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Summer of 2005, Shanghai.
Jia Yue looked at the pool filled with water in front of her, and anticipation bloomed inher.
This pool is her de facto home, her school and her world.
The sky outside has started to fade. But the eternally lit fluorescent lamps of the Indoor Swimming Pool provided enough light for the pupils of DongLing Academy of Swimming, the nations’s Premier institute for training in Swimming.
Jia Yue started her traditional warmup exercises, as her Shifu walked past her.
In DongLing, there was never any discrimination between boys and girls, and they were in fact encouraged to compete with each other.
Jia Yue is a natural and even most of the boys were no match to her. Most of the boys.
Except for one.
Discreetly, she turned her head to look for him.
There he is, on the other end of the pool. A young boy stood calmly, unlike the others who were feverishly warming up.
He had eyes only for the water, as if he’s taking in the almost nonexistent waves. It’s like he’s gauging his rival. His rivals are not his fellow swimmers.
It’s the water.
“Yue!” suddenly as resounded through the pool.
Shifu was looking at her angrily. “Why did you stop?” he demanded.
Her eyes widened with guilt and she looked down.
“I’ve been noticing since the last few weeks, Yue. You’ve been lacking focus. I’m tired of this behaviour,” Shifu told her, his eyes filled with rage.
“I’m sorry, sir!” she told, meekly.
“Sorries are not enough, Jia Yue,” he said, calling her by her entire name. He does that only when he’s very angry. She could feel the eyes of the other swimmers boring into her.
“If you won’t end up first in this race, you’ll have to spend the entire night practicing here,” he declared.
She didn’t look up as she nodded. Everybody was staring at her in shock, long having stopped whatever they were doing.
She didn’t feel embarrassed. Shifu had taken over the role of both her mother and father since she was 5 years old. Her parents had recognised the talent in her even at a tender age and had admitted her in the nation’s best academy for Swimming.
They would come to visit her occasionally. But since the last three months, there had not been a word from them.
She looked up and saw that he is staring at her. Immediately, she turned away.
She knew that she would have to spend the rest of the night swimming here, for sure.
Because not only her, but nobody else had ever been able to beat him.
The nation’s Best Swimmer – Li Han.
“Get Ready!” ordered Shifu, in his booming voice.
Quickly everybody started scrambling for positions.
Jia Yue casually stepped forward and waited for the whistle. She turned her head to see who’s standing beside her and was surprised that it’s Li Han, with his eyes glued to the water.
Though he’s of her age, his physique was much more developed than her and even most of the other boys. He has a perfect swimmer’s body – with a tall and flexible body, long legs and hands and wide shoulders.
There’s no way shell be able to beat him. Because when it comes to power, he happens to domineering everybody in this entire province. Whereas she gets past with sheer hardwork and passion for swimming.
She loves swimming. She loves it more than anything or anybody else in the world, except for her parents.
She loves the water. She loves the Chlorine. She loves the waves that lap her body as she cuts streams through the still water.
Turning to focus on the water, she decided that it doesn’t matter if she wins or loses tonight. She’s not going to swim to compete or to survive.
She’ll swim because she wants to.
“On your mark!” announced Shifu. She immediately tensed. She could feel the adrenaline coursing through her.
Her every muscle vibrated and hummed as the whistle sounded shrilly.
She plunged into the blue depths of the water. And it was as if a gateway to a new world had opened to her. Everything within the radius of her sight was blue.
Her body moved gracefully underwateras her hands propelled her forward. Everything else felt numb as she became numb with water.
Finally, she emerged from the water only after the pool wall struck her fingers.
The whistle rang shrilly again.
Though water was dripping from her eyelashes, obstructing her view, she could see that she’s the first one to finish the race.
Shocked, she frantically turned to search for Li Han.
There he is, next to her.
He’s come second!
She defeated him!
The National Under 16 Swimming Champion Li Han has lost to her!
She turned to look at Shifu, but found that he’s frowning at Li Han, who’s looking back at Shifu expressionlessly.
“Han,” said Shifu, quietly. ” Extra practice till 3 a.m. Solo. Backstroke.”
Li Han took this in calmly, even as she silently gasped in horror. This ‘practice’ is just a euphemism for nightlong torture.
Li Han NEVER loses. So what happened now?
“Class Disperse!” commanded Shifu.
Immediately, the dorm wardens appeared out of nowhere and stood in a single row. The students assigned to a specific warden just stood behind the warden in a neat column. The wardens slowly started leading the four hundred odd students who had been practicing in more than ten Olympic size Pools, to their dorms.
Yue could feel the looks of admiration thrown in her way.
After all, she’s the first one to conquer the undefeated Li Han. But she knew that something must have happened.
Most likely, Li Han must have sabotaged.
She joined her column in the girls dorm and was the last one to leave the hall.
Before she finally stepped out, she turned to sneak a look at Li Han.
He was standing all alone in the Pool Hall, illuminated by the fluorescent lights. Shifu followed behind her, and the Pool Hall’s doors shut behind her with a firm bang, separating him from the rest of the world.
That night, all the students dug into their meal with even more vigour, mainly because they witnessed Li Han’s first defeat.
But Jia Yue was morose. She picked at her stuffed dumplings and Kungpao Chicken and hardly swallowed the broth. The lonely image of Li Han was flashing in front of her eyes. She simply couldn’t bring herself to eat anymore, though her girl friends kept congratulating her for her success.
Finally, she left the table, declaring her intention to sleep. No one stopped her as they felt she deserved the rest after such an exciting day.
Even in bed, she couldn’t get herself to close her eyes without remembering the intense stare down between Shifu and Li Han.
She tossed and turned even when all her friends had already slipped into deep slumber.
Unable to sleep, she tiptoed out of her hard mattress of a bed. The Giant Clock in the Dorm Hall showed that it’s 1 a.m. She made a decision.
The doors of the pool hall were still closed firmly, when Jia Yue tried to open them noiselessly.
In the stillness of the night, even the clicking of grasshoppers and the croaks of frogs seemed magnified. When she finally managed to push the doors open, she was partly blinded by the fluorescent lights.
Under the bright lights, all alone, he somehow appeared different to her – older, mature and stronger. It was at times like these that she realised that she’s training with who’s probably one of the best athletes in the world in his age category.
And he looks so effortlessly at ease in the water. His positions are a delightful study for any swimmer. The way he swims is a perfect balance of physics and anatomy. All the right joints at the right angles. She stood there, transfixed, watching him swim.
He was more like a chess player. With the right moves under his sleeve, and a tactic for every opponent.
She knew that a lot of research has gone into him turning out like this. She’d often seen him carry piles of books around, forever improving his game plans and moves and styles.
When he noticed her, he paused. ” What’re you doing here?” he demanded, imperiously.
“Hi!” she said, softly. “I just thought that you might be hungry.”
She held out the stuffed dumplings she’d sneaked out from the kitchens.
He frowned. “Where’d you get them from?” he asked her, suspiciously. His voice was deep, like the depth of the pool.
She brushed back a lock of her short black hair. “I stole them from the kitchens.”
He cracked an almost imperceptible smile at that. “I didn’t know you could do that.”
She shrugged. “Now you do.”
He slowly climbed out of the pool. The smell of chlorine still clung to his body.
She handed him her towel. “Thought you might need it,” she added, considerately.
He eyed her towel with some hesitation, but finally decided to take her up on her offer. “Thanks,” he murmured, brusquely.
They both sat on the pool edge, with their legs in the water. He’s still in his swimming trunks, whereas she’s in her pyjamas and sweater.
“How did you manage to escape from the kitchens?” he asked her, thoughtfully.
She winked at him. “I slid down the pipes near the exhaust window.”
“You could have been killed,” he pointed out, scowling.
“Nah, never,” she said, shaking her head. “The same way you never lose.”
He stilled at that and continued eating.
“Why did you do it?” she asked him, quietly.
“Do what?” he asked her back, without looking at her.
“Lose,” she finally confronted him. This was the first time she’d ever talked to him.
And this must be the first time he’d ever talked to anybody in this Academy who’s not Shifu. And yet there was no discomfort.
He eyed her drily, as he said, “I didn’t lose. You won.”
She opened her mouth and closed it, trying to process what he said. Then her eyes widened with understanding. “It means one and the same!” she protested.
He chuckled to himself. She was surprised. He looks different when he actually smiled. He looked free and more of his age. “I lost because you deserved to win,” he said, in a mocking tone.
She nodded knowingly. “That I agree with.”
He seemed take aback by her lack of modesty. She looked at him squarely in the eye, as she said, ” Youmlook at swimming as if it’s an art, a science, a mystery to be cracked. You don’t love it the way I do.”
He smiled to himself as he spit out the cabbage in the dumplings.
“Yes. And what’s so wrong with that? It’s working, isn’t it?” he asked her, in a challenging tone.
She didn’t answer. Because what he said was also true.
“But then,” he continued. “You swim with your guts. Water is like your home. And it probably will never be mine. I may always win. But I’ll never be able to love those moments of victory because I feel like I don’t belong here.”
She bent forward and cupped the water in her hands. Slowly she loosened her fingers and watched the water slip through them.
“Why don’t we help each other, then?” she asked him, still looking at the water.
“What?” he asked her, puzzled.
She turned to look at him. “You teach me how to use my brains and I’ll teach you how to use your guts.”
He smiled at her wryly. “And why should I do that?”
To his surprise, she seriously considered his question. “I think it’s because the winner should always be between one of us. Not somebody else.”
He sighed and turned away from her. He lithely slid into the water.
She stood on the edge, watching him swim away from her.
“What do you say?” she shouted. “Yes or no?”
He paused and turned to face her. “I didn’t say no did I?”
She ruffled her hair, confused. “But you didn’t say yes either.”
“I don’t always spell it out,” he said, curtly, turning away from her.
Her lips stretched into a grin as he glided through the water, with his back facing her. His voice, though, floated back to her.
“Everytime I don’t say no, it means yes.”
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