PROCTOR INSTRUCTIONS: You have one hour to complete the following. For the purposes of this exam, you are a twenty-three-year-old woman. You are visually impaired, and a former elite-level swimmer who retired from competition at twenty.
Read each question carefully and answer it to the best of your ability.
1. It is 6:27am, and your adult-only swim practice is about to start. You are standing by the bleachers chatting with a friend, a woman in her fifties, when John walks in, a seventy-year-old man in gray sweatpants and tennis shoes. His eyes immediately find yours. He smiles, tosses his bag on the bleachers next to yours. Do you:
- Find the coach to discreetly remind him John has to swim in a separate lane. Remind him what happened last time, the way you ran John over every 300 yards, that he doesn’t belong in the lane of ex-college swimmers holding intervals he’s never come close to. It’s not rude; swimming is based on speed, and he is not fast enough.
- Find the coach to discreetly remind him of the way John looks at you, the way his eyes rake over your body, sizing you up. That he does anything to get close to you, and you would like nothing more than to stay away from him. Remind the coach that he promised John would swim in a different lane.
- Pull your shorts off, feeling small and exposed in your favorite Jolyn swimsuit, the black one with the pattern of tiny sunflowers, far and away the youngest person on this pool deck, surrounded by older men who come to these practices for the social environment. Your cap scrunched in your hand, still slick from yesterday’s swim, you tuck your chin and head to your lane.
- Ignoring John’s “good morning,” you put your water bottle away, sling your bag over your shoulder, and walk out.
2. As you drop your mesh equipment bag and your water bottle behind your lane, John hovers over your shoulder, fixing his goggles. He asks, “Becca, do you mind if I join your lane today? I have to train extra hard if I want to be as fast as you some day.” Do you:
- Say nothing, because your mother taught you to say nothing if you couldn’t say something nice. John is in his seventies. You are twenty-three, still in your athletic prime, honed by years of swimming twenty hours a week. He will never be as fast as you are right now.
- Wait for one of your lanemates to remind John that he can’t keep up, and today’s a distance day. Practice is hard enough with seven adults of similar speed crowded into a lane. Adding someone significantly slower causes traffic jams.
- Snap your cap against your forehead, followed by your goggles. Mumble, “Sure, everyone’s welcome.” When the lifeguards blow the whistle, dive in immediately so he can’t get in your way.
- Walk back to the bleachers, hastily pull your clothes on, and walk out the door.
3. After your second flipturn, John jumps in right on your feet. Upside down, in the middle of your flip, you could make out his shadow hovering above you. Within 150 yards, six laps, you have outswam him. Your fingertips graze his foot, the universal code for “pass.” He pulls up in the middle of the wall, not the side. You:
- Accidentally misjudge the distance, flipping somewhere between the right lane line and the tile cross on the wall, your feet missing completely.
- Purposefully misjudge the distance, flipping immediately on top of him, your feet pushing off his hip.
- Stop mid-stroke, turn, and push off the bottom, disrupting the other swimmers behind you.
- Swim around him, flipping on the left side of the lane, out of the way of the other swimmers.
4. At the end of your ten-minute warm up period, John nudges your shoulder with his and laughs. “Guess you didn’t see me there, did you?” You:
- Swallow the words burning in your throat with a gulp from your water bottle as your coach explains the next set. When it is time to start, push off the wall as hard as you can and swim away.
- Remind him that today’s busy, he should be in a slower lane. Then he wouldn’t almost get flipped on.
- Remind him that he should stop on the side of the lane, not the middle. Then he wouldn’t almost get flipped on.
- Remind him that between your blind eye and your low-vision one, your foggy goggles, and the speed at which you swim, you cannot stop immediately when the person in front of you does. You rely on counting dolphin kicks and strokes from wall to wall. You will crash, and the least he could do, knowing this, is to move out of your way.
Remind him that between your blind eye and your low-vision one, your foggy goggles, and the speed at which you swim, you cannot stop immediately when the person in front of you does. You rely on counting dolphin kicks and strokes from wall to wall. You will crash, and the least he could do, knowing this, is to move out of your way.
Explain your visual impairment in no more than four sentences. Remember, no complex medical terminology. This should be easy for anyone to understand.
I was born with
glaucoma a disease in my right eye, and it needed to be removed when I was six weeks old. I’ve had a prosthetic fake eye since. My left eye has morning glory syndrome a different disease that affects my retina my optic nerve causing limited vision and increased risk of complete vision loss. While my vision has worsened with age, I can still see, though that could change at any time.
5. During a rest break in the middle of the day’s distance set, John asks if you’ve thought about coming on Sundays for the Adaptive Aquatics practices he coaches. You:
- Remind him that you are not eligible for the Paralympics, and that Adaptive Aquatics practices are only for people who are. Push off the wall and swim the next repeat harder to get his words out of your head.
- Lie about how you coach Sunday nights. Push off the wall and swim the next repeat harder to get his words out of your head.
- Lie about how you have homework for one of your graduate classes. Push off the wall and swim the next repeat harder to get his words out of your head.
- Grab your things and climb out of the pool without answering him, leaving in the middle of practice.
At the end of practice, while your coach is explaining the cool down set, John asks, “Becca, why don’t you hurry up and lose more of your vision? Then you could go to the Paralympics in Tokyo and finally make something of yourself, finally be worth something.”
6. At the end of practice, while your coach is explaining the cool down set, John asks, “Becca, why don’t you hurry up and lose more of your vision? Then you could go to the Paralympics in Tokyo and finally make something of yourself, finally be worth something.” You:
- Remind him, angrily, for the thousandth time, that you applied to be classified for the Paralympics, in 2008 and 2015. That you wanted nothing more than to compete with the other visually impaired swimmers. That you knew your times would qualify for Rio, that the US Paralympic Committee fast-tracked your 2015 application because they saw your times, your world-leading times, and wanted you on Team USA. That you wanted nothing more than to be a part of this larger community of disabled athletes, to finally compete with people like yourself. That the classifier, the expert, denied your application. You have too much vision. It would not be fair to the other competitors. You understood the importance of fairness in parasport, accepted their decision. Regardless, you watched the Paralympics in Rio. Your best time in the 100-meter breaststroke would have won a bronze medal, if you had repeated your best. If you’d gone faster—who knows what might’ve happened. But that doesn’t matter—it never belonged to you, because your vision is remarkable for someone with your condition, and you should be—you are—grateful for your sight and the things you have been able to do. You have made your peace with this, you remind John. And you don’t appreciate it being thrown back in your face all these years later.
- Spit out the words that have been burning in the back of your throat all practice. For weeks—no, months. Since you first met him, since your coach mentioned your visual impairment to him. Spit out that your choices are yours, and you do not owe him an explanation. Spit out that, yes, the Paralympics was your dream for years, but you have worth beyond medals and possible world records, beyond the swimming pool, something it took you far too long to understand. That you know you did not have to go to the Paralympics to have had a successful swimming career, to have done things you can be proud of. And it is not up to him to decide what accomplishments define you.
- Bite your tongue, hard, and push off the wall, sprinting the cool down set. As you flip on the opposite wall, taste blood, then chlorine.
- Climb out of the pool right then, grab your bag, and leave.
7. At the end of practice, someone asks if you’re okay. You:
- Shrug off her question and deflect to the workout. Your muscles ache in that way you crave from an hour in the pool. Focus on that, not the sharp, nagging pain deep in your chest.
- Repeat what John said, watching closely for her reaction, to see if she understands why what he said hurt you without having to explain it. When she responds, “That’s just how John is. He’s trying to be nice,” sling your backpack over your shoulder and walk away. You’re too tired to do this again.
- Say you’re fine, then head out to your car. Rest your forehead on the steering wheel, blinking back tears. Turn the key in the ignition and drive home, desperate to crawl into bed and snuggle with the ache in your chest.
- Shrug and say nothing, packing your gear into your bag and heading for the door. When you get home, complain to your mom, who is appropriately disgusted by the comment, who suggests you find another place to swim. For the first time, consider this option.
Leave. As soon as he walks on deck, regardless of whether you’re on the bleachers, or standing behind your lane pulling your cap on, or already in the water. Leave every time. It is not worth fighting for your place here, with people who do not see an issue with the things he says. You do not have to fight, to educate, not when it is a fruitless endeavor. Just leave. Go home, crawl into your warm bed, and sleep.
EXTRA CREDIT – MULTIPLE CHOICE
8. The next time John comes to practice, you:
- Say nothing, like always. Put your head down, swim your laps, and bury the urge to kick him when you pass him for the twentieth time. Pretend you cannot hear him when he tries to talk to you between sets, your ears full of water. Pretend the things he says don’t bother you, even as your goggles fill with tears and your lungs burn from exertion, from holding in sobs.
- Tell him he cannot share a lane with you. He slows the whole group down, and he should swim with people closer to his own speed. Ignore the looks your lanemates will give you, the appreciation mixed with concern. You are never blatantly rude, but they will not complain about a workout without disruption.
- Tell him, when he opens his mouth, that you do not appreciate his comments about your vision, your abilities, your worth. That he should keep his opinions to himself, particularly if he has nothing nice to say. And wishing someone loses their vision is not nice. Dive in before he can respond.
- Leave. As soon as he walks on deck, regardless of whether you’re on the bleachers, or standing behind your lane pulling your cap on, or already in the water. Leave every time. It is not worth fighting for your place here, with people who do not see an issue with the things he says. You do not have to fight, to educate, not when it is a fruitless endeavor. Just leave. Go home, crawl into your warm bed, and sleep.
Rebecca Burke is the editor of the anthology In Between Spaces: An Anthology of Disabled Writers from Stillhouse Press. A graduate of the MFA program in creative writing at George Mason University, her work has appeared in Peatsmoke, Homology Lit, The Nasiona, and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @BeccaBurke95 and find all of her work at rrburkewrites.com.