I was born in Sweden. My parents came to America when I was only four months old. The only ties I have to Sweden are: my last name: Samuelsdotter and my looks. I have the white- blonde hair, blue eyes and fair complexion.
I have always loved the water. For Halloween I went as a goldfish and the next year I asked Mother to make me a mermaid costume. When our town had a homecoming, I would beg them to let me be the person in the dunking booth.
When I was five, Mother signed me up for swimming lessons. At first, swimming was just a fun thing to do, something to give me exercise.
For the first year the main goal was to enter the water, learn to float, kick and breathe. Once we had mastered those elements, we would move on and learn the different strokes: the American crawl also known as the freestyle, the breaststroke, the butterfly, the backstroke and the sidestroke. My favorite was the breaststroke.
Every year the class had an end of the year competition. We would have races using the different strokes we had learned. Even though everyone received a ribbon, the first place winner received a blue ribbon, the second place; a red and the third place; a white. These were bigger than the rest of the ribbons, but the blue ribbon was the largest. And I wanted that ribbon in the worst way. We had three months off from swimming during the year. Even though I tried to go to the pool every day. If I couldn’t go to the pool then I would swim in whatever I could find: rivers, lakes, creeks. I even practiced holding my breath in the bathtub. I would swim until I physically wore myself out. When I finally did win the blue ribbon, I was so proud. I knew I had earned it; I deserved it. After that my main goal was to try and beat my previous time. Mother thought after winning the blue ribbon I would slow down and stop practicing so much. I never did.
When I was seven, I was diagnosed with asthma. I started to realize that I would have a hard time catching my breath after only swimming a couple of laps. Mother wanted me to stop swimming. After begging and pleading with her to let me continue she said okay as long as I promised to take my in hailer with me and use it before and after practice. I wasn’t about to let something like asthma stop me or hold me back.
When I was ten, I was old enough to join an actual swim team. In order to join one of these teams you had to pass a swimming test. The test consisted of three parts. First, you had to be able to hold your breath for at least thirty seconds, tread water for three minutes and pass an endurance test. You had to swim the length of the pool six times and it had to be within a certain time frame. The coach, Mary Beth, made us pass a CPR test. I did not like this. It was probably because I didn’t pass it the first time. I passed the swimming test with flying colors.
The swim team was a lot different than the swimming lessons. We swam every day. Every day we did an endurance test and that was just the warm up. We would swim laps practicing certain strokes. One lap of freestyle, one lap of the breaststroke, one lap of butterfly and one lap of the backstroke. Then we would practice relays. We had to dive into the water from flat platforms and we didn’t stop in between laps. When we entered the water, we put both arms out in front of us and did a dolphin kick like you see on television.
Now that we were on a swim team, we had to compete at swim meets. The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) sponsored these meets. A freestyle race is a contest in which the swimmers can use any stroke they wish. Most swimmers, including me, used the crawl stroke in this contest. In an individual relay each swimmer must use three of the four different strokes. In medley relays each member of the four-member team swims a different stroke. For this relay, I usually swam the breaststroke, but sometimes they had me swimming first or last. When I swam first it was to give us an early lead. If I swam last it was to try and catch us up so we could have a chance of finishing in one of the tops three spots. Sometimes it worked and other times the other team already had too big of lead.
One year, Mary Beth said I was one of the most promising students on the team. I had been voted most valuable swimmer earlier in the year. She wanted me to consider going out for the diving team. The only reason I tried out was because Mary Beth wanted me to. I ended up making the team. Now I had diving practice along with regular swim team practice.
One day I came home from practice and Mother was staring at me.
“What?” I asked.
“What in the world happened to your hair?”
I looked in the mirror. I realized with both swimming and diving practice I had been in the water so much the chlorine had turn my hair green. We tried washing it out, but that didn’t work. So Mother went out and bought a box of blonde hair dye. It turned my hair more of an ash blonde. It took over four months for my hair to return to its natural color. After that Mother said I had to use a special chlorine shampoo and wash my hair as soon as I got home from practice and wear a swim cap.
I was only on the diving team for about ten months. During one of the competitions, I hit the water with such force; I cracked my head on the bottom of the pool. I was able to make it to the surface before I got dizzy and starting having an asthma attack. The officials pulled me up the ladder and helped me out of the pool. They laid me on the ground and started to vigorously rub my legs. They gave me my in hailer and by the time we had arrived at the emergency room my breathing was under control. I decided to give up diving and continued with just the swim team.
When I was a few months shy of being fourteen, a man named Zane Stringer attended one of our swim meets. We all knew Mr. Stringer was the manager of a very prestigious swimming league. He had attended our swim meets before, but something told me this visit would be different. After the meet Mary Beth came into the locker room and said Stringer wanted to talk to me. Stringer asked me if I would be interested in signing on with him and swim with his league. I knew of the league and I also knew not everyone was asked to join. He said he would sponsor me. I could concentrate solely on swimming. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
One of Stringer’s favorite things to do was take us to training camps. He was an okay guy outside of swimming, but at these training camps he turned into a Nazi. We had to get up at 4:30am, do calisthenics and then swim until breakfast. After breakfast, it was back in the pool and swim again until lunch. Then he had us lifting weights and doing water aerobics. Depending on how Nazi-like he was feeling, sometimes he had us doing regular aerobics. After supper, we swam until Stringer thought we were where he thought we should be. Sometimes we wouldn’t leave the pool until 11:00pm or even later. That was every day.
On Monday, Wednesday and Friday we had what Stringer called Conditioning Day. We had to run up a flight of stairs, through the first balcony, down the stairs, then up another flight of stairs, across the second balcony, down the stairs and back to the hallway. We did this multiple times. If I had an asthma attack Stringer would tell me to use my in hailer and keep on going. I had to carry it with me because he would not let me stop for a minute. He was verbally abusing us.
When it came time for the competitions, we received navy blue warm up pants and jackets. Our swimsuits were navy blue Speedo style. We all had to have our picture taken and were assigned a number for the badge we had to wear in order to be allowed in the building. We had black swim caps with our last name on them in white letters. The people there thought a last name consisting of thirteen letters so was too long so my swim cap just said ANDI. I swam in six different heats. I made it to the finals in the breaststroke, freestyle and medley relay
As funny as it may sound, I really wasn’t nervous at these competitions. I knew I was as prepared as I could be. I had trained really hard. When I was in the water, I just swam my little heart out. Even though my relay team came in just short of third place, I did win the silver medal in the breaststroke and the freestyle. During the medal ceremony, the bronze medallist was from Sweden. Whenever I saw someone from Sweden, I couldn’t help, but feel a tiny bit of disloyalty to my native country because here I was swimming for the United States.
Even after the competitions were over for the year, Stringer didn’t see any reason to give us a break. He said we needed to start training for the next year.
About a year later, I decided to find a new sponsor. I had heard from an anonymous source Stringer had been trying to get some of the girls on the team to sleep with him. My new coach’s name was Karina Franchetti. When I told Stringer, he was very upset. But there was nothing he could do about it. I had the right to change sponsors if I wanted.
Karina had been a competitive diver and she trained me hard. She wasn’t a Nazi, like Stringer. If I did something wrong, she never raised her voice or yelled at me. She would just tell me very firmly to try again. I needed this kind of change. Swimming was becoming fun again.