By the time Nelson had finished his pre-tournament rituals, the other competitors entered the locker room.
Just in time, the swimmer thought, glad no one would see him doing what he usually did. Then he flashed a tiny smile. Cris would’ve laughed if that happened. And then he’d want me to repeat my rituals.
As he entertained himself thinking about his boyfriend, out of habit, Nelson glanced at the other swimmers, checking face by face. I don’t recognize anyone… Then he realized why he knew nothing about them.
What am I doing…? Checking the competition…? It’s not like I have any data about them or anything… This isn’t a major tournament or anything… it’s just a local competition… even the coach had no idea about my competition…
The last newcomers that entered the locker room halted when they saw Nelson. Though a little hesitating, they grabbed a key and stored their belongings in the lockers. Then they stood in the corner, talking among themselves while changing and glancing at Nelson from time to time.
With a bitter smile, the athlete realized the reason.
I didn’t want to think about it, but that’s what I get for being the biggest name here… He chuckled in his head. Not that being the biggest name here will make me win or anything… Just like always, I have to earn my victory.
Nelson decided to ignore the extra attention he was getting, not sure if he disliked or not.
Now that I think about it, this kind of thing only happened when there was a new swimmer… he’d get amazed for being in the same place as the people he admired… wait… I did the same thing… guess it’s like a ritual of passage for an athlete…
He was taking one of the towels from a plastic bag among the rest of the belongings Cris had forced him to bring when someone approached him.
“H-hello,” the swimmer said stiffly. “You’re Nelson, right?”
He seemed to be just a couple of years older than Nelson. Despite that, he looked too nervous as he talked to the athlete. The others he was whispering in the corner with remained a few steps behind.
It must be the pre-competition jitters, Nelson thought, smiling in his head. I can blame him… How long it’s been since I felt that? Wait, better not remember that… The first time I felt this, I threw up in the pool…
“Hi,” Nelson greeted his competitor in a friendly tone.
But that was a mistake; it only made the swimmer and the others in the back even more nervous.
“I-I just wanted to say that I saw you on TV today and… e-even though it’s your c-comeback and all, I-I, I mean, we will won’t make it e-easy for you,” he managed to say, trying to come off as confident despite his stutter. “W-we’ll make you work hard. Don’t think it’s gonna be easy!”
Despite the swimmer’s voice, his eyes never faltered.
His eyes shine with a fire of a true swimmer.
Nelson stopped smiling. He showed a serious face and extended his hand.
“Let’s give our best today then,” he said in a determined voice, looking the man who was his competitors in the eyes
With a nervous chuckle, which he stopped almost right away, the swimmer grabbed the hand and shook it.
The others behind him came forward, pushing the first swimmer out of the way so that they could greet Nelson.
“Yeah, we won’t let win that easily!”
“We’ll give our best!”
Nelson smiled and shook each one’s hand.
After the greeting and promises of a good tournament, they went back to the corner to get ready.
Nelson watched them for a moment. Then he glanced around. The other swimmers saw everything, but they were too busy preparing themselves to care.
I forgot this locker room feeling, the swimmer thought.
I was stupid… too stupid… I thought that because it was only a municipal tournament, it’d be easy… but I’m wrong. I’m competing with swimmers. They’re athletes that wanna win. Just because they have little chance, doesn’t mean they have given up before it even started… If I underestimate them, I’ll lose.
“So you’re the famous Nelson,” a voice said near him.
The swimmer turned around. Standing a few meters away, glancing at him through the corner of his eyes while warming up, was another competitor.
“Yes, I am… but I wouldn’t use ‘the’. I’m just Nelson,” he said, chuckling with his own joke.
The athlete looked young and Nelson couldn’t help but noticed that his body was small and slim.
He has a good build for a swimmer. With that stature, he has an advantage in the water, the swimmer thought before offering his hand with a serious face.
As the athlete shook his hand, Nelson also couldn’t help but noticed the swimmer’s shaved legs.
To do this for a municipal tournament… he doesn’t just swim as hobby… he’s someone who’s aiming higher…
“Even if deny, or if you just don’t want to say out aloud, all the eyes are on you,” the slender swimmer said. “There was even a news about this competition on TV. Normally, they’d never even mention outside the sports program. And that would be a pretty small mention. That is, if not for you.”
Nelson stared at him for a moment before answering.
“You make it sound like there’s only me swimming today. There are other athletes,” he said, aware the others inside the locker room were listening to that conversation.
“You’re right. There are other swimmers, but few here want to be professional athletes,” he said, almost defiant.
Nelson glanced around. Those that came to talk to him had stopped their preparations and were just watching.
“You might be right. Even so, everyone here is still aiming for the gold medal. No one should be underestimated.”
Like I was doing before, he thought with a sheepish smile in his head.
The other athlete smiled.
“You’re right. And I’d like to say thank you.”
“I never thought I’d be treated as a competition for an Olympic level swimmer.”
Nelson let out a hollow laugh that surprised the other athlete.
“Sorry, but I’m not at that level anymore,” he said in a low voice. He looked around at the simple locker room. “This is where I’m now. I need to climb back to the Olympic level.”
The other swimmer stared him in silence.
“Do you…” He bit his lips and glanced at the floor. Then he looked back at Nelson. “Do you think you can get back to that level…?” he asked in a low and serious voice after a while.
The swimmer stared him in the eyes.
The silence stretched as he thought about the question.
“I’ll give my best to get there no matter what.”
The moment he said it, something felt off. Then Nelson realized the reason. As he remembered his boyfriend’s words, his cheeks went a shade of red.
“No, I’m wrong. I don’t think I’ll get back to that level. I’ll go even further,” he said.
His voice was brimming with confidence, but there was no arrogance in his words.
The other swimmer realized that and said nothing as he stared back. Then his eyes filled with admiration.
“That’s amazing, mister Nelson. I never thought someone would have the strength to start again. Especially in a competition like this,” he said, and from his tone, Nelson knew he was being honest.
The swimmer chuckled and smiled as he scratched his cheek to break the serious mood.
“Hey, c’mon, don’t call me mister. It makes me sound older than I am. Just call me Nelson. And besides, more than strength, it’s more like I’m so useless I don’t think I can do anything other than swim.”
The other swimmer laughed.
“Okay, Nelson. And I’m the same. If I’m not in the water, I’m near useless.”
“Then let’s get in the water and do the only thing we can do.”
“What’s your name, by the way? I don’t think you said it.”
“I’m Yuri,” he said, offering the hand.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Nelson said, taking the hand.
As Yuri went back to his warm up, someone slammed the door open.
Everyone turned and had no reaction as a girl rushed inside the locker room, looking around.
But despite her petite body, long black hair and skirt, she wasn’t a girl.
It was Cris.
“Cris? What are you doing here?” Nelson asked, the surprised stamped on his face.
The manager turned to him at once.
His cheeks were red, his face was sweating, and he was out of air.
But when he saw his swimmer, the delicate boy smiled.
“I need to talk to you right now,” he said in an urgent voice.