Name: Jessica Stacy
Occupation: Creative Director, Self-Employed
Local Team: MAC – Multnomah Athletic Club
My relationship with water — and eventually, swimming in it — has been fluid throughout the years. It began as a hate more than a love kind of relationship. I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, where I started swim lessons at 4 years old. I bit my swim instructor so I could get out of the lesson without having to go to the deep end. At a ranch where I grew up, I would yelp if the lake grass grazed my toes — worried there were slimy creatures lurking beneath. Yet I was more than happy to run to the edge of a 5 meter platform and leap 10 times my height for the epic splash landing that awaited below. I can’t explain it — except that I always came back to the water, whether I was ready to dive in or not.
In 1996 my family reluctantly moved to the Bay Area to follow my dad’s job. However, this became a catalyst for trying new things — including taking advantage of the sunny California summer at the local YMCA pool. My sister and I joined the Orcas, a recreational swim team where practices showed me I could kick faster than everyone, even the older kids in my sister’s lane. My coaches accidentally entered me into the 9-10 age group in my very first meet (I was always taller than kids my own age) instead of swimming in the 6&Under category. While my first race revealed backstroke as my nemesis, as I ping-ponged against the lane lines up and down the pool, I got a taste for competition that, as it turns out, I never let go. (Just like I still despise backstroke.)
Each summer, I kept coming back to the pool. Soon swimming became my favorite — and only — sport when I joined the Dolfins Swim Team in Pleasant Hill, CA. Not that it was always fun or easy. I was nine years old, terribly shy, and awkwardly tall. It was hard to fit in; I left my first practice crying because a girl asked me if I was held back in school because “your feet are SO big.” I was the slowest in my age group and thought I wasn’t fast enough to go to the County meet at the end of the season. My coach had to call me at home saying, “Get to practice — you did qualify and we need you on a relay!”
A year later I was the fastest 10 year old on the team. I broke every record in my age group and won meets across the ultra-competitive Contra Costa County. I had found my “thing,” and myself—shedding my shyness in the process. At 11 I joined the Terrapins Swim Team, a premier Gold Medal USA swim club and the home of Natalie Coughlin, and I went straight back to being the slowest on the team. I cried when I couldn’t complete 16x50s on 50 seconds, thinking I would never be good enough to hang with the faster kids. Like clockwork, a year later I became the fastest 12-year-old 200 LCM breaststroker in the country — breaking the 11-12 national age group record for a whole eight hours before getting disqualified in the Far Westerns finals due to suspicion my elbows were coming out above the water. In the following months I reeled from this while adjusting to puberty and contracting whooping cough that took me out of the pool for months. Just when I was getting used to my new 5’8” frame and getting my stroke back, my family moved once again — this time to the PNW.
I learned early on that swimming, like life, ebbs and flows. The following years would take me to different teams from MAC to Mount Hood to Skyview High School—where I only competed my freshman and senior seasons, due to Washington rules that you can’t swim with your club team during the high school season. I tried to find my feel for the water again. My best strokes would flip flop, depending on whatever my latest injury allowed me to train at the time. It was hard to have tasted success so early on and not swim up to my potential, but it also taught me there was more to life than swimming. There were friends, school, and goals that I didn’t have to let go — like earning a Division 1 College scholarship. Even while battling mononucleosis at State my senior year, I swam well enough to ink a partial scholarship to the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, in Honolulu, HI.
By now, you could guess the story of my college career. My success in the pool traded years—lackluster Freshman year, great Sophomore year, mediocre Junior year, stand-out Senior year—but my effort never receded. I found satisfaction by trying my hardest, at all my endeavors. In 2011 I managed to finish my collegiate career with best times, but I gained more than the clock could ever show. A hanai family, locals who welcomed me as a daughter of their own, and appreciation for the beauty and culture that surrounded me. At the end of the day life is all right when you wake up to a rainbow, no matter the storm that came before it.
I never knew how many lessons swimming would teach me. How it would always help me feel at home — like when I moved back to Portland and found my MAC Masters family. How it would introduce me to fast friends who inspire me in the pool and out — thanks to Nationals team trips with fellow Oregon Masters swimmers. How often it would be there when work is hard or life is tough, yet a 6 p.m. dip on Mondays/Wednesdays cures all. The rush of cold, the bubbles as each stroke methodically, meditatively flows one after the other, the endorphin-charged, seconds-long conversations between sets. My spirit refreshes and confidence resets, whenever I resurface.
2020 hit like a punch in the stomach and took many things away that we love the most—the pool being just one of them. I’m sure each of us had to battle through in our own way to make it out the other side, and I hope my fellow Oregon Masters are healthy and doing all right. 2021, surprisingly, turned out to be my toughest year yet. In February I was hospitalized with a burst appendix in a city that wasn’t my home, away from family that the pandemic kept at bay while I recovered. Thankfully, my partner was allowed to visit and never left my side. Nor did my swim family whose long distance texts inspired me to heal fast—the only thing better than swimming fast. Would you believe the first question I asked my surgeon was, “When can I get back in the pool?”
I am happy to report as of this month I am fully recovered. Though it is taking a while to get back up to speed, I will never forget how good it felt that first dip back in the water after my accident (burst appendix). I was slower than I had ever been, just floating really, but I was home. Looking up at the sky, water rippling by, smiling like the kid who fell in love with the water, after all.