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The Club Fair finally began. As usual during a fair, the parking lot was packed with cars. Both the soccer field and running track were crowded with participants warming up and spectators waiting for the tournaments to start.
Koji, Kawahara, Tarō, and I met at the entrance in the morning, twenty minutes before the first tournament took place. We walked to the natatorium on the opposite side of the school. Many people headed there as well, making us jog to arrive faster and find a seat.
Even though the grandstands extended as long as the Olympic-size swimming pool, they were almost full when we arrived. Luckily, we still managed to find enough space for the four of us and Hisa. As much as I wanted to sit beside Koji, we preferred for Kawahara and Tarō to sit between us so we could avoid the risk of touching each other.
Koji stared down at his phone for a while.
"She hasn't replied?" I asked him.
We had asked Narumi to come with us this morning, but she hadn't replied to Koji's messages. I didn't even know that Koji had her contact information. Apparently, she had randomly asked for his number during a class and Koji simply agreed.
"I guess she was busy getting ready. She probably is with her friends now," I said.
"Maybe. Don't you want to wish Rem-san good luck?"
"I do, but I don't want to meddle," I giggled.
"Okay. Make sure to save Hisa a seat."
I walked down the grandstand and headed to the locker room. All the participants were there. Some of them chatted, while others preferred to be alone to concentrate. Rem—already in her swimsuit—stretched in front of her locker. Hisa sat beside her, talking with her. I felt bad for interrupting them, but I felt even worse for avoiding them.
"Hey," I greeted.
"There you are," Hisa replied.
"I thought you were never going to come," Rem smiled.
"Sorry. I just…"
"Didn't want to meddle?" Hisa interrupted.
"Yeah… But I wanted to wish you good luck, so I still came," I giggled.
"Thanks," Rem replied. "And don't give it much thought. Our friendship is still the same. Just come and bother us."
"I supposed so," I smiled. "How are you feeling?"
"Even better now that you've appeared."
"Great. When is your turn?"
"I'm in group A, so not until the third round."
"Understood. We'll be cheering for you when you go out."
"Obviously," Hisa added. "Come on, let's give her some space."
Hisa and I headed back to the grandstand where Koji, Kawahara, and Tarō waited. They had successfully saved a seat for Hisa, so we sat together. We chatted whilst we waited. Hisa didn't know Kawahara and Tarō very much; it was nice seeing them getting along well. As for Narumi, she finally replied to Koji. Just as I assumed, she said that she had been busy getting ready then met with her friends. She hadn't expected to receive a message from anyone, so she didn't check her phone until that moment.
Ten minutes later, the tournament finally began. Shimamura-sensei—the Swimming Team advisor—started talking through a microphone.
"Welcome to the Female Swimming Team friendly tournament!"
Everyone clapped, including the five of us.
"Most of you have just arrived at Kasen and are here because you're interested in our team. We want to show you how invested we are in this sport and how hard we train. And what better way to show you that than in a tournament."
Amongst the clapping, some people whistled.
"Before introducing the competitors, I'll briefly explain the tournament system. There are twenty-nine competitors, who are divided into three groups. Group A has the ten best members of the team, chosen by me. Group B has another ten members, randomly assigned. And Group C has the remaining nine members.
There are two brackets; the main bracket and the elimination bracket. Each bracket will hold three rounds. In the first round of the main bracket, the ten members of Group B will compete against each other. The best five will proceed to the second round, whilst the remaining five will be moved to Group D in the elimination bracket. The same applies to groups C and A, whose losers will be moved to groups E and F, respectively.
In the second round, the ten winners of groups B and C will compete. The best five will proceed to the third round, whilst the remaining five will be moved to Group G in the elimination bracket.
In the third round, the five winners of the second round will compete with Group A's five winners in the first round. The best five will proceed directly to the final round, whilst the remaining five will be moved to Group H in the elimination bracket."
Although most of the spectators were listening, others weren't. They had probably given up trying to understand the explanation. I couldn't blame them. Some of the people that listened looked confused.
I don't know who came up with this organization. It might be fun watching it, but understanding it is quite the challenge. Previous years were easier to understand. Though it's true that they were somewhat boring.
"Before the final round, the elimination bracket will take place. Groups D and E will compete in the first round. The best five will proceed to the second round, whilst the remaining five will be eliminated. The same applies to groups F and G.
In the second round, the ten winners of the first round will compete. The best five will proceed to the third round, whilst the remaining five will be eliminated.
In the third round, the five winners of the second round will compete with Group H. The best five will proceed to the final round, whilst the remaining five will be eliminated.
At last, the final round will take place. The winners of the main bracket will compete with the winners of the elimination bracket, where the best swimmer will win the tournament!"
Only half of the natatorium clapped. Then—surely just to follow the crowd—the rest of the people slowly joined.
"Without further ado, here come the competitors!"
The twenty-nine female team members walked out of the lockers. They stood in groups next to the pool. Shimamura-sensei announced each of their names. Of course, when Rem's name came up, Hisa and I stood up to clap.
After the remaining competitors were announced, they sat on chairs just outside the locker room. Except for ten people; Group B. They approached the starting platforms. Following Shimamura-sensei's whistles, they took off their jackets and stepped onto the platforms. Following another, long whistle, they assumed their starting positions.
Silence encompassed the entire natatorium. Even though Rem wasn't competing yet, I was already feeling the excitement of watching a competition.
A few seconds later, the starting horn blasted. Although all of the competitors jumped practically at the same time, there clearly were some worse than others. Once they reached the end of the pool and touched the edge, they turned around to swim back.
The match ended only one minute after it began. They all finished within a few seconds apart, but only the best five advanced to the next round in the main bracket.
Group C came next right after. Just like the previous match, they all finished with very similar times.
Finally, it was Rem's turn. She walked to her platform, bouncing around. She wasn't smiling, a rare sight. It meant that she wasn't only taking it seriously, she was going to give her best and more.
Shimamura-sensei gave a short whistle, indicating to the competitors to take off their jackets. The next, long whistle indicated to them to assume their positions. I held my breath for the next seconds. Until the horn blasted.
They all jumped at the same time and swam through the pool at the same speed. They reached the end and boosted back on the wall. Rem's technique was flawless, but so was all of theirs. At no moment could I see a gap between anyone.
Almost a minute after the match began, it ended.
"Did she make it through?" Hisa asked, nervous.
"I don't know. We have to wait until they announce it."
One minute later, the announcement finally arrived. Rem finished in sixth place, moving her out to the elimination bracket. No one could believe that all ten competitors finished within three seconds of each other.
Hisa and I were speechless. We jumped out of our seats and headed to the locker room, but Shimamura-sensei stopped us at the door.
"Hey, where are you going?"
"We want to talk to Rem," Hisa answered.
"No one can get in until the tournament is over."
"No buts. I know you want to support her, but you'll have to wait. Sorry."
Hisa walked away, back to the grandstand. I smiled at Shimamura-sensei and turned around to follow Hisa. She patted my shoulder before I walked away.
The rest of the tournament slowly progressed. We were restless. Luckily, Koji, Kawahara, and Tarō distracted us at times.
Finally, a few rounds later, Rem came back. Frowning, her expression was even more serious than before. But she still seemed determined to win.
She advanced to the next round in first place. Hisa and I clapped harder than anyone. With no time to relax, the next round began. Once again, she was amongst the best five; in second place.
Not even five minutes later, the third round began. Rem looked tired, but that wasn't going to stop her. She finished in second place, giving her the chance to compete in the final round. Hisa and I were very happy, but we knew it wasn't over yet.
After a fifteen-minute break, the last ten competitors walked out of the locker room and headed straight to their platforms. My heart pounded, making me breathe heavily. Hisa and I held hands tightly.
Come on, Rem. You got this!
The following seconds felt like an eternity. I couldn't calm down. I couldn't look at anything but Rem. When, out of nowhere, they jumped. Only then did I hear the horn.
Unlike the round where Rem lost, half of the competitors were quite distant from each other, whilst the other half was practically on par. However, Rem's rhythm slowly decayed through the first half, almost getting her back to fifth place.
"Come on, Rem! You've got more than this!" Hisa suddenly shouted.
Rem probably couldn't hear anything underwater. Yet, she recovered her pace in the second half and swam faster. But it wasn't enough. She finished in fourth place, just outside the podium to receive a medal. Still, everyone got a participation medal.
After the award ceremony, we ran to Rem. Hisa jumped at her and squeezed her.
"I'm proud of you."
"I know," Rem laughed.
"You gave your best," I said.
"That's why I'm happy. It wasn't enough for this, but I'll get better for the national tournament."
Out of the blue, Hisa gave Rem a peck on the lips. She blushed, whilst Koji and I were surprised. But even more shocked were Kawahara and Tarō, who didn't know about them. It was the second time I saw Kawahara that surprised. The first had been when she saw the experiment results of the previous week.
We walked out of the natatorium. Half of the spectators stayed to watch the male tournament, but we needed fresh air.
Rem threw herself on the grass, looking up at the sky. Then Hisa did the same to lie beside her.
"Go on without us. We'll catch up when Rem revives," Hisa said.
We left them alone and walked away to find a quieter place. Since we needed to wait almost an hour for the next tournament to start, we talked about Kawahara's report. Just like she explained, the results were extraordinary. Even though the data was there, she was going to need more time to formulate conclusions and even more hypotheses.
But that had to wait. The rest of the day was filled with tournaments and the next day was going to be heavier for all of us. The art exposition for Tarō, the play for Hisa, the restaurant for Koji, and the concert for me.ns220.127.116.11da2