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The Secret of My Success by Sharon Hammad
First Prize - Charlotte Duncan Award 2010

I stand on the block, my toes gripping the edge. It slopes forward, designed to tip me off. Bright blue water stretches like a tarpaulin below me.

The tang of chlorine tickles my nostrils. I shiver. My skin erupts in goosebumps and hairs stick up, thick as coconut on a lamington.

Liam's spit bubbles at the corner of his mouth as his lips stretch over his teeth. His stare is as intense as sunlight passing through a magnifying glass. If I were a leaf, I'd catch fire. Out of the corner of my eye, I see his thumb and forefinger form the letter 'L'. L is for loser. The loser is me.

In Liam's case, L is for lucky, not because he is the best swimmer in the school or because his name is in the newspaper all the time. Liam is lucky because his mum is always around. She even works in the school canteen. I haven't seen my mum since she went away when I was a baby. Liam's mum obviously cares about him a lot more than my mum cares about me.

Every week we have swimming lessons. Our coach marches up and down the side of the pool yelling, 'Blow, blow, breathe'. Every time I try, my arms and legs thrash about as though I am fighting off the Loch Ness monster. Water splashes everywhere it shouldn't - especially on my coach.

He's too busy getting Liam ready for the next Olympics to bother with me. He sends me to the baby pool to practise kicking. I practise being a Mexican-walking-fish instead. And when Liam sees me, he practises making my life miserable.

'Zo-ey Ze-ro,' is his favourite chant. The other kids at school join in. The name repeats over and over in my head so that when I go to bed at night, I count zeros instead of sheep.

One day, in a desperate attempt to stop Liam tormenting me, I put my name down for a race in the school swimming carnival. It had the opposite effect. 'Zo-ey Ze-ro. She's no he-ro. She will sink be-fore you blink,' he sang.

As the carnival came closer, I knew I was in big trouble. I had to learn to swim. Fast. And I had to learn to swim fast. But how?

Then, I had an idea. If I could get Dad to go to the gym next door to the pool, I could get him to take me with him...

'Dad, have you noticed how your belly sticks out over your trousers? How do you know if your shoelaces are undone? You could fall over and break your neck. Then who would look after me? You should exercise more. I know, you could join the gym.'

That part was simple. The complicated part was figuring out how to learn to swim without having lessons. Besides, the blow-blow-breathe method hadn't worked for me.

Before he left me at the pool, Dad asked the lifeguard if she would please make sure I didn't drown. The lifeguard was a grumpy old lady who looked as though she couldn't save a stamp from an envelope. She had a hooky nose and teeth missing when she opened her mouth to yell at someone. The way she blew her whistle and pointed her long, bony finger, she wasn't there for people to have fun. I decided to stay as far away from her as I could.

I lay in the water and watched the little kids having lessons. They laughed even though the water splashed up their noses and made them cough. With their tiny goggles on, they looked like blowflies. They weren't afraid to dive into the deep end of the pool either.

While everyone watched the cute little kids, no-one watched me. I copied everything they did. I hung onto the edge to kick my legs. I turned my head to the side to take breaths. I blew bubbles with my face in the water. Yet every time I tried to swim, my body behaved like a pet rock.

Then, one day the lifeguard shoved a pair of flippers at me. 'Take these.'

I scanned them suspiciously. They were perfectly ordinary-looking orange and blue flippers. 'They'll help you swim.'

'I thought they'd help me do ballet,' I said.

The lifeguard shrugged. 'It's not my swimming carnival next week.'

'How did you know?'

The lifeguard's grin resembled a piano keyboard. 'Try them.'

I had to squish my toes inside the flippers to get them on and I nearly tripped over when I started to walk.

'They're a bit tight but they'll do the job,' she said. 'They've worked for everyone else.'


The lifeguard tapped the side of her nose with her knobby finger. 'That's confidential, I'm afraid. If I were to tell you, the flippers might lose their magic powers.'

'What powers?'

'I've got to get back to work now.' She was still smiling as she walked away.

At first, I thought the story of the flippers was a practical joke. Everyone else teased me, why not the lifeguard? But when I wore the flippers, I seemed to stay afloat and move faster through the water. I could concentrate on turning my head to take a breath and I could co-ordinate my arms better.

Slowly, I began to swallow less water and I didn't need to thrash about to stop myself from sinking. I could make it nearly all the way to the end of the lane without a rest, and I would float up to the surface whenever I dived under water. If the flippers were doing all the work, why should I care?

Unless, of course, I wasn't allowed to wear them in the race. I found out when I arrived at the swimming carnival this morning. Well, how would I know if I've never swum in a race before?

So here I am, at the start of the race, realising I've made the biggest mistake of my life. I feel like I'm standing high on a rocky cliff and the water is a river far below. Without the magic flippers, I know 1 can't swim a stroke. So it looks as though I'll be called Zoe Zero for the rest of my life.

I step down, ready to drop out of the race, when I see the lifeguard standing a little way off. She smiles her piano-keys smile and taps the side of her nose.

I'm not sure what she is trying to tell me. Only I wonder if ... I can swim without the flippers. If I walk away now, I will never know.

My legs trembling, I step back onto the block. Liam is grinning as if he has already won. 'On your mark. Get set.' Pop! goes the starting pistol.

I dive into the pool and something wonderful happens. It's as if I am wearing the magic flippers. I can feel them squishing my toes, and when I kick, my body glides through the water as if my feet are propellers. The magic flippers work whether I wear them or not!

When I reach the end of the pool, the spectators are cheering wildly. Liam has won the race, but the crowd is cheering for me.

Afterwards, Liam's mum congratulates me. 'I thought Liam said you couldn't swim very well, Zoe. You did a great job today. I'm proud of you.'

Maybe if my mum knew, she'd be proud of me too.

Now I can swim, I don't need the magic flippers any more so I give them back to the lifeguard. It's funny how she tosses them into the basket with all the other flippers, as if they're not really magic after all.

Of course, no-one must ever know the secret of my success. One thing is for sure: no-one will ever call me Zoe Zero again.

Copyright © 2010 Sharon Hammad.