leg was trying to catch us up. Five more meters, he would have won it. We finished second. 

The defeat was sound, but still, I couldn’t help but think, “Did I hit my relay exchange? Should I have skipped that morning practice two months ago? Could I have done anything better?” After any big race where you lose, you think you have another shot at it -- like there will be next year, another chance to come together and accomplish your goal. Then you realize that was it. You warm-down, you dry off, and you move on. 

When the final night of those YMCA championships ended, and when we high school seniors said goodbye to each other (including to the relay team who beat us) and wished each other well as we embarked for college and new chapters in our lives, I realized that there would be no tattoo ceremony. There was only the goodbye ceremony. For many swimmers, the competitive swim journey ended then and there, at that final YMCA meet, on that final night. The YMCA National Championships is a swansong for many high school seniors who don’t swim in college. It’s a desirable atmosphere for doing so, being a less intense meet than Nationals or Junior Nationals, with themed parades and after-parties and athlete speeches and senior recognition ceremonies. We gave high-fives to many cohorts and competitors we had competed against throughout the greater majority of our lives from teams in Ohio and Pennsylvania and New York – seniors we’d likely never see again, whom we had shared one intimate moment of competitive swimming for one brief week in our lives. 

Upon reflection, I suppose the desire to get a tattoo was to make this all permanent, somehow. Like how many teens get tattoos – they want to make it all permanent, even though permanency is the one thing you gradually learn never lasts. As a 30-something, I am still tattoo-less. A few weeks ago, I was at a birthday party with a number of people who had tattoos on arms, chests, backs, and legs.  “Do you have a tattoo?” someone asked me. 

“No,” I said. “But I almost got one, this one time. I had a pact where if I won a relay at this swim meet, we would get one. But we got second.”

“Well,” this person countered, “you could still get one now.”

But somehow, I can’t. To get a tattoo now, of anything – of water, of a symbol or a picture or something hand-drawn or a logo of my bookstore – it would feel disingenuous, fraudulent, a violation of that original pact made years earlier. At those YMCA Championships, I wanted something permanent to remember the experience, to remember those years when we had tried so hard, a reward for accomplishing our goal. 

There’s a spot on my arm where I would have had it. It’s blank now, just flesh-colored skin. It will stay blank. That’s my permanent reminder: We did not win that relay, and we did not get those tattoos on our arms, and that’s the beauty of this thing called sports. 

In a week, a few hundred high school seniors will say goodbye to swimming at the YMCA National Championships, and a few thousand high school seniors in different meets across the country will say goodbye to swimming throughout this summer. To them: Enjoy it. Like any race, it happens fast. 

Though these memories may not seem permanent now, they will be tattooed in your mind for years, and they will last much longer than ink.