The word “Ronan” means baby seal. Or, more specifically, the baby of a seal maiden and a human, like the curly haired mystery toddler in The Secret of Roan Inish. (Roan is another spelling of the same name). It is also Joe’s mother’s maiden name. Ronan was given his first name, Robert, after my grandfather, as soon as we knew we were having a boy. He was going to be Bobby Gallagher, but then we thought of Ronan; when we read the meaning, we were hooked. He was born at the height of our obsession with windsurfing, (I was actually watching a windsurfing video in the delivery room when he entered the world and almost named him Robert Nash Gallagher, after the best ever windsurfer in the world. Seriously!), so the connection to water was extra meaningful.
Many people since that day have thought the name was Ronin, as in mercenary, as in killer-for-hire. Gallagher, it turns out, also means mercenary.
“Do you realize you named your child Mercenary Mercenary?” a friend who shares our last name once asked.
“No. He’s a baby seal.”
Today, he lived up to that name.
The summer before last, I took Tess and Ronan to Leo Carrillo beach to watch the windsurfers fly over the chop at sunset.
“I want to learn to windsurf,” he said.
“Then you have to join the swim team. If you want to windsurf, you have to be able to swim a mile.” I admit, this was a little bit of a trick on my part. I can’t teach him to windsurf for a few more years regardless of how well he swims. (Though I am of course thrilled by his interest) Whatever — it worked.
Ronan joined the swim team the following month. Right away, we knew it was a good fit. Even when he complained about going, as soon as we got there, he dove joyfully into the pool. It didn’t matter how he did in the meets, he was just learning how to compete.
“All you have to do is finish,” I said at his second meet.
He won a medal.
“Were you swimming to finish?” I asked, “Or to win.”
Now, in practice, he races for an hour and a half. Every length, he’s swimming to win.
Today, he had his first meet of the season. He’s got a strong backstroke and placed in the 4th heat of the 50, second to the top. Last year, every event was his first, so he never had a time and always had to swim in the first heat.
Ronan’s team, the Hancock Sharks, competes in the South Central League. We drive straight down Western to Jessie Owens Park in South Central, LA. It’s enormous, with at least ten different teams competing: Pirates, Gators, Aquas…. all with Easy-up tents and lawn chairs and snack bars. It can be overwhelming. The noise of all those kids in the water, the parents on the sidelines, the buzzers and whistles, the strobe light and horn. When the kids sign in, their events are written on their arms in sharpie so they don’t forget. Once everyone has arrived, the heats and lane assignments are posted. It’s kind of up to the kid (and the parents) to figure out where to go. Once, Ronan missed his heat completely because Joe didn’t know the routine. (Don’t worry, Joe got him in the next heat) But still, it’s hectic.
For some reason, the meets don’t stress me out. Baseball stresses me out. It’s funny because I swam one year in college and found the meets horrifying. I’d climb up on those blocks and think: Lindsay, what in the world were you thinking? Then I’d have to hurl myself into the water and swim. Again: what was I thinking? It’s hard enough to race on land, but underwater?
Ronan does not have that feeling. He can’t wait to get up onto the blocks. He lines up for his race about 8 heats before it’s his turn. It’s jammed packed behind the blocks with kids pushing and shivering and cheering for their teammates, but it’s fun. Even when I’m timing (all parents have to take a turn at this), I’m totally absorbed in the excitement of each kid. I’m proud of swimmers I’ve never seen — our opponents — because they hurl themselves in to that giant public pool and swim their little hearts out.
“Good swim,” I always say.
“What was my time?” they ask.
In the warm up, I asked to see Ronan’s backstroke flip.
“I’m not gonna flip,” he said.
“He should do the flip,” the coach said.
I watched him struggle six times.
“Really?” I asked the coach. “Maybe he should just touch the wall.”
“No, he should flip.”
“How many strokes after the flags?” I asked Ronan. That’s how they time it, by counting from the flags.
I had him watch another swimmer underwater. The push off is critical. His race is 2 lengths – it’s won (or lost) on the turn. You have to dolphin kick underwater upside down as far as you can. He tried it again and it looked better. Still, it felt a little risky to do something he clearly hadn’t mastered at a meet.
“It will be good practice,” the coach said.
Well, that boy made me so proud today. I watched from the far side of the pool as he jumped in the water and took his position under the block. The thing I remember the most about swim meets, is how much the yelling from the sidelines helps. I can remember seeing my teammates running along side on the pool deck as I swam, screaming GO GO GO. It seems pointless to people who don’t swim, but even if you only hear every other GO, it helps.
“GO RONAN!” I screamed. “GOOOOOOO.”
And he took an early lead. He backed towards me and, yes, he turned and flipped and dolphin kicked and surfaced already swinging. “GO RONAN!!!!!”
He won his heat and a medal, too.
The thing that impresses me the most is how determined and confident he is. Let me tell you, he’s not always like that. But at a swim meet, Ronan has nerves of steel. It’s awesome. He’s awesome.
I just love my baby seal. 🙂