Scalding water seared my skin. I should have reached back to turn the shower nozzle colder, but I hesitated. My muscles ached from my workout and for the moment, the pulsing heat offered a sweet escape from the mounting soreness. I hunched forward another inch and let the water drip between my shoulder blades and down my spine. I lathered a loofa with body wash and dragged it down across my neck and breasts, easing the tension from my body as I squeezed my eyes closed. It’d been another long day in the gym and I had new bruises to show for it.
It was the beginning of summer and the Olympic games were right around the corner. I had nothing to look forward to but days spent in the gym, sharpening my skills for Rio. For the last few years, my life had followed the same routine: I woke up early, scarfed down breakfast, and caught the 8:00 AM bus that stopped a block away from the tiny one-bedroom apartment I shared with my mom. Thirty minutes later, the bus would drop me off across town in the ritzy area of Austin where wealthy families could afford the exorbitant fees for gymnastics classes. I’d carve out a spot for myself in the gym and spend my day training in solitude, too advanced for even the elite level classes. I didn’t mind though; it was easier if I kept to myself and focused on my own skills. At the end of the day, I’d ride the bus back home and crash, too tired to worry about anything other than nursing my aching muscles.
It was monotonous to say the least, but that day had been slightly different, made interesting by the announcement made by my coach, Igor, in the middle of my floor rotation. He’d pulled me aside and I’d focused on his grim expression. I’d barely comprehended his words the first time, but when he repeated the news, I stilled.
“Coach Winter was hospitalized last night. He won’t be the head coach in Rio anymore.”
Coach Winter was the most famous women’s gymnastics coach in the Unites States, a household name even to those who didn’t follow the sport. He had filled the head coach position for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team for the last thirty years, shaping young gymnasts and helping them win gold for their country. He’d been there for the Athens games, the London games—all of them.
I’d only worked with him a few times. His gym was an hour north of Austin and I didn’t have the means to drive there every day for workouts. Still, it had always been known he would be coaching me for the games in Rio.
“The USGA has already appointed a new coach to fill his spot,” Igor continued.
My eyes widened at the news. “So soon?”
“Is it you?” I asked, hopeful.
He shook his head. “Erik Winter, his son. Turns out, you and the rest of the team will leave for Seattle to train with him for a month before you head down to the games.”
The news had come as a shock, considering there were already plans in place. The rest of the team and I were expected to train with Coach Winter at his gym in North Austin for a month leading up to the games. We were expected to stay on his property and fly out to Rio from there. Now—suddenly—we were going to Seattle to train with his son? A coach I’d never met?
I turned around and let the hot water run down my chest, dipping the loofah down across my stomach and thighs. I closed my eyes and tried to recall facts about Coach Winter’s son, but I came up blank. Truthfully, I hadn’t even realized Coach Winter had a son. During the few times I’d been around him, he’d never once mentioned him.
I replayed the name in my head as I washed off and stepped out of the shower. I wrapped myself up in an old towel. It smelled like lilacs—the same scent my mother had washed our clothes in for the last twenty years—but my eyes caught on the fraying edges. Soon, we wouldn’t be able to ignore how threadbare it was.
My mother was still at work so I had our bedroom to myself. I tightened the towel across my chest and fired up the ancient laptop we kept on a small desk beneath the window. The heavy curtain was drawn, keeping out the light; it was better that way. The view of the dilapidated apartment complex and our less than savory neighbors was better left to the imagination.
The internet browser was already pulled up on the computer as I took a seat; I’d been looking at my bank account the night before and had forgotten to close the tab before heading to bed. Even though I tried to avoid it, my eyes still caught on the account balance frozen on the screen: $467.32.
I closed the tab, ignored the dread filling my stomach, and typed Erik’s name into the Google search bar. I was curious about my new coach.
It wasn’t hard to find information about his gym, Seattle Flyers. It was one of the most well-known training facilities in the nation. There were articles highlighting Seattle Flyers’ rise to notoriety, the gymnasts Erik had coached, and the type of training one could expect at his world-class facility. Yet, there was hardly any information on Erik himself.
I gathered from a Wikipedia page that he was 29, unmarried, and an ex-gymnast. Beyond that, there was nothing.
I clicked over to the images page, expecting the same result, but sprinkled in among photos of his gym, I found a single professional headshot dated back a few months. I clicked to expand the image and the moment his face filled my screen, my gut clenched and I tightened the towel across my chest. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting—maybe someone more similar to the grizzled Soviet-era coaches I’d had growing up—but the man I saw staring back at me made my stomach clench and my heart pound a heavy rhythm against my breastbone. I let myself linger over his features, inhaling his ink-black hair and sharp jaw before settling on a pair of blue eyes that seemed to reach right through the computer screen and see me, alone and naked, still wrapped in my towel from my shower.