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Geekstream: Looking for inspiration on a long swim

Nolan Peterson

I have never been in a “prime” of my life.

Unless you count when I was 2 years old, or 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 19 …

While I wouldn’t say I’m at a genetic disadvantage when it comes to being physically fit, I might have a genetic predisposition to love doughnuts.

In an effort to combat my own personal entropy — in physics, “the unavailability of a system’s thermal energy for conversion into mechanical work”; in my life, “let’s just watch Netflix!” — I signed up for a miniature triathlon. I had to wave some kind of carrot in front of my eyes.

It was during a recent training swim, in one of our amazing local lakes, where I began wondering if it wouldn’t be easier to do anything in the universe besides swim out to the middle of said lake.

It wasn’t the lake’s fault.

The water was cool, but not cold. The weeds: negligible.

My arms and legs? A tangle of knotty cramps, and a pair of lungs like lakes of fire.

I wanted to give up. I wanted to let the deep have me.

But then … I didn’t.

Just in my head, I like to think that the body is a machine. Parts worn out? They can be (mostly) replaced. But if the machine’s specs say it can’t handle the load, the machine will break down.

So it’s curious that I didn’t drown.

It was the first time I’d gotten in the water all year, but what went through my head was memories of a movie from years ago called “Gattaca”

For those of you who don’t know the movie, shame on you!

But really, it’s a remarkably bright dystopia where the genetically enhanced people go about their extraordinary lives with cold, passionless efficiency that leaves little room for the naturally born people with faulty equipment but gobs of ambition.

In it, Ethan Hawke plays Vincent, a character whose weak heart could kill him prematurely, but who — despite odds and in the face of those who would keep him down, succeeds in his goal to leave Earth on an exploration to Titan, one of Jupiter’s moons.

One theme in this film stood out in my mind as I was on this training swim. It involves Hawke’s character competing with his genetically superior brother to see who could swim the farthest from shore before getting too scared and turning back.

Vincent, weaker of body, is seen losing this battle against his brother time and again throughout their lives.

I pumped my arms and legs furiously, trying to get my body to swim more than I feared it was capable. But, my thoughts kept returning to those scenes.

Here was a character who was born with a defect; he was never expected to live more than 30 years. His ambition, his drive to accomplish something that was more important to him than dying was, to a great degree, inspiring.

After all, that’s one of the main functions of a story: to inspire.

We’re all just the protagonist of the story we are telling ourselves.

So what if I told myself to push harder, like Vincent did when he refused to let his machine’s specs determine the load he could lift?

What if I refused to let my past couch potato-ry determine my future?

I was nearing the point of no return. It was either return to shore, or keep pushing.

In the film, Vincent beat his brother, who much later memorably asks, “How are you doing this? How have you done any of this?”

To which Vincent replies: “I never saved anything for the swim back.”

So what did I do?

What are you crazy? I turned back! This isn’t a movie, I would have drowned out there or gotten clipped by a speed boat. This isn’t Hollywood, sheesh.

Nolan Peterson can be reached at