Between two continents: swimming bridges cultural barriers for Rockwall family

Rockwall mom reflects on what swimming means to her children, both in and out of the pool

Editor’s Note: Raena Eldridge will travel to Austin Thursday, Feb. 21 to represent Rockwall High School at the UIL state swimming championships, defending the 4A state championship she won last year as a freshman. Raena and her three siblings spent much of their young lives growing up in China. In the Letter to the Editor below, Raena’s mother, Wendy Eldridge, reflects on what it was like for her children to grow up in two different worlds, and how the sport of swimming has helped shaped them in a very unique life between two continents. 

As we pace in anticipation of the big meet coming up, I find my mind rolling back into a time and place where my children were just introduced to the sport of swimming; a myriad of images played back on the canvas of my memory.

It was after a short fun-filled season of learning to swim and joining our neighborhood summer league when our family moved from the U.S. to a little city in southwest China. Wanting to duplicate the same experience in China, we enrolled our children in a local Chinese swim team.

It may not be true with Chinese swim teams in larger more affluent cities in China, but in our little village town, children swam in hopes of making the Olympics and rescuing their family out of poverty. Even at a young age, the children in our town attacked the water with discipline – sprinting off at the blow of the whistle with concise strokes, executing precise flip turns and returning to the wall in military exactness while my children floundered behind, trying to keep up. My youngest learning to swim soon gave up after enduring much poking and prying by his coach who stood by the side of the pool with a long bamboo stick. Our older children soon followed suit.

Still determined to continue swimming, we rounded up our children’s neighborhood friends and formed a rag-tag international swim group consisting of children from Ireland, Canada, Malaysia, Australia and other parts of the world. The coach we hired spoke more in gestures than in English while instructing our children.

Swimming in our little town was quite a cultural experience. People swam indoors in the summer to avoid getting a tan and swam outdoors in the winter as the frigid water was ‘good for the body.’ The indoor pools were solar heated. With summer average temperatures in the low 70’s, the pools were kept at a similar temperature. Our children would take regular hot-shower breaks between sets to stop their little bodies from shaking in the chilly water. They could stay in the water for no longer than 30 minute stretches.

Masters Swimming took on a new meaning in this town. The aged were much revered in the Chinese culture and were treated like masters in the water – they had the right of way all the time. Our children often found themselves having to following patiently behind an older swimmer when he inserted himself into their swim lane. The aged also liked to swim along the perimeter of the pool. Our children would put their sets on hold as these masters swam through their lane.

Like most pools, the China swimming pools were lined by gutters on the edges. It was a habit for people to stop and spit huge wads of phlegm into these drains between sets. At other times, I would find my asthmatic daughter hanging on the sides gasping for air while a man took a smoke break next to her between his swim laps (under a no-smoking sign).

Our first venture into the locker room was very memorable. My daughter, with a built-in amplifier in her larynx, entered the locker room speaking loudly and clearly in American English. In a place not commonly visited by foreigners, women jumped out mid-stream from their showers in curiosity. Half lathered women with soap in hand came running out of their stalls to stare at her. We got an eyeful that day.

My germ phobia always kicked into high gear every time I had to enter the locker room — our only access to the pool deck. Everyone rolled up their pants before entering the locker room as it was constantly marinating in 2 inches of water – whether from the shower or the sewage, I cannot tell.

Needless to say, our children’s interest in swimming waned.

On our first furlough back to the States, we signed up for a learn-to-swim and stroke clinic at the local YMCA. From there our children were initiated into a USA swim club for the first time and a coach that would mold our children’s love for the sport.

With short cropped curly hair, athletic build and an austere demeanor, our swim team coach, Coach Brigitte, seemed formidable and unapproachable. This impression was quickly dispelled at our very first swim meet. Her one and only instruction for the swimmers at the meet was, “No matter how you swim, there will be no tears! Because if you cry, I’ll cry too!” Coach Brigitte, inspired our children to see themselves as what they could be; she encouraged them to aspire to great heights, while they were beginner swimmers, she challenged them to see themselves as champion swimmers. A lifetime Masters swimmer herself, she instilled the love of the sport into my children.

Swimming bridged the cultural barrier for our children. Living in a different country, our children might not have watched the same TV programs or listened to the same music as the kids in Rockwall, but they were quickly accepted into the swim team because they labored with their teammates through the same intervals and survived through the same impossible sets. The sharing of a buffet of junk food in the guise of healthy/fruit snacks at swim meets further solidified this bond of friendship.

It came as no surprise when it was time to pack our bags to return to our home in China, Coach Brigitte showed up at our doorstep with a two by two foot high, battery powered swimming pace clock. With luggage space at a premium, we approached our children with this choice: “Kids, you can either pack six months’ supply of candy and your favorite cereal for our next year and a half in China, or you can pack the pace clock.” Our children chose the pace clock.

It was the promise to Coach Brigitte that they would continue to swim on a regular basis that kept my children braving rain or shine to make it to the pool twice a week for the following years. They would ride seven miles through busy China traffic, braving other cyclists, ox-drawn carts, through goat herds and rice fields to swim practice.

Our family returned to swim with the team in Rockwall every 18 months. Each time having ‘aged-up’, our children would start at the bottom rung of the ladder as ‘C’ swimmers and navigate their way up the Age Group Times Standard table. They treasured every swim meet. Every swim practice was a chance to refine or correct a stroke that would otherwise go uncorrected for another 18 months.

When our assignment in China ended, it was our children’s swim-mates who set up a count-down calendar to welcome them back. They were the ones who walked them through the peculiarities of high school and sat with them through the intimidating lunches in school.

God has blessed our little town of Rockwall with one of the best high school natatoriums in the nation. Our children are coached by a world-class coach whom world-recorder holder Olympian Brendan Hansen described as “the best coach next to Eddie Reese.” We have been given a gift; we are privileged people. Here is what my daughter Raena recently wrote: “I have been lucky enough to train under a fantastic coach in a terrific facility. I like to honor that privilege by attending every practice and giving my all at each one.”

My children will always remember their beginnings — what it means to have an open lane, an uninterrupted swim; always be reminded of a coach who believed in them and laid the foundation for a sport that has shaped their lives; and life-long friendships that will outlast the sport itself.

Written by Rockwall swim mom Wendy Eldridge. Wendy and her husband Eric have four children: Sean and Nathan, who both graduated in 2012; Raena, a sophomore; and Mitchell, a freshman. All four children swam for Rockwall High School and played water polo. 

To share your good news and events, email .