The Black Sea

By Jordan Sapir

“Catch from the elbow, push from the hand, look through the window, breath in from the nose, out through the mouth – no, wait, that’s running – in from the mouth, out through the nose,” I say methodically whilst walking from the train station. The plan is to take the train the first few times while it’s cold; when it warms up, I’m going to run or cycle to the pool. I’m not sure which pool yet; I guess it depends on how much I like the pool and the location. Most of the pools in the city are 25 lengths, so I have to swim 30 laps. 30 laps: at the moment that sounds terribly boring. There’s no music, of course. I will be racing and there’s no possibility of carrying around a phone: it will be me, myself and I.

Okay, head out of the clouds: I’ve arrived. I can’t waste a minute of my time today; my partner can only stay with the kids for a limited time. Training for three sports is the biggest challenge yet. I have never been one for early morning workouts. Let me reword that. Since having children, I am unable to wake up. Yes, you read that correctly. I hear stories of women who wake up at 3am to get work done before the kids wake up. In my case, the kids are my alarm; the norm is that the one-year-old sounds the alarm and the four-year- old (who has recently taken to coming to our bed every night, even though she has slept alone since she turned one) follows suit. I do, however, stay awake until 1am or 2am getting work done. My late nights mean late training. I wait for the kids’ dad to get home, make dinner, go through a strenuous bedtime routine, and only after everyone is settled do I leave. If I’m lucky it runs smoothly. If I’m not, which is most nights, Dad takes over. The little one is insurmountably unamused with being unable to pull my nose, poke out my eyeballs and twist my hair to fall asleep, but my eldest loves the extra time with dad. My night owl training starts on Monday with a swim/run Brick. Brick is the Triathlon term used for a combination workout. It helps acclimate your muscles to the variety of usage. Look at that: I am learning something. Tuesday is Muay Thai. Wednesday is Kickboxing (Cross Training). Think less boutique gym and more rubber mats covered in sweat and blood. Thursday is Cycle/Run Swim Class Brick. The aim on the weekend is to get in one long run and some additional swimming. That doesn’t always happen; who am I kidding – between weekend trips, birthday parties and illnesses, my long run ratio is laughable. I guess that’s part of being a Momlete—you’ve got to roll with the punches.

We’re in the army now. We learned to milk a cow. We pulled her tail instead of her tits and all we got was a bucket of shit. I thought I was on a roll until…

Start

In walks an amateur swimmer. I thought all the new gear was a dead giveaway. Surprisingly, people still think I look the part. My melody changes from stroke to plan. “Go in the locker room, turn left, otherwise you’ll get trapped behind the glass wall and have to climb over it again. That was embarrassing. As soon as you get the plastic card for admission and departure, make sure to put it directly in the locker. I repeat: this is the only way for you to get out of the locker room. Okay, swim cap, Flip flops, goggles—goggles! No! I forgot my goggles—How could I! Don’t panic.” I see a lifeguard out of the corner of my eye. He had his token “I’m too busy and don’t want to be bothered” look that I see so often here. That’s one of the most prevalent cultural divide I notice here. In the States, I would have just asked a friendly-faced patron or worker if they had another pair. Here, smiling for no reason to indicate openness and general pleasantness is also not the norm. “Roll with the punches,” I murmur, but only in my head. Oh, there’s a lifeguard who doesn’t look like he will judge me for my bad German grammar and American enthusiasm. My sentence sounds like something along the lines of, “Excuse me, dear kind sir, please forgive me for my interruption, but I seemed to have mistakenly forgotten my glasses and that is preventing me from swimming.”

“Ja. Okay.”

“Seriously, dude, you’re going to make me say more? Is it easier to ask you if you could lend me a pair?”

“Ja, natürlich können Sie ein Paar mieten.”

Awesome, now that was easier than I expected. I can just rent a pair. Phew, for a second I thought I would have to go back to the locker room dry bathing suit and bruised ego.’ I sort through around 4 pairs of foggy and scratched goggles from before the fall of the wall and come across a pair that don’t look like I will need a Tetanus shot to use them safely. I refrain from the inappropriate David Hasselhoff montage, but am sincerely grateful.

Off I go. Man, I’ve wasted 15 minutes with this nonsense. Now time to train. I find a lane that is free and presumably for someone who plans on swimming a few laps nonstop, like me. The melodious song continues:g “Glide, push, pull, look out the window, breath, push, pull, glide. Repeat.”

Wow, I’m finding a rhythm. I’m also not inhaling pool water through various orifices or sinking – that’s a win. This is incredible progress. I can swim 300 meters non-stop. Don’t get too excited. I actually slept four straight hours last night and neither of the kids woke up, so maybe it’s just sleep reserve kicking in. I am just doing a celebratory mental happy dance, when I hear something out the corner of my ear. But they can’t be talking to me. I’m swimming way too fast to listen. Oh, he actually is talking to me. Maybe the pool is closing and I missed a sign. Should I stop? Seriously, this is the first time in my history as a swimmer that I have ever had someone interrupt my ebb and flow (for those who have been following my story: this is an obvious exaggeration). I should stop; maybe it’s important.

Female swimmer at the swimming pool.Underwater photo.

I swim to the end and double over to a little old man. He’s clearly doing some sort of rehabilitation or some water-jogging. I admired him when I got into the pool. He and his wife were walking laps on the far outside lane. They were stopping to chat and holding hands. I love to see older couples showing affection. The voice gets louder the closer I get. Seems like he’s actually yelling. Why is he yelling? Oh no, was I swimming in the wrong lane the whole time? When am I going to get this protocol down. He’s stopped walking and is leaning against the wall shouting something at me in Bavarian. I can barely make out a word. That’s a real problem here. The old-timers like to speak Bavarian slang. For a foreigner it’s difficult to decipher if that’s just Bavarians being a bit nationalistic and nostalgic or if that’s their way of telling you that if you don’t understand you shouldn’t be talking to them. He changes to High German, most likely based on the look of bewilderment on my Gesicht. Now it’s comprehensible: “You’re splashing water all over us.”

Oh, no, I knew I did something wrong.

“Go to another lane,” he continues, “Or I’ll call the lifeguard.”

Let’s not go bezerk, grandpa, I’m just doing drills and that actually happens to be a part of it. Most likely doing it wrong, but still. I shouldn’t have to move. The New Yorker in me says, “Whacthagonnadoaboutit.” The well-travelled mom in me says, “You win, it’s your country; perhaps it was a bit much.”

Apparently that wasn’t good enough for him. He continued to murmur something under his breath while he and his wife walked away. Seriously, can’t you just give me a break? I look for another lane from the corner of my eye, but the pool is becoming increasingly full.

He continues. Now it’s audible. It’s only the second time I’ve heard that word here in Germany. I always hoped the first would be the last, but it’s unmistakable: “Nigger, you don’t belong here.” If it didn’t start with the undisguisable racial slur, I almost would have thought he meant the pool. In that case I’d have to agree that he was right. Here we go: bring on the water works. Surprisingly there were no tears in sight. All I could muster saying however was, “Sehr tut mir leid.”

In English, that would be my way of saying, “Go play in traffic.” In German, it came off as the literal translation of, “I’m sorry.”

He looked pleased with his victory. I looked defeated. There was no possible way I could finish my swim. Besides, after peering at the clock hanging on the wall I knew there was no time remaining of my training session. I walk out of the pool and past the couple. I’m no longer hearing the same trumpets that played when I first sighted them.

The walk of shame reminded me of the first time that I heard that word. I went to a neighbor’s house to play with my best friend. I couldn’t have been more than seven. Her dad was a pastor and the gatekeeper of everything family related. I went over to see if she could play outside. “Hey, Becca, hey, wanna play?”

“Nope, can’t, my daddy said I can’t play with niggers anymore.”

“Okay, see you in school.”

When I got home my mom asked me why I wasn’t playing with Becca. “Wasn’t she home? I thought I saw their car in the driveway?”

“Oh, yeah, she was, she said she can’t play with niggers anymore. What’s for dinner?”

That was one of my few encounters with racism back home, surprisingly. Here in Germany, it’s the norm. I get in someone’s way with the stroller, loud kids, wrong direction, anything can set someone off.

Also surprising, I am mostly unphased by it. In some strange way, I write it off as xenophobia as opposed to racism. Well, I’m not only black: I’m also an expat. That’s what this story is all about. A black expat momlete trying to achieve her goals – at home and abroad. That’s exactly what I’m doing. I was trying to think of one black (I don’t like the word African-American. Ask a European-African what they think of my African ancestry.) triathlete. Sika Henry. I’m going to buy a poster of her (I doubt if she has any major sportswear deals. Why would big name companies sponsor a black female athlete?) or print her picture and hang it on the wall. I always have some motivational quote, something from The Book of Five Rings, or The Art of War, with the countdown to my next race date. When my oldest asks what it says, I read it to her. I always make sure to write it in lipstick; I want her to know there is more than one use for makeup. I also want her to see that I also need to be disciplined and motivated. When she asks me, “Mommy, who is that lady?” I will tell her, “That woman, ladybug, is a triathlete.”

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The issue of race is usually on the back burner for me. Of course, I have been faced with adversity, but I never let it consume me or let it victimize me. Feminism trumps race in my opinion. I went to a predominantly white all-girls private school. We had classes like “Values and the Media”. We were expected to play two sports each year. I was a runner, so I did cross country and track and field. I also sailed, snowboarded, cross-country skied, and had horseback riding and sailing on the weekends I didn’t have meets. There was no, “Oh, you’re black and you should think about track and field and not the swim team.” I was on the cross country team, but I was always the odd woman out. I’d look around the start line and wouldn’t see a familiar face in sight, but it just so happened that the star athlete on our cross country team was a fellow black girl. We used to run together. She’d ask me why, if I paced myself so well at practice, how come I didn’t at meets. I never knew the answer until now. It’s because no one ever taught me how. They just assumed I knew how to run because I was black. Just like organizers at track and field events always guided me to the hundred yard dash line, even though I was running the two mile relay. I can go on all day long about assumptions based on race and gender, but I’ll stop there. It’s clear, based on the old man in the pool, that people will always assume the worst. He didn’t care that I am educated, or from the States, he didn’t care that I am a mom or that I live here by choice. I will always encounter people who will judge me based on my appearance. This is something that many athletes may not face.

As a mom, I just want to be a role model for my daughters. I just want them to know and love athletes of all races. Most importantly, I want them to see women who look like them, doing what they do. So, my end game with this Triathlon business? I don’t think that I will become the next Sika Henry. I do, however, want my daughters to see me persevering (although everyday I want to give up), setting goals and being the bigger person (woman). So, when someone says to them, “You don’t belong here,” they can say, “Tut mir Leid,” and it will mean I’m so sorry you are so ignorant and filled with hate.

In the end, that poor old man didn’t scare me off; he fueled my next training session. Next time I see him I might actually thank him. How ironic that my first triathlon sprint will take place in the Schwarzsee (the Black Sea).

Sport. Runner.

I step out of my trainers, quietly tiptoe to the girls’ room. I can smell the smell of sleeping babies that only a mother could recognize. I lean over little peanut’s bed, sound asleep, then my little ladybug; she turns around.

“Mommy?”

“Yes Ladybug?”

“Did you swim so fast today?”

“No, not today, baby, but I was strong and I’ll Tri harder the next time.”

That’s exactly what I’ll do. Keep Tri(ing).

 

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Jordan Sapir, mother of two glitter-laden girls, 1 and 3, studied Journalism and International Political Science in NYC, a place she once called home. She can slaughter five languages fluently. She has worked in a newsroom or two, walked a catwalk or three, and is all for an impromptu adventure. Having traded in her Prada for pretzels, the founder of Über Moms lives in Munich, where she is a stay at home mom and studying to become a certified nutritionist. She is a mommy on a mission and wants to help fellow mothers raise healthy happy families, and beat a PR here and there.

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