by Bette Hawkins
Welcome to the world of elite swimming with all its competitiveness and comradery—and sometimes much, much more.
It’s here that American swimming star Angie Thompson and Australian prodigy Hannah Clark—both the youngest on their respective teams—form a fast friendship that grows into something much deeper. As they train for the Olympics, the long-distance sweethearts exchange loving letters and lengthy phone calls—until Angie suddenly and unexpectedly severs their relationship, leaving Hannah confused and devastated.
Years later, as Hannah trains for a comeback at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, she is stunned to learn that Angie has been hired by the Australian coaching team. Although Hannah is still crushed by what happened all those years ago, the two athletes slowly form a tentative bond and get to know each other again—this time as adults.
Soon neither can ignore the intense attraction they still feel, now propelled to a higher level by a steamy kiss in a hotel swimming pool. Is it possible for them to win each other’s love…or are they just treading water?
|Publication Date||April 16, 2020|
|Cover Designer||Judith Fellows|
FROM THE AUTHOR
"How did someone with no interest in sport end up writing a book about competitive swimming?
Anyone who knows me will tell you; I just don’t do sports. I exercise with yoga, cycling, and running, but there hasn’t been sport in my life since I was in high school and had little choice in the matter. I don’t follow anything or even watch it casually. I jokingly refer to most team sports as “sportsball” because I’m so ignorant about the differences between them.
One night, when I’d finished a book and was starting to daydream up another, I asked my girlfriend what type of story she’d always wanted to read. When she began waxing lyrical about a romance set within the world of swimming, it didn’t grab me at first. Yet the more she talked, the more I grew excited about the possibilities.
She loved the idea of rivals in a high-stakes competition getting together. I was into the concept of high school sweethearts whose love grows into something mature and sophisticated. We talked about how I could knit those ideas together, and we hashed out the basic plot. By the end of that conversation, I was not only sold on the idea—I couldn’t wait to get started.
To my girlfriend’s amusement, I became obsessed with swimming while I outlined Running Deep. I had a history of disappearing from the living room while she watched sport, but suddenly there I was, reading memoirs and biographies about swimmers and watching Olympics clips on YouTube. She patiently answered all my questions about logistics and let me know if something didn’t ring true. We’d never talked about my writing so much.
Of course, in the end, the details about swimming are not the core of the book. It’s a vehicle for the relationship, but I still wanted to create a sense of authenticity. And it sounds sappy, but if you read romance you won’t mind me saying it. I just really hoped my girlfriend would like it. It was her idea, and I wanted to do it justice.
This story has a happy ending. When she read the finished product, she loved it. I hope you do too."
2000 Olympic Trials - Sydney
The announcer introduced Hannah, and the spectators cheered. As she stepped up to the block she reminded herself to smile, waving to the crowd.
She adjusted her goggles and stared into the pool while the announcer moved on to her competitors. She focused on the shimmering water that lay beneath her feet. Her underwhelming qualifying time had placed her in the first lane. Having an empty one beside her would cut down on distractions, and she didn’t mind that her lane meant nobody thought she was going to win.
For the past eighteen months, a mantra had looped through Hannah’s mind. It played in time with every stroke. At five in the morning, when she dragged herself out of bed to train, her feet hit the floor to the rhythm of the words.
She was going to win this race. She had to win this race.
Hannah gazed into the water so she wouldn’t have to look at the spectators, but she was attuned to each sound they made. There were thousands of people shouting, stamping their feet, and clapping. They weren’t just watching for her, but there was feverish speculation about her prospects from every newspaper and trashy magazine in the country. Coming out of retirement had been a secret for as long as she could get away with it. By now, photographers were following her around, circling like vultures to stick their cameras in her face. The press had grown even more intrusive since she’d last competed.
Hannah sensed the media was poised to tip the narrative one way or the other, comeback stories half-written and waiting for this next chapter. If she qualified for the hometown Olympics, she would be a phoenix rising from the ashes. If she failed, she would be their cautionary tale, a fallen hero who’d overreached. Too old, and who did she think she was, trying to snatch a spot on the team away from more deserving contenders?
Even if she could block out the ascending rows upon rows of the audience, there was one person whose presence she could never ignore, no matter how hard she wanted to try.
Angie Thompson stood at the pool’s side, watching her. Weeks ago, Hannah caught a segment on Sports Weekly about Angie joining the Australian coaching team. After that story, Hannah endured sleepless nights contemplating pulling out, just so she wouldn’t have to deal with Angie.
For years, Hannah was confident they would never see one another again. An ocean separated them, along with so much time. That part of her life was squared away in a box on the highest shelf, and she wouldn’t allow herself to dwell on it.
Their eyes met before Hannah shifted her gaze back to the water. There were a lot of things about Angie that were just as Hannah remembered. In the footage on the morning show, Hannah noticed Angie’s warm green eyes and the way they creased at the corners when she smiled.
There were many differences too. They’d been only kids the last time they’d seen one another in person. Angie’s honey-brown hair fell in waves, longer and thicker now that she didn’t have to deal with chlorine damage. The warm blond highlights suited her. Since retiring from swimming, she had put on weight that she wore well. She was all soft curves these days.
After watching the segment, Hannah looked into her own brown eyes in the mirror to check for lines. She didn’t think she’d changed that much, but how could she know for sure? Her black hair was still cut just above her shoulders, and her skin had cleared since then. After some time away from the industry, she’d gotten back into shape.
If she qualified today, she couldn’t avoid Angie. The best she could hope for was that any awkwardness passed quickly, but she might be making too much of it. Angie loomed large in her history, but there was no way of knowing if the reverse was true.
The crowd was quiet now, holding a collective breath as they waited for the race to begin.
It wasn’t possible to forget Angie’s presence, so Hannah reframed it. Folding her body in readiness to dive, she decided that Angie being here was a good omen. Throughout her early swimming career, she was the person against whom she measured herself. Hannah had been a winner then, and she would be now.
She anticipated the starting gun, every muscle primed. When it sounded, she flew into the pool, her feet leaving the block in a perfectly executed movement.
The water cradled her body. There was nothing she loved more than being weightless like this, in the quiet. She followed the black line beneath her, only dimly aware of the swimmer in the next lane. There was no room for thoughts of anything but her own pace. She was conserving energy during this lap, adhering to the race strategy she’d worked out with her coach.
At the first turn, she kicked powerfully against the wall. The chase was what she’d missed, the sense of racing against herself. She worked with the water, letting it propel her forward.
During the last length, her kicking legs burned. She pushed through the pain, shoving it into the background. It was white noise; only static.
She was going to win this race. She had to win this race. She was going to win.
When she touched the wall, she bobbed out of the water and sucked in air. Instead of looking around at the other lanes, she swiveled her head to wait for numbers to appear on the board.
She pushed the goggles back onto her cap, squinting to make sure. She rose up in the water, holding out a fist to the roar of the crowd.
Reaching across the lane divider, she hugged Rachel Willis, who’d placed second. Rachel grinned toothily at her, and Hannah was glad they’d just become teammates. She’d have to remember to ask someone exactly how old Rachel was; she must be only sixteen or so. Not much older than Hannah when she’d met Angie.
Hannah hauled herself out of the water and looked for Angie, who nodded toward her.
On shaky legs, Hannah approached her coach, Neil. His stubbly cheek scratched against her as they hugged. They’d worked so hard together, and if not for him agreeing to take her on, she would never have done this.
Neil was the kind of coach who took care of her head and her heart, instead of reducing her to a machine. From the beginning, he’d supported her wishes to concentrate on only the two-hundred-meter race.
“So proud of you, Hannah,” he said, slapping her on the back.
Dutifully, Hannah kept her stance opened when the media approached her.
A blond reporter frowned at her, pointing a microphone toward her mouth. “What are you feeling right now? It must be a relief to know that all your hard work has paid off?”
“It is,” Hannah said, still trying to regain her breath. There was always a moment when she felt like saying the first thing that jumped into her mind, but she stuck to the stock phrases she’d rehearsed. “It was a very competitive field, and everyone swam their hearts out. I’m very proud that I’ll be representing Australia at the Games.”
A balding man edged forward, shoving his microphone closer. “You’ve never talked much about why you left the sport all those years ago. Is that something you’d care to comment on now?”
She forced her smile wider. “I’m sorry I can’t help you with that, but there’s not much more to say. I felt that I was too young to cope with the demands. I wanted to live a little before I came back. That’s all.”
As she warmed down with slow strokes, the meaning of the last hour caught up with her. For most of the other women in her race, the journey was at its end. It could have been her. And though there was still so far to go, she allowed herself a precious moment to soak up the fact that it wasn’t.
She toweled off next to the warm down pool and started toward the changing rooms, planning on taking a shower to collect herself before the full press conference. Someone stepped in front of her, the two of them narrowly avoiding a collision.
“I’m sorry,” Angie said. Hannah’s hands came to Angie’s shoulders to steady her, but she dropped them quickly.
Angie tipped forward on her toes like she was about to offer a hug. Instead, she put out a hand, painted black nails pointing toward Hannah. Green eyes stood out against her olive skin. “Congratulations, Hannah.”
Flashbulbs and shutters popped around them. It was a golden photo opportunity, former Olympic rivals meeting years later.
“Thanks. I have to say, it’s funny to see you in Australian colors,” Hannah said.
Angie looked down at her green and gold polo shirt. “I know. But I’m proud to be part of the team.”
“Right. Anyway, I should…”
“Just a second,” Angie said with her palm on Hannah’s forearm. When Hannah looked down at it, Angie took it away. “I just wanted to ask you. Maybe we could get breakfast or something? Get caught up? I’m staying over in Bondi, but I’ll be here for another week. I’m sure you’re busy, but…”
“Thank you for the offer, but I’m not here for long. And you’re right, things are pretty frantic right now.”
Angie pushed her hair behind her ear, her smile faltering. “Of course, I understand. If it’s all right, I’m just going to give you my card. It has my email on it. In case you happen to get some free time…”
She reached into the pocket of her black pants, toying with the card before handing it over. Hannah dampened it as she clutched it between her fingers.
“Imagine how different things would have been if we’d had email back then. It’s a pretty crazy invention when you think about it. Like something out of science fiction. Well, it’s nice to see you. And again, congratulations.”
When Angie dropped her voice and leaned closer, she bent to hear her.
“I know we’re not supposed to favor anyone, but I was rooting for you.”
They stood in place, staring at one another.
It was another thing that hadn’t changed. Angie had a way of making Hannah feel important with her kind words, well-placed looks, and touches.
It was what made it so hard to accept how thoughtless she could be.
From behind Angie, another reporter advanced. Hannah was sure that she and Angie would be roped into a joint interview sometime, but it didn’t have to be right now. “Excuse me, I should get ready. I’ll see you later.”
She walked away, pushing her fingers under her swimming cap to draw it off, wincing when it caught on her hair. She was anxious to get through the press conference so she could be away from the attention. All she wanted was a large meal in front of the television.
As she rinsed off, she wondered how she appeared to Angie. The girl she’d been at fourteen was so far away. She had been so unsure of herself back then and desperate for Angie’s approval. Though Angie had been nothing but respectful toward her just now, her presence made Hannah feel small.
Maybe the wounds had never really healed, and she’d just patched them up enough to forget for a little while how painful it had all been.
Hannah scrubbed her skin, hard. None of it mattered. There was too much at stake for her to wallow. She needed to bend her mind toward the idea that having Angie around was a good thing. If she’d learned anything at all from the association with her old rival, it was that swimming was a psychological game.
When you wanted to win, you had to keep your eyes firmly on the prize regardless of what it cost.
1986 World Aquatic Championships - Madrid
Hannah pushed her tray along the silver countertop. The line moved sluggishly as athletes agonized over what to put on their plates. Most of them were probably being haunted by the voices of their nutritionists right now or imagining being pinched with skinfold tests.
She eyed the piles of fish, rice, salad, vegetables, bread, and steaks. Though the dining hall was set up like a school cafeteria, the food rivaled what you’d find at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
When she reached the front of the line, she heaped steamed vegetables and skinless chicken on her plate. As she scanned the room for an empty table, there was a tap on her shoulder. A girl with light brown hair in a white T-shirt with a large Adidas logo on the front looked back at her. They had seen one another around, but Hannah didn’t know this girl’s name.
She took her headphones off and rested them around her neck, to acknowledge the girl.
“Hey! I’m Angie. Want to sit together?”
She trailed behind Angie, who walked purposefully to a table in the corner. She could tell by Angie’s accent that she was American. Hannah wasn’t sure why someone from another team was talking to her. Was this girl trying to psych her out?
She slid into the bench seat opposite Angie and turned her music off. There was a Walkman clipped to the waistband of her jeans, and she’d been able to hear tinny music from the headphones while she walked.
“What are you listening to?” Angie said, cutting into a slab of rare steak, pink flesh opening under her knife.
“Cool. So, I thought it would be fun to hang out together, you know seeing as we’re probably the youngest swimmers here?”
“How old are you?” Hannah replied.
“Fifteen. You’re fourteen, right? Coach told me.”
Hannah would have pegged her for older than fifteen. With that clear skin and her even, white teeth, Angie would fit in on one of those American TV shows where everyone looked perfect and shiny, like Growing Pains or Family Ties.
“It’s weird being so far away from home, isn’t it? My folks are staying at a hotel. Are yours here too?”
Hannah shook her head. Her mother and Paul wanted to come, but the overseas travel was too expensive. She told them not to worry because she’d be so busy with the competition anyway. Since being here, she missed her parents more than she’d imagined she would. It wasn’t like being at a sleepover; she couldn’t call them to collect her when she grew homesick.
“You won the semifinal in the two hundred today, didn’t you?” Angie said.
“I did, yeah.”
“You shooting for Seoul? Like, I mean, you want to compete at the Olympics, don’t you?”
“Sure, I’ll see how it goes.”
It was what everyone expected of her, but it was almost two years away. “Do you want to go?”
“Of course! I love your accent, by the way. It’s so cool.”
“Thanks,” she said, although she’d never even thought of herself as having an accent.
In the same instant they each turned to a table behind them. A group of swimmers from the Australian team chanted Tony’s name, getting louder with every repetition. A couple of the boys slapped their hands down on the table in time with the sound.
“Who the hell is Tony?” Angie asked.
“The one with the red hair and freckles.”
“Oh. Why are they doing that?”
“I really don’t know.”
“Are they teasing him about something?”
Tony was standing now, laughing with his shorts slung low around his waist. This morning at breakfast Hannah caught him staring at her chest and whispering in Greg’s ear. Greg was quiet, but Tony never stopped talking, mainly to brag about his endorsements and interview requests. Greg and Tony were both seventeen and joined at the hip.
“I guess so. The team is always teasing someone about something. Or they probably gave him a dare or whatever.”
Angie rolled her eyes. “It’s the same with my team. I get so sick of the team spirit, rah rah, rah. It’s annoying.”
“It bothers you too?”
“Of course. And I get so tired of being treated like a kid. They’re not that much older than me.”
Most of her teammates had been swimming seriously for years, and some of them had already been to the Olympics. Whenever she won a race, she braced herself for the subtle frostiness that came her way. Nobody had explained it to her, but she supposed she hadn’t paid her dues or earned her place.
“You know, I don’t see why I should be friends with people just because they’re from the same country as me. Sometimes people from other teams are just as nice,” Angie said.
Eyes met across the table as they smiled. Angie’s green eyes were pretty, framed by long lashes.
Hannah shrugged. “Maybe we could eat together again tomorrow. If you wanted to, I mean.”
“Sure. We could do that. Right after I whip you,” Angie said.
“I won my semifinal too. I’m racing you tomorrow morning.”
It was over before it had begun. Even if she didn’t beat Angie, competing against one another would make it weird.
Angie kicked her leg under the table. “Don’t look so worried! It’s not a problem. I know you’ll beat me, but I don’t mind.”
“Maybe I won’t?”
“I bet you will. If you win, I get to make you eat whatever I want when we have dinner tomorrow night. It’s like a dare.”
“Why would I want to win if I have to eat something gross?” Hannah said. With anyone else, she’d assume they were laying a trap, but Angie’s dancing eyes made her sure that everything was okay.
“It’ll make the loser feel better. If I place before you, you can make me eat whatever you want. For the record, I don’t like tomato, ugh,” Angie said, the point of her tongue sticking out. “So, if you wanted to mess with me, that’s what you can pick. Now your turn.”
“I don’t eat red meat. I’d be vegetarian if I could, but my nutritionist says it’s a bad idea for me right now. I wouldn’t get enough fuel or something.”
Angie leaned over to slap her arm. “I’m not going to make you eat a steak! Jeez, what do you think I am? Pick something less mean.”
“All right…I guess I don’t like broccoli?”
“Thanks for the tip,” Angie said, and they shook on it.
The following morning Hannah’s pulse hammered as she entered the marshaling area. The crowd bore down on her, bigger than it was for semifinals. The high stakes made her breath catch in her throat.
Her gaze fell on Angie, who was staring back at her and wiggling her eyebrows. How could she joke around at a time like this?
They entered the pool deck, Hannah averting her eyes from the bleachers and cameras. It was always so strange to stand in front of a crowd in her bathers. Sometimes she felt like her body wasn’t her own. It belonged to her coach, her trainer, and anyone else who wanted a piece of it. She’d shot up over the past year. She was taller than a lot of the boys now, and her shoulders were broader than a lot of girls’.
The thought of the dare almost made her smile. She hoped that either she or Angie would win so they could have fun at dinner. Maybe she should have suggested something to do if neither of them placed. She was still thinking about it when the gun went off, and then she was in the water.
The last two years boiled down to the stroke of her arms and her hands slicing through the water. All the kilometers she’d swum before and after school, struggling along in a weighted vest. The time spent at the gym working on strengthening her core, endless advice from nutritionists, race strategy talk so dull it made her eyes glaze over.
When she started swimming it had been just for fun. In increments, she’d discovered that when it came to this, she was special. She loved being in the water, but she didn’t like that people treated her differently because of it.
Her turn wasn’t as graceful as she wanted it to be, but she gained some ground in the second lap. She was almost a full body length ahead of the swimmer beside her. The next time she turned it was perfect, and she drove harder, giving all that she had. She forgot about everything, the dare far from her mind for the first time since the night before.
She knew she’d won before she touched the wall. She sought out Angie, breathing hard a couple of lanes away. Angie’s expression betrayed only a hint of disappointment at coming in second, and then she smiled. When they were out of the water, Angie gave her a quick hug, her arms slick around Hannah’s shoulders.
On the dais, they faced straight ahead in their sweatpants and zipped up coats, Hannah’s arms pressed against her sides. It was her first gold, and she wondered if her parents would put it on top of the bookshelf with her brothers’ football trophies. Over the past few years, she’d amassed a pile of ribbons and trophies. She liked that her parents didn’t act like she was special; she was the same as her siblings in their eyes.
When the national anthem played she pulled her arms more tightly against herself, trying not to scratch her face or fidget.
“I hope I can find some little trees for you tonight,” Angie cracked as they stepped down from the dais.
Later, Hannah stared at the picture that was taken immediately after Angie said that. Only she knew that the mile-wide grin spread across her face was because of something other than winning.
Hannah had never been involved in a press conference this big. She was seated at a long table, set up in front of rows of chairs. She was a rabbit caught in the headlights, frozen in front of the cameramen clustered in the back of the room. She tried to swallow, and Angie pushed a glass of water toward her. The moment of eye contact they shared steadied her.
A young reporter with a shaved head asked the first question, and his peers burst into laughter. Hannah looked toward the translator, jogging her leg while she waited to understand.
“How do you have time for all the things teenage girls usually like, such as boys and clothes?”
Hannah took another sip of water. She cut her gaze across to Angie, who was sitting back from her microphone, letting Hannah go first.
“The most important things to me are swimming and school. Everything else comes second,” Hannah said.
The man who’d asked the question nodded politely. Angie finally bent her head toward the microphone. “But we’re both good multi-taskers. Training is important, but I’d go nuts if I couldn’t go shopping once in a while.”
The audience laughed again. For the rest of the press conference, Hannah let Angie go first unless the question was explicitly addressed to her. When they were done and being ushered away from the press room by an official, she leaned toward Angie.
“You’re so much better at this part than I am.”
“Not even,” Angie said. “You’re all cool and quiet; it makes you seem mysterious. My folks made me go to this silly media training thing. I’ll give you tips if you want, but who cares?”
“Right,” Hannah said. Her coach had sent her to media training too, but the lessons were forgotten as soon as she was in front of a crowd.
“Are you leaving tomorrow?” Angie asked, looping their arms together.
“Yep,” Hannah said. It wasn’t fair that they only had one more night to get to know one another.
“Well then, I dare you to stay up hanging out with me all night.”
2000 - Sydney
Hannah threw back the covers and checked the clock on the nightstand. The red numbers told her that it was nine thirty. There was no point going to bed early if she was going to lie here torturing herself, instead of falling into her typical exhausted sleep.
The ocean was a ten-minute walk away. The sound of crashing waves was one of the many things she loved about staying in Bondi. The thought of being close to the water comforted her, so she got up and pulled on jeans that were crumpled up next to the bed, with a blue T-shirt. She slid her feet into the flip-flops she kept beside the front door, still sandy from an earlier trip along the shoreline.
It was a relief that here, she could come and go without anyone noticing her. The one-bedroom apartment was Debbie’s, a friend who was on an overseas business trip. There was stiff competition to secure time at her place; Hannah wasn’t the only person with a key. It was cozy and light, large windows lining the curved wall of the living room.
The streets were busy, people wandering around or dining at outdoor tables in the balmy night air. Nobody recognized her as she passed by with her hands stuck in her pockets, her head stooped. She dropped into a late-night café to pick up takeaway hot chocolate, then carried the warm cardboard cup to the beach.
She sat on a wooden bench that gave her a panoramic view of the dark waves. She watched them, finally allowing herself to think about what had kept her awake. Now that she’d attained her goal, her mantra was transformed. All she could think about was Angie slipping her that card after the trial. When Hannah arrived back at Debbie’s apartment, she carelessly threw it on the coffee table to prove to herself that she wasn’t going to use it.
Now, the mantra was that she needed to see Angie. She had to see her. It was hard to pin down exactly what she wanted to get out of meeting with her, but now that the opportunity had presented itself, she was going to grab it with both hands.
She jumped up from the bench and walked away from the shore. Debbie wouldn’t mind if she used her computer. When Hannah was back in the apartment, she booted it up and logged into her email account. Good old-fashioned paper mail was better, the licking of stamps and the movement of a pen across the page. Still, she had to admit that email had its benefits. The speed of it meant she might even be able to see Angie before going back to Melbourne. She pecked at the keyboard with two fingers, trying to strike the right tone.
Hi Angie. It turns out my plans have changed, and I have tomorrow morning free if you see this in time. I thought it might be good to meet like you suggested. I’m staying at a friend’s apartment in Bondi. Maybe you could come over here for a cup of coffee or something around 11?
She switched to the Internet browser and opened a window, searching Angie’s name. Now that she’d pried open the lid from Pandora’s box, she couldn’t stop herself. A page with pictures from a recent event loaded. There was Angie, her toned shoulders and smooth skin revealed in her red dress. When Hannah found herself staring at Angie’s low neckline, she rushed to close the window.
She was moving the mouse to log out of her email account when she saw that Angie had already replied.
Sounds great! I’m free whenever! It’s so cool that you’re staying here too. I wonder if you’re close by. That would be funny. Send me your address and the time you can see me, and I’ll be there. It’s been so lovely to see you again. I’ve missed you. - A.
She pushed her finger down hard on the mouse. If Angie missed her, whose fault was that? She took a deep breath before composing a reply.
The next morning she checked the shelves in Debbie’s pantry, finding only corn flakes and a package of noodles. There was a market across the street, so she crossed over to gather supplies. At the checkout she unloaded two types of coffee, fruit, a package of crackers, hummus, celery, and carrot.
When she got back to the apartment she sliced watermelon into wedges and rinsed grapes. She fluffed the cushions on the sofa and paced around until there was a knock at the door.
Angie stood in the doorway, casual in a denim skirt with a white button-up shirt. She wore brown leather sandals, which showed her black toenails that matched her manicure.
“Hey,” Hannah said, eyeing the bouquet of roses Angie held in front of her.
“Hello,” Angie said. “I wanted to congratulate you.”
“Oh. Thank you,” she replied, taking the bundle from her. “I guess I’ll find somewhere to put these. Come in.”
Hannah stuffed the bunch into a large water glass. Angie was tilting her head, taking in a photograph of Debbie with her parents’ German shepherd on the mantelpiece.
“Can I get you some coffee?” Hannah asked, brushing stray hair behind her ear. She’d tied it half-back and applied makeup, but she’d worn only jeans and a white T-shirt. Like throwing the card on the coffee table, it was a useless gesture. A way of trying to fool herself into believing that she didn’t care for Angie’s opinion of how she looked.
“That would be great. Thanks. This is a really nice place, super nice. I love the windows; they give such a great view. It was close like I thought it might be, just around the corner from my hotel if you can believe it. I really like this area. I went for a walk to the beach this morning. I even saw the sunrise. I didn’t get into the water, but it was nice to see the surfers and everything. Those waves are really something else. So…How long are you staying?”
“I fly out early tomorrow morning.”
“Oh,” Angie said. She glanced at the roses, which were dropping their petals onto the table.
“What about you?” Hannah said, taking two mugs from where they hung on hooks above the countertop. “Help yourself to some fruit if you want.”
Angie walked over to the table where Hannah had laid a platter. She snapped some grapes from their cluster, her stare darting around the apartment.
“I’ll be staying here another few days. I haven’t spent much time in Sydney, so I’m looking forward to checking the place out. I was thinking I’d go to the opera house tomorrow, see the bridge and all that stuff. Someone told me I should take a ferry as well. Whose place is this?” she asked, the words bursting forth quickly.
“It’s my friend Debbie’s. She’s letting me stay here while I’m in town. She’s in Japan right now for work. You probably don’t remember but you met her once.”
She approached Angie with the steaming coffee mug. When Angie took it from her, Hannah thought she saw a brightly colored watch flashing under her white top, but she pulled the sleeve down before she could get a good view of it.
“Of course, I remember her. Nice girl. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to pry or anything.”
“It’s fine. Do you want to sit down?”
The cream-colored sofa under the window was Hannah’s favorite piece of furniture in the apartment. The previous owners had it custom made to fit the curved shape of the wall, and they let Debbie keep it when she took over the lease.
Leaving space between them, Hannah curled her hands around her mug and blew on the top. Angie stared out the window, head tilted away, but Hannah could still see her eyes. She had forgotten how they changed in the light; they were as blue-green as the ocean now.
When she finally turned back, her gaze drifted over Hannah, who crossed her arms. “You’re just the same, you know.”
“Is that so?”
“I mean it as a compliment. You look great. And you seem…I don’t know how to put it. You knew yourself and who you were when we were teenagers much better than I did, and you still seem like that.”
“Really,” Hannah said flatly.
Angie looked out of the window again. “Okay. I guess I just wanted to say that I didn’t know you were planning a return until after I’d agreed to join the coaching team. I’d heard rumors that you were training, but I didn’t know for sure.”
“You don’t have to explain yourself to me, but thank you. You know, we were just teenagers. There’s no need for us to make a big deal out of anything.”
“Right, of course. What made you want to come back, anyway? I mean, I always hoped that you would. I thought it was such a shame that you retired so young when you had so much to offer. You could have gone to another Games back then, maybe even made it to three in a row. Or four because you started so young. It never seemed fair to me. You achieved a lot, more than most people could ever hope for, but still.”
Hannah sat cross-legged, making a fist and resting her chin on it. “I don’t have a simple answer to that.”
“I’m not in a rush. I’d like to hear it,” Angie said, her voice soft. “In case you didn’t hear, I retired after ’96 in Atlanta, and it kind of sucked. I don’t get too many chances to talk to people who understand what it was like, or what it was like to give it up. That’s why I’ve missed our letters and everything. I bet you don’t get a chance to talk to people about it too much either.”
“That’s true. But I mean, there’s no one thing that made me give it up. My coach had a lot to do with it but that wasn’t everything. You know what I could never wrap my head around, though?”
“What’s that?” Angie said.
“That I was making more money than my parents just for swimming up and down in a pool. Like, does it ever seem crazy to you that we had so much thrown at us, just for that?”
Angie narrowed her eyes. “Hannah, are you kidding? We didn’t just swim up and down in a pool. We worked our asses off. We were just kids, but we worked longer hours than a lot of adults do. All that pressure too!”
“You know what I mean, though. Right? The more I think about it, the more I believe it’s a stupid way to earn a living. That’s why I can come back now, because it’s not my whole life.”
“But you love it. You love being in the water. So what if it was your whole life? What’s wrong with that?”
Hannah laughed. “Well, yeah. You’re right, I came back because I do love it. I think I just needed to grow into it. It was all too much, everything about it. If I had my way, there would be an age restriction on when you can start swimming professionally.”
“Is that why you ended up being a teacher and swim coach? You wanted to make sure other kids didn’t have to go through the same stuff as we did?”
“I suppose that had something to do with it, yeah,” Hannah said. There was no need to ask how Angie knew about her job. No doubt she’d seen it in the media.
“Well, I guess I learned something from it all too. I’ve made it one of my priorities to look after the wellbeing of the younger kids on the team. Like Rachel, she’s only sixteen. I’ll make sure I keep an eye on her.”
“Good. Rachel is so young,” Hannah said. She rested her mug on the windowsill then followed the line of Angie’s sight to the street below. A couple strode along the sidewalk arm-in-arm, two short-haired women with their heads bowed close together.
Angie slowly put her mug down next to Hannah’s. “I should let you rest. I’m sure you’re tired after the last few days.”
“Not so tired. It’s not like I can sleep in the middle of the day, like you. I always wondered how you could drop off like that.”
Angie stared back at her, nodding slowly. “Just lucky, I guess. Listen, would you mind if I emailed you again? To keep in touch, I mean?”
“Sure, you can email me if you want.”
She walked Angie to the door, opening it for her. They approached one another at the same time, Angie’s arms encircling her.
The fragrance of Angie’s hair was overwhelming. Hannah closed her eyes, breathing in before they each pulled away. How could it be that the past was flooding back to her so quickly?
“I’ll see you,” Angie said, a small smile on her lips as the door closed behind her.