By Mike Gustafson//Correspondent
Eight years ago, I retired from swimming thinking that I’d never compete or race again. Then a few months later, during a leisurely vacation in Japan, the friend I was staying with blindsided me: “You want to compete tomorrow in a Japanese Masters swim meet?”
“It’s like this Japanese Masters meet. Some friends are swimming in it, and they need a guy for our relay. It will be really low-key.”
“I’m not signed up.”
“We’ll sneak you in.”
“I haven’t swum in months.”
“It’s only a 50m free.”
And away we went. The swim meet took place in Tokyo. We were staying on a military base 3 hours south, so we took a train north, carrying our suits, goggles, and towels in small backpacks. Though I was reluctant to “compete” again – I wanted my final race to be from Big Tens competing for my college team – but it’s not every day you get to “race internationally.”
We passed hundreds of high-rises and hours of Jetsons-like urban development. The horizon was littered with huge, tall buildings. I suddenly felt small, insignificant.
My friend signed me up for the anchor leg of a mixed gender 200 freestyle relay – one in which all ages competed side-by-side. He told me it was a perfectly legal move, then proceeded to tell me: “Just don’t tell anyone your real name.” My new name was something like “Brian” or “Joe” – whoever was originally signed up for the relay and had scratched a few days prior. I justified this ethical fallout by internalizing that, without me, these other relay members could not compete.
I wanted to simply blend in, swim, and leave. But blending in was not an option. My friend and I weren’t just the only two Americans there, but we were pretty much the tallest people there, too.
“You aren’t from Japan, are you?” some swimmers politely asked. No, we replied. We were not.
There were other oddities: Concessions were different. Instead of typical swim meet offerings like bananas, bagels, and Gatorade, this meet’s concessions had Power Bars, sushi, and beer. And that was it. No fruit. Nothing that would “aid” someone to swim fast (unless you subscribe to the belief that the consumption of raw fish makes you swim like a fish).
We warmed up and walked around the pool deck, which was beautiful, vast, and impressive. People were friendly and those who spoke English made polite small talk. It was as amicable a competitive atmosphere as you could imagine, and yet, I was incredibly, undeniably nervous. Butterflies built in my stomach.
Our relay was ready to start. We walked to our blocks and put on our caps and goggles. Suddenly after 150 meters -- and after months of enjoying the fat, lazy life of retirement -- I stood on the blocks, staring at our relay team that was losing by 5 body lengths. “This is my last race?” I remember thinking to myself. “This is how my swimming career will end?” My entire life, I envisioned my last competitive race coming down to some epic competition moment at an NCAA Championship or an Olympic final, battling stroke-for-stroke for a world record as thousands of fans cheered.
Instead, I dove into my last-ever swim race anchoring a mixed relay in an empty aquatic center against a 50-year-old Japanese woman who had a 10-second lead.
Charging down the pool that final 25m, I raced hard. I put my head down, flying, spinning towards the wall. The relay in the lead was dying, or I was gaining. I saw the woman’s feet. Then her hips. Then we were even at the wall…
I hit the touch pad and spun around to look at the scoreboard. We won by a tenth. Only, my relay teammates didn’t erupt like Phelps against the French, but instead, politely said “nice job” and smiled and we shook hands with our Japanese competitors. We talked with other Japanese swimmers and took photographs. No one cared if we won or lost, and suddenly, neither did I.
When Tokyo 2020 was announced, along with news of a $400 million dollar aquatic complex they would construct for the Games, I remembered that meet long ago. I remembered the vast array of “otherworldly” buildings and high-rises, the friendliness of the people, the various swimmers we swam against. When I heard the news, I immediately texted my friend – the one who had signed me up for that Japanese meet in the first place -- and asked: “Wanna go?” He texted back: “Absolutely. Let’s bring our suits.”
I’ve never been to an Olympics. But I have competed in a Japanese Masters swim meet when I probably wasn’t supposed to. Though both experiences are very different, the bonding, the coming together, and the cultural learning that international competition offers, I imagine, is similar.
I remember standing on that Tokyo pool deck eight years ago in that empty complex in a strange country, along with men and women of all backgrounds, languages, and ages. I remember taking photographs and meeting strangers. Though it wasn’t how I pictured it, I couldn’t have imagined a better “last-race” of my swimming career.
And I hope in 2020, a few Americans have a similar experience, too.