By Sierra Rains-Moad

For a split second all eyes were on me. My teammates gathered behind me as I stepped up to the block and their once boisterous cheering fell to the back of my mind, as though it were coming from a million miles away.

“Take your mark,” the announcer said — the three words that fire anxiety through every swimmer’s body.

In a matter of seconds the ice-cold water flooded all around me, but my body was working too hard to notice its wintry grip. Each time my head breached the water for breath I’d catch a split second of excitement in the screaming encouragement of my teammates.

The tips of my fingers touched the wall, but it was too late. I had made it to the state swim meet, but I had lost my race. It was a brief moment of defeat.

Brief, because in that same moment, a hand reached toward me, helping me out of the water. On land I was rejoined and surrounded by not only my teammates but my friends. The same excitement and joy that existed before the race was unwavering.

I had only known these people for a short time and yet, I felt at home. “Home” was always changing for me. One moment I’d be in Oklahoma and the next I was in Indiana.

I’d walk into a new school at least six times in my life. My first day, I would walk toward the entrance and as I opened the doors, it would always be as if the announcer for the swim meet was saying “take your mark,” with that same anxiety creeping through my veins.

I was unbearably shy and the thought of having to make a whole new set of friends each time I moved was just as insufferable. My heart wrenched at the thought of having to leave them again and again when the time inevitably came.

My mother was young and life always had a way of leading us somewhere new, whether because of my parent’s divorce, my mother going back to college or my mother getting a new job.

My first big move was from Texas to Oklahoma. I was only 5 at the time that my parents split and my mother desired to be closer to my grandparents. As a child, this was hard for me to understand. My world in Arlington consisted of making mud castles and chalking on the road with the neighbor’s kids — nothing more serious than when the rain inevitably washed our creations away.

When the time came, I watched from the back window of the car as my best friends stood in our former driveway and gazed longingly as we drove far away. Their tiny hands waved, with tears at the brim of their eyes. I thought that was the last time I’d ever see them. A pain I hadn’t felt before crept into my chest.

With every move this agony would return and I learned the drill. It became as routine as the drills we’d do at swim practice– back and forth 25 meters at a time. The people I had once laid in sleeping bags with, talking about nothing for hours upon hours would all eventually slip out of my life as we slowly fell out of contact. I’d go back and forth between schools, until it felt like I’d swam thousands of meters, trying to catch a breath.

As I got older, I began to recognize that each time that pain of defeat, of loss, of loneliness would return, so would the hand reaching to help me out of the depths. It came in many different forms over the years, but it was always there.

My grandfather’s hand would stretch towards me as we scaled the Wichita Mountains, pulling me to safety. The hand of a friend lifted me off the ground as I laid gasping for breath after being thrown off the back of a horse. My freshman roommate in college offered me a hand many nights in the library when coffee just wouldn’t cut it for me anymore and I needed the motivation of another person there with me.

Each person I met in my travels touched my life in some way that made me who I am today. I had always felt disadvantaged by how much we moved when in actuality I was privileged to be able to meet so many wonderful people.

Life, which had seemingly taken so many things from me, also had a way of returning what was once lost.

My freshman year of high school began around the time that Facebook had sprung into popularity. One day, a little red notification popped up on my screen. My mouse moved to click on the notification and a message under a familiar name appeared, saying “remember me?”

The little boy I had left standing in my driveway had grown older in the past 10 years, but the details of his face still seemed familiar. His hand which had once waved goodbye now typed “hello” across a keyboard. We were both overjoyed. And even though we still live 196 miles apart, we talk as if those boundaries are not there.

At the end of my senior year of high school, I wrote a short speech to give at my last swim team banquet. I stood on a stage in front of all of my teammates and their families and I told everyone about how I lost my race at state.

I’d lost many things in my life. I’d faced challenges that felt akin to making it to state, but I was never alone. I watched as the faces silhouetted by the low light of the auditorium listened. Love was thick in the room as their hands came together to produce a resounding sound of applause.

I would begin a new journey on my own after that night. Time would mean distance from the family I had built on the swim team, but my new journey lead me into the hands of yet another.

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