Like most champions, Wendi Aarons began her road to the Olympics in the snow-filled hinterlands of North Dakota. “Who would have guessed a quiet girl from a state known less for world-class swimming and more for hockey and farmhouse meth labs would make it this far?” she muses. “Definitely not a single person I’ve ever met in my entire life thought that. Most still don’t.”
Maybe that’s because Wendi’s journey to legend status had a rocky start. “We stopped paying for summer swim lessons at the public pool because they never seemed to take,” her mother Sharon remembers. “When she wasn’t sinking like a cannonball or clutching onto the instructor’s neck and leaving marks, she was at the snack stand spending her allowance on candy bars and packs of grape Hubba Bubba. She just wasn’t ready for greatness at that time.”
Unfortunately, she still wasn’t ready a few years later when she was required to take swimming lessons in Junior High PE class. What could have been an excellent opportunity to hone her skills instead went nowhere because Wendi didn’t have the metal state of a champion. Close friends at the time say she also didn’t have the mental state to deal with the grody PE showers and Melissa Jackson’s weird third nipple that she always flaunted in the locker room “like the fancy heifer in a 4-H competition.”
“I’m not proud of this,” Wendi relates, while gazing down at her thumbs made muscular from hours of texting in her vote to American Idol, “Okay, maybe I am a little, but the reason I never swam in junior high was because I told Mr. Gregson the PE teacher that I had my period, and I couldn’t get in the pool or I’d die from catastrophic blood loss. Of course, a more enlightened teacher would have realized that it’s not normal for a 13-year-old girl to have her period for eight straight weeks, but it was the 80’s, and men were still terrified by menstruation. I don’t hold any grudges.”
The next year, what could have been Wendi’s time to shine at YMCA summer camp was instead sabotaged by her actually getting her period for realsies, and having to sit out her cabin’s much lauded synchronized swimming performance of “Grease” held in a Minnesota lake. “I called my mom to ask her how to use a tampon,” she bitterly laughs, “because this was years before things like Period Parties and instructional videos were around. She said ‘there are only two places you can put it in and one is really really wrong.’ I was so terrified of the wrong place that I just stayed in the craft room and made another God’s Eye. Someone else had to play Rizzo with a nose-plug that day.”
The years that followed for Wendi were troubled ones, and included hot tubs, keg parties, a film degree, and a very, very ill-advised swimsuit that she ordered from the Virginia Slims catalog despite not knowing a single smoker. A swimsuit that never once got wet, she laughs, because she was worried it’d disintegrate. “Maybe things would have been different if I’d had a sponsor then. Like Speedo or that company that makes American flag Budweiser bikinis. But a small town girl who sinks like a stone? I wasn’t even on their radar.”
Decades passed without Wendi doing anything more strenuous than sipping margaritas near a pool, but then things changed when she was expecting her first child. She decided it was time to get serious and up her game. More specifically, she wanted to be able to expand her stroke repertoire from “none” to “at least something that’ll get me across the pool if I need to rescue a kid or cute animal that’s not a squirrel.” She enrolled in the only swim class available at the time, one taught by a 6’3” older woman named Rhonda who was fond of wearing the flap hats most often found on Legionnaires, archeologists and 80’s nerds. Wendi had high hopes of learning everything she needed to learn from Rhonda, high hopes of reaching the world-class level at last, but unfortunately, Rhonda’s focus was on the other students in class.
“It had to be,” she says before abruptly hanging up the phone, “because they were all under the age of six. The best thing I can say about that dummy Aarons is she was the only one who never peed on me.”
Once she hit the age of 40, Wendi knew time was closing in on her. She finally realized that she needed a serious coach, so she started private swimming lessons with the part-time bus driver she met at the grocery store. Sue was a tough taskmaster, an unrelenting beyotch, and she pushed Wendi to do things she’d never done before. Things like sticking her entire face in the water, and using both arms when she did the crawl. “She also showed me that there’s a better way to end your backstoke than just waiting until your head whacks into the side of the pool. That shaved at least 20 minutes off my time.” But would it be enough? Could it take her to the next level?
It didn’t look good. Their special mentor/mentee relationship ended when school started and Sue had to get back to her bus route. But her lessons on how to be a champion remained ingrained in Wendi’s DNA. She felt she was now, at last, ready to compete. Years of doubt, whining, and a deep-seated pathological fear of getting water in her ears were in the rearview mirror. For Wendi, it was go time. It was champion time. It was legend time.
It was also, as she quickly learned, illegal for a 48-year-old woman to compete in the neighborhood swim meet against 10-year-olds. “Well, not usually,” she relates. “but it was that day because of the white wine on my breath. I should have known better than to try to hide wino breath from a squad of bossy mom officials. Those bitches can smell wine in their sleep.” But despite the setbacks, the disdain, the lost opportunities, and her rapidly aging body, Wendi is still determined in her quest for glory.
“If I can make it one lap across my backyard pool without stopping, getting a wedgie, or yelling the f-word at a bird, then I will have fulfilled my destiny,” she says quietly. “And I will be, for the first time on this crazy journey, a champion.”
You already are, Wendi Aarons. You already are.