The Smell of Chlorine

Nissa Inhulsen, 1999, Grand Blanc Swimming

I got a whiff of chlorine recently and a part of my stomach jolted. I wasn’t a 29-year-old married, working woman in Los Angeles anymore. I was a scrawny, awkward teenager with braces entering a rival high school swimming pool preparing for a meet near Flint, Mich. Amazing how some smells can bring up such vivid memories.

I tried out for the swim team in 7th grade (or was it 8th?), the first year at my new school. My Dad encouraged me to do it. I didn’t think I would make the team so I was surprised when I heard my name on the recorded list of swim team members. Surprised and terrified. What did I get myself into? Six years of being on the swim team, that’s what.

I liked swimming. I didn’t like getting in the pool for practice at 5am before school. I also didn’t like swimming in the rain during pre-season hell week every other year in Florida. I didn’t like my hair being frozen after practice in the winter. I didn’t like swim caps. And I really didn’t like competing. It made me nauseous (my heart is beating faster as I think about it right now).

So why didn’t I quit if it made me so nervous? Why put myself through that trauma every week we had a swim meet? I didn’t want to disappoint my parents or coaches. Or myself. I didn’t want to be a quitter (I was too far in to quit). And that feeling of accomplishment senior year when I beat my best times at my final meet and graduated from the swim team … that feeling trumped any feeling of anxiety.

I watched My Week With Marilyn last night. I really enjoyed it and it got me curious about Marilyn. I found her last recorded interview, and the following stood out to me:

You know, when they talk about nervousness, my teacher, Lee Strasberg, when I said to him, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me but I’m a little nervous,” he said, “When you’re not, give up, because nervousness indicates sensitivity.”

So is nervousness a good thing? Do some people have more nervousness in them than others? Or is it really just about how we translate the nerves?

If I would’ve let my nerves scare me, I would’ve quit the swim team. And the smell of chlorine would remind me of giving up instead of growing up. Braces and all.

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