Risa took one extra half-stroke at the end, despite her coach’s instructions not to. “Trust your length,” Sonya told her a week earlier, assuming Risa had been listening, “and let your legs handle the rest.” Sonya was learning to be a more hands-off coach. She could not help her innate meticulousness, but after three years with Risa she developed a sense for when her 19-year-old star pupil needed kernels of chlorinated wisdom, and when Risa could self-diagnose.
Sonya dropped this particular bit of wisdom after a spirited heat on the last day of training camp, when Risa finished just .08 seconds in front of her teammate, Monica, in a 100m freestyle swim. Monica, a 28-year-old former silver medalist in the event, was a safe bet to reach the Final at the Olympics in a week’s time, but no one expected her to challenge Risa — the gold-medal favorite — or other rising stars from the Netherlands, Great Britain, and South Africa, for a medal.
Entering her third Olympics, Monica had nothing left to prove and little hardware to gain. She was already well-decorated: a Gold and Silver medalist in the 4x100m freestyle relay, a Silver medalist in the aforementioned 100m free, and a two-time Bronze medalist in the 200m free. At 28, the five-time Olympic medalist was still young and fit enough to be one of the eight best freestyle swimmers in the world, but not young and fit enough to be one of the three best freestyle swimmers in the world. While Risa and other teenage compatriots ascended the sports’ ranks, Monica thought how cruel the aging curve was for Olympic swimmers, and how razor-thin the edge was between Phenom and Has-Been. She tried to convince herself that 28 was not 38, and that biologically speaking, she was actually just entering her physical prime. But being one of the eight best in the world at a pursuit in which the only form of currency is being one of the three best did not subside her existential malaise.
If only she had been born two years earlier, she often wished, to hit Olympic cycles in Mother Time’s sweet spots: 18, 22, 26. Instead, she was entering her third Games at a geriatric 28. She still had some years before consulting her tennis-playing counterparts for which balls worked best at the base of a walker. But more presently, Monica did not think she had it in her anymore to close within three-tenths of a second of Risa. She could roll out of bed and close at half a second. Four-tenths on a good day, and three-tenths at her best. When she saw she had only come in .08 seconds behind Risa in the heat — less than a tenth! — her first order of business was suppressing a pool-length grin. You know, in the name of sportsmanship. Monica knew she fucking crushed it, and that even if her dreams of individual Gold were over, she was going to anchor the hell out of a 4x100 relay team and stand on the highest podium. Immediately thereafter, though, she deflated a bit on behalf of her wunderkind teammate. What did Risa do wrong? Monica just didn’t close on the 19-year-old like that anymore. She hadn’t in two years.
Sonya revealed in their debrief that the extra half-stroke Risa took at the end cost her around a tenth of a second. She quietly encouraged her to trust her wingspan — a prized gift from the gene pool that had served her extraordinarily well in the Olympic pool — and let her legs handle the rest. Sonya reminded an allegedly attentive Risa: “You know how long a tenth of a second is.”
Swimming: The years lapse like seconds, and the seconds span veritable eternities. It was a mostly stupid sport, Monica had decided, even if it gave her everything.
At 19 years old Risa didn’t possess that kind of wisdom of the ages yet. How could she? She was just a child, still blissfully experiencing life one pool length at a time. There were no weighty paradoxes on her mind, just dreams of hardware and the 50 meters of water in front of her. Monica played the role of mentor where she could, but for the most part didn’t feel like she had much to offer that Sonya wasn’t already providing in an official capacity as her coach. Monica would happily answer questions about what life in the Olympic village was like and do her best to describe that indescribable feeling of stepping out into the stadium for your first Opening Ceremony. She fielded inquiries from Risa about competitors against whom she’d already raced many times over, although Monica was sure they both knew Risa was only asking her as a courtesy, and wouldn’t have much issue with dispatching the international competition regardless.
One thing Monica did know, that she couldn’t teach Risa half as well as the years would, was that these pseudo-friendships between countrywomen were fundamentally fraught. Olympic athletes were innate competitors, and even the most battle-tested relay teammates were ultimately trying to outrace each other to whatever abstraction of a finish line existed in their respective minds. Monica had swimming friends from her own country, but found something more rewarding in the organic relationships she developed over the last decade with competitors from beyond her borders, where there was no guise of patriotic sisterhood. Their competition was out in the open where they could recognize it and embrace it. Bonds formed out of deep admiration, mutual respect, and lots and lots and lots of alcohol once the swim program ended. Lots of alcohol.
They weren’t forced together under a flag; they came together under shared, yet completely unique cultural experiences and circumstances. Monica called her buddies from Hungary and Brazil and Tunisia “frenemies,” but even she knew that was a misnomer. They were friends and enemies. It just depended on whether or not they were in the pool. And the latter never crossed over with the former.
Risa was an unaware frenemy, still trying to forge something in that homogenous cauldron of patriotism. No, there was no actual enmity between the countrywomen, but what was left unsaid always rung pretty loudly in Monica’s head. Hell, they had to kill their own at nationals just to make the “team.” Risa was still too young to grasp it — and honestly, so much better than everyone else that she’d never need to. Friends would be handed to her like Gold medals. But the creeping banality of her small talk with Monica suggested that she’d soon understand and relent to the impenetrable Frenemy Forces between Olympians from the same nation, competing with, but against each other.
“You guys seemed to get along great in that interview with Savannah Guthrie?” her mother half-questioned, practically begging her self-serious daughter to just admit she’d made a friend on the team.
“She’s OK, but I don’t know. We don’t have much in common,” Monica told her mom on the Face Time call from her room in the Olympic Village. Her mom, always trying to pry about everything in the world besides swimming. “I mean, we both know how to turn it on for the cameras.”
“But the early morning swims? The late night homework sessions?”
“Yeah and the missed proms and virtual graduations and college deferments and lack of social life — Ma, that’s every Olympian, from every country, ever.”
Her mom took a beat to figure out how to diffuse this particular dirty bomb.
“Well that’s common ground, isn’t it?”
Monica didn’t roll her eyes all the way back, but averted her gaze far enough above her iPad camera that her mom knew she’d made a salient point.
“She’s a baby, mom. She was born in a year that starts with 2 and she’s about to dominate every event I ever medaled in. And whatever, I’m OK with that! I’m old! You know, ‘Here comes Monica,’” she did her best Dan Hicks impression, which wasn’t a very good Dan Hicks impression. “‘The first 28-year-old with an AARP membership!’ But, like, I just can’t figure it out with Risa. I don’t know. People want us to be friends because we’re from the same country and we swim the same events. Those are things we have in common, but like, that’s not friendship.”
“What about the relay?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well you said she’s going to dominate every event you ever medaled in, but you’re still going to win the relay.”
Through the ensuing silence, Monica could hear Jan about to smash Michael’s plasma screen TV with a Dundie. Her little brother was in the other room watching the “Dinner Party” episode of The Office for the hundredth time. The corners of Monica’s mouth turned up slightly as she remembered Dwight showing up to Michael’s condo with his babysitter. Her mom snuck through the crack in Monica’s steely, Olympic-level defenses.
“Hun, you don’t have to be friends with her, but I remember your first Olympics and I’m sure that girl, as good as she is, can’t do it alone.”
Monica was met with a memory of a lonely, endless first night at her first Olympics that momentarily escaped repression. “I hear you.”
Another silence…Took me by the hand…made me a man…that one night…
“Look mom, I’ve gotta — ”
“I know, I know, practice in the morning. I love you.”
“I love you too. Oh, tell Daniel to find a new show.”
Her mom had already ended the call.
Two days later Monica found herself at the end of the pool in Lane 2, gulping down the precious oxygen deprived from her over the last minute. She peeled off her goggles and took the requisite glance at the LED board sorting the eight 100m freestyle finalists by time. She knew she swam a great race, and the board confirmed it: 52.99 seconds. Bronze. Monica thought for a split hundredth of a second that her effort might have yielded the elusive individual Gold, but didn’t think hard enough to merit any disappointment at the result.
She turned to her left and saw someone who clearly was disappointed at her result. Risa squinted at the LED board with just her left eye, scrunching that entire side of her face as if wincing at news of her Silver medal. Monica could tell Risa knew she shouldn’t have taken the half-stroke at the end and that she probably got skittish at the up-and-comer from Great Britain one lane over. Monica didn’t know if Risa foregoing the half-stroke and instead trusting her length and letting her legs do the rest — as Sonya pleaded for her to do a week prior — would have gotten her Gold. It was the most unanswerable question of the race, and remained so for only about the next five seconds.
Risa peeled off her outer swim cap — the sturdier silicone one that ensured her goggles remained in place and eliminated any remnants of drag — to reveal the latex one underneath. She took a beat before removing her latex cap, further coming to terms with her disappointing finish and dapping up the winner in Lane 5.
Monica was still buzzing in Lane 2 when Risa’s reality shattered. When everyone’s reality shattered, really. Monica didn’t expect Bronze to ever feel this good. It felt indulgent to let Bronze into her heart, like a betrayal of a two-decades-long regimen that excluded enjoying anything but clean, organic, farm-raised Gold. Monica removed both of her caps and dunked her bare head underwater, where her Chlorinated Kingdom welcomed all of her, every single strand of hair on her had, and let her know that she had done alright.
She emerged to a shriek from Lane 4. The two caps Risa had removed were floating in the pool beside her, and yet one remained on her head. Risa removed the third cap and did not feel the elements of the indoor arena hit her exposed hair. She grabbed her head, like a deliberate facepalm, and felt another cap. She ripped that one off and…another lay underneath. She started frantically ripping caps off her head, only for another cap to lay underneath every time. Within seconds, Risa was encircled by a heap of swim caps, resembling an abstract miniature replica of the trash island in the Pacific Ocean.
“What the actual fuck,” Monica muttered under her breath, completely frozen by what she was watching. At first she thought Risa had somehow accidentally donned a third swim cap in a nerve-induced pre-race fugue state, but at about the seventh or eight cap, she realized there was no Earthly explanation for what was happening to her. Cap after cap after cap after cap. Risa’s hair would not emerge from the caps that kept reappearing on her Silver-medal-winning head.
Still frozen, Monica noticed Risa gulping for air and registered that it wasn’t because she was still winded from the race. Monica bolted over to Lane 4, waded through a mounting crop of swim caps, and was face to face not with an Olympic swimmer, but a frightened teenage girl in panicked tears, struggling to breathe. She was having a severe anxiety attack.
Risa kept ripping cap after cap after cap off her head. It was more motor function than conscious movement at this point.
“Risa, Risa, Risa, look at me, look at me,” Monica pleaded, not entirely sure what her endgame was. Risa had stopped ripping the caps off her head. She stared off blankly into the distance, sobbing and gasping. The whole arena was frozen. “Risa, deep breaths. In through your nose,” she said, giving a dutiful example of conscious breathing, “out through your mouth. In through your nose,” [snnniiiiiffffff] “out through your mouth. In through your nose, out through your mouth. Just breathe. Breathe.”
Risa got enough of her breath and composure back to face Monica and ask what was happening to her. “It doesn’t matter,” Monica assured her. “Just focus on your breath. Look at me and focus on your breath.” In through her nose, out through her mouth. Risa’s tears slowly started to dam up and she was taking more complete breaths. At this point the other competitors had vacated the pool and a battalion of paramedics was outside the pool, huddled over Lane 4 with just enough distance between them and the star swimmers to allow Risa to regain her bearings, such that they were after infinite swim caps start sprouting on your head. Risa had collapsed into Monica and through tears of her own, Monica only then began to internalize her surroundings. The EMTs in blue polos and white slacks. A concerned, but resolved Sonya right behind them. The mountain of navy swim caps. The stands that had started to vacate the request of the PA a minute or so ago. She needed that conscious breathing too.
Monica helped Risa out of the pool and climbed up herself. Risa instinctively raised her right hand to her head before Monica interjected with a warm, but firm, “Risa…don’t.” Risa closed her eyes and lowered her hand. Her lips started to quiver. Sonya leaned in to help her up, and walked her out of the pool area with the EMT army in tow. Monica remained seated, looking back down at the pool. She knew in that moment that the cap (a cap?) would be on Risa’s head forever. She just didn’t think it would ever come off. It was easy enough for Monica to resign herself to that reality as someone whose swim cap did not keep re-spawning on her head as if in a video game. But the moment was still weighing heavily on her. What the hell had just happened? How did Risa have an infinite amount of swim caps on her head? And how did it only seem that there was ever only one? Why Risa? Why after that race? Just, why?
The next few days brought a maelstrom of rumor and hearsay, with any actual news only trickling slowly from Sonya to the rest of the swimmers she coached. Risa had been flown home for all manner of psychiatric and physiological evaluation. Sonya didn’t provide much more context, only that Risa was with her family and was in a stable place mentally and physically. On social media, sympathetic fans (if not exactly empathetic, Monica thought) were posting selfies of themselves wearing swim caps in solidarity, with the hashtag #CapsOnForRisa. It was a little too treacly for Monica’s taste. She had seen Risa’s terror up close and thought it was a disservice to boil something so painful and inexplicable down to a quippy hashtag, but she supposed the sentiment was coming from a good place.
She also withdrew from her remaining events. Part of her thought it was a little strange that they didn’t just cancel the rest of the swimming program, if not the entire Games themselves. What if this happened to more swimmers? What if it started happening to other athletes? A cyclist who couldn’t remove his helmet. A rower who could not unstick an oar from her hand. A fencer who, god forbid, could not remove their suit. A table tennis player with a permanent paddle-shaped appendage attached to their dominant hand (a mental picture that elicited a laugh from Monica, and subsequent guilt for said laugh). But the Olympics plowed right through its metaphysical mystery. The moment of collective suspense right before swimmers removed their second cap at the end of races faded as the first week of the Games wound down, even if it never did for Monica. Most medal winners sent well-wishes to Risa in their post-race interviews, but it was generally hard for the commentators, analysts, writers, fans and athletes to make sense of it all. It’s not like she was injured or fell ill. She just kept sprouting caps on her head. Mournfulness felt weird, but ignoring it altogether felt inappropriate too. Risa was like an apparition who had no desire in haunting the pool. She just wanted to hang out. Chill for a bit. And the Olympics learned to live in its ghost house.
Most corners of the globe didn’t fault Monica for withdrawing since she’d become just as much a part of the story as Risa. Images of the wizened vet calmly talking the frightened upstart down from a panic attack was the viral moment of the Games. Lingering video of a seemingly catatonic Monica staring down at Cap Island in Lane 4 reaffirmed to most that she too endured some degree of trauma. Although, she would clear the air and clarify for Mike Tirico and the global viewing audience that she was no longer stunned at that point, just introspective. Tirico admired her calm demeanor and Monica gave him a confident, stern, “Thank you.” She was completely drained and mostly distracted by thoughts of how Risa was doing, but composed enough to show gratitude for Mike Tirico’s genuine admiration.
Monica was back in her dorm in the Olympic Village, packing for the early morning flight home, when her phone buzzed. It was an unknown number, and she knew better than to waste any time answering that call. Especially now.
It buzzed again. The same unknown number. She took one big exasperated, breath — in through her nose, out through her mouth—and answered, ready to race through the call as if it was 100 meters of pool water.
“Hey Monica, it’s Ris.”
Ris. That shorthand was new.
“Oh my god, Risa. I’m sorry I didn’t pick up the first time.”
“No, it’s fine. I figured I’d have to call you a bunch of times. You’ve probably gotten a lot of weird ones lately.” She sounded tired.
“Yeah it’s been…something,” Monica said, realizing that she was taking Risa’s old bait and steering the conversation into banal small talk. She rolled her eyes at herself and started over.
“Actually, wait, sorry. Risa, how are you?”
“I don’t even know how to start to answer that question. Agh, sorry, I know I called you.”
“No, it’s totally OK. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through,” Monica offered, despite imagining it and nothing else for the last five days. Risa took a few seconds before responding, clearly trying to compose herself.”
“I don’t even try to remove it anymore.”
“What?” Monica was caught off guard. “Oh, the cap!” She answered like a jumpy game show contestant and immediately felt bad. “Sorry…well…that’s good?”
“Yeah. I don’t know if it means I’ve given up. The people I’ve spoken to, you know, the therapists and mental health coaches, they think it’s a sign of acceptance. But I don’t know. I think I’m still in denial. I try to tell myself that I just went bald. I can wear a wig. It’s something people do. People lose their hair all the time in ways that are way worse than having a permanent swim cap. But at least there are scientific, earthly explanations for it. This so much weirder than that. It can’t be explained off by chemotherapy or aging.”
“Ris,” she was trying the shorthand out too. It felt just about normal. “Can I ask you something? Why did you call me?”
“I haven’t thanked you yet.”
“Oh.” She felt stupid. Here she was, still trying to figure out why an adversary called her. An adversary was not someone with whom you went to hell and back. This particular iteration of hell, no less.
“I just felt…really alone. I think that’s what I was most afraid of when I felt the fourth cap. I was going through this…” she searched for the right adjective, “…impossible thing. This thing that no one else had ever experienced. Monica. I was pulling caps off my head and they kept reappearing. Like…what? My entire world went blank. I had no idea what was real anymore. And I forgot how to breathe, because the only thing I could do was think about pulling caps off my head. And then you swam over and I wasn’t alone. You know? I wasn’t alone.”
Monica was crying now. “Risa I don’t know what else I would have done. I’m just glad you’re OK. Did they,” she started, through some more tears, “Did they say if there was anything they could do to try to get rid of it?”
Knew the answer before she asked the question.
“All my neurological tests came back clean. MRI, CT Scan, EEG, the works. Couldn’t find anything wrong. I stumped the best dermatological surgeons in the country. There’s no physiological reason that I keep sprouting swim caps.”
That sounded more like acceptance than denial.
“I have a clean bill of health, except for the swim cap on my head,” Risa wryly joked.
“You’re cosmically linked to a swimming cap. I think that’s pretty badass. Like a wand at Ollivander’s.”
“Like a wand at what?”
“Oh my god. Ollivander’s? Harry Potter?”
“I’ve never seen it. Harry Potter’s a million years old.”
“What? Seen it?! No, no, you have to read it.” She dipped her toe in the water and the temperature felt right. “Or does Gen Z not know what books are?”
“Do millennials know what anything besides Harry Potter is?”
Monica had to give it to her friend. “Touche.”