The Underwater Window by Dan Stephenson

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Two swimmers, close friends and archrivals, chase after the same Olympic gold medal. Archie Hayes is the best swimmer in the world. Talent and luck have brought him Olympic medals, fame, money and women. Doyle Wilson has reached the end of his career with dreams unfulfilled, but he has a final chance in the 400 freestyle, in which Archie owns the world record. Doyle bets that hard work will enable him to beat Archie just once. He burns all his bridges to focus on his lone goal.

But Doyle can’t be single-minded. Archie is not just his nemesis – they’re best friends. Danger lurks around every corner for Archie, a celebrity athlete with a reckless streak. On a training trip to Hawaii, when Archie is mauled by a wave while bodysurfing, Doyle sees his duty – a purpose in life that transcends self-interest and even friendship. Archie’s incomparable talent must be preserved and nurtured, and only Doyle can do it. Though Archie’s demise would liquidate the main obstacle in Doyle’s path to greatness, Doyle rescues him. Repeatedly.

Doyle’s odyssey to the Olympics teaches him about true friendship and love, the meaning of sacrifice and overcoming obstacles.


I continued punishing myself for a week after my Brewhaha waterloo. The most readily available form of punishment was swim practice. It always hurts, but I wanted more than the regular pain. I wanted excruciation.

Swimming is performed in color. Curtains developed a system, which is now used in some form by almost every club, of color-coding the sets. The spectrum goes from white to purple. White sets are “aerobic” and purple sets are “anaerobic.” Red is in the middle of the spectrum and is the dividing line between aerobic and anaerobic—the “anaerobic threshold.” Aerobic sets build cardiovascular and circulatory capacity. Anaerobic sets build muscle. You need both. We cover all the colors every week. Occasionally we’ll do a “rainbow set” where you start white and end purple. Like water coming to a boil, a rainbow set starts slowly and ends in chaotic intensity.

During my penance week, if Curtains asked for white I gave him pink. If he asked for blue I gave him purple. I went the extra mile. Curtains could see it in my face—the determination, I’m sure, but mostly the color, which can’t be hidden. He asked me what was going on and I shrugged it off. I don’t think he minded.

It took forever for technique analysis day to arrive. I was anxious to find out where I stood. I needed some good news. Swimming was, by my choice or ineptitude, all I had left.

“Here is the game plan,” Curtains announced. “Go in any order you want, one at a time. Swim 40 lengths, flip your turns, do not stop until the end. If you swim a stroke other than freestyle, do that for 10 lengths and freestyle for the rest. Archie, do some backstroke. Doyle, all freestyle. When you are done, join the main workout.”

Curtains then left to go to the underwater window. The window was cut into the side wall of the animal lane, about 3/4 of the way down the pool. You had to open a door and descend some stairs to get down there. While we waited for him to get set up, the rest of us turned to Kelton Murray. Kelton was the king of the sprinters at Team Jaguar, the only African-American on the elite squad. He was one of the summer-only swimmers who went away to school—in his case, Harvard.

The idea of Kelton swimming 40 lengths straight was fairly humorous. “I’ll go first,” he said, as if there was any doubt. “I’ll show you how it’s done.”

Kelton dove in and sprinted four lengths. He really tore it up. His amazing six-beat kick created a foamy roostertail that followed him as his arms churned. It didn’t look pretty, but it looked fast. When Kelton finished his four lengths, he hopped out of the pool and headed for the showers.

“So long, suckers,” Kelton called out with a wave of his hand as he disappeared into the shower room.

Archie went next. I have watched Archie swim ad nauseum, but this time I focused on specific aspects of his technique. He has a long, powerful arm stroke in freestyle. His hands catch water early in the underwater stroke, with his elbow higher than most people’s. If there is such a thing as beauty in a swimming stroke, this is it. It looks effortless. It reminds me of film clips of famous baseball players. Willie Mays makes this incredible catch, running full speed, arms flailing, legs pumping, cap flying off. In the clip of Joe DiMaggio, he just appears out of nowhere, taps his glove and makes the catch. Archie is the DiMaggio of swimmers. Kelton is Willie Mays.

I watched Vivian, Brook and Crack take their turns, then I got in. For some reason, I was nervous.

The first few times I passed the underwater window, I could see a shadow of Curtains in the window next to a video camera on a tripod. He had seen so many people swim over the years. Curtains told me one time that swimmers’ stroke techniques are like snowflakes. No two are exactly the same, but at the elite level, they’re very similar. I wondered what Curtains would see in my stroke. What was unique about me? What baseball player would I be compared to?

I finished my 40 lengths and joined the workout. I let Crack lead the rest of the day. I couldn’t get my mind off the shadows in the underwater window, or Mays and DiMaggio.

At the end of the workout, I asked Curtains if I could come early to the evening practice to watch the films and get his assessment. He hesitated at first. His plan was to watch film over the weekend and give the feedback on Monday. I insisted politely. “All right,” he relented. “I will look at your film first. Come half an hour early tonight.”

I was there an hour early.

In the half hour of waiting for Curtains, I sat in the bleachers, staring down at the calm water. The empty natatorium felt like a church to me. There were talismans of faith in every sector—championship banners, school colors, record boards. They evoked reverence. Great swimmers had swum in that pool, saintly coaches had coached there. There was a lot of sweat, including mine, in that water, making it holy in a way. We’d all been baptized in it.

As I sat there, I tried to answer the question, “why is Archie better than me?” I had tried not to think about it in the ready room in Brisbane, but now I was ready to analyze it. Maybe I could come up with a solution.

Archie is two inches taller than I am. He has bigger hands and feet and longer arms. Arms are levers, and the longer the levers, the more power you get. Hands and feet are paddles, and bigger paddles mean more displaced water. There’s nothing I can do about those things. These days, greatness in swimming is determined largely by genetics.

Archie has extremely flexible ankles and knees, almost to the point of weirdness. We had an ice skating party after practice one winter and Archie was absolutely comical. He had never been on skates. He couldn’t stay vertical and could hardly move an inch. His ankles were too floppy—a disadvantage in skating, but a great benefit in swimming. I made a mental note to ask Curtains about flexibility exercises.

Archie has the fastest recovery rate of anyone on the team. There are several ways to measure this, the easiest of which involves taking heart rates immediately after, one minute after and five minutes after a hard swim. Archie is in a class by himself—no one else has recovery numbers anywhere near his. His ability to recover quickly enables him to swim at peak level in multiple events back to back.

Okay, so Archie had some advantages over me. I already knew that. What could I do to overcome them?

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