It was cold those mornings. Thought the afternoons sweltered to a sweaty eighty to ninety-five degrees, in those early hours the temperatures often wouldn’t reach much above fifty degrees with a cool breeze. The pool water was frigid, but actually felt like a reprieve in those cases, after I walked shivering across the concrete patio toward the pool, fresh from the ice cold water in the locker room showers where each of us were instructed to rinse off before heading into the pool.
I wasn’t a great swimmer. Though several friends I made later in life who were great swimmers pointed out that I had the body for it, I never really developed a level of comfort in the water or the right muscles to achieve more than average competence for someone who had had four seasons of lessons.
My third summer, I forgot how to achieve even adequacy.
The crawl stroke is, from my recollection, the most fundamental in swimming--laying flat in the water, face down, arms straight and rotating like windmills, coupled with kicking to propel the swimmer forward through the water. While I had developed a fair enough aptitude for the back stroke (essentially the same formation, but lying with my back on the water—slower and less easy to navigate, but easier to breath) and for staying still, treading water when I couldn’t touch the bottom, I hadn’t ever mastered the crawl. And when I started swimming lessons again for a new summer, and my group warmed up with laps across the pool, I couldn’t manage more than four or five strokes before being completely gassed--needing to stand up and catch my breath before I tried again.
I was put back a level--tantamount to being demoted from the fourth grade back to third. I was disappointed and a little humiliated. My father, who watched my lessons alternately from behind the wrought iron fence around the pool, or from a viewing area up above the locker rooms, was apoplectic.
He brought me back to the pool the afternoon of that particular lesson. The concrete around the pool was blazing hot by then beneath the afternoon sun, thus I remember skipping more than I walked across it,eager for the chill of the chlorinated water, despite my trepidation about getting into the pool with my dad.
Predictably, that afternoon lesson did not go well. Like other occasions when my father tried to teach me something, I began the lesson with a combination of fear and recalcitrance that slowed the learning process by inestimable degrees, which led to him forcibly pushing my head underwater and insisting that I hold my goddamn breath.
The weeks to follow were less violent, if little less focused. Outside the pool, my father had me hold my breath and turn my head to practice breathing and when the WWF came to town he told me we could get tickets if I could swim fifteen strokes uninterrupted. I got as many as thirteen but didn’t make quota. We still went to the show on the condition I would hold up my end of the bargain the following week (in retrospect, I’m pretty sure my father had already bought the tickets).
But that following week, I figured it out.
The textbook crawl stroke sees the swimmer take a stroke with his right arm, face down, holding his breath. Then swing his right arm and turn his head to the right, out of the water to take a breath. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. I had been turning my head, but not really breathing, too frantic, anxious to take the next stroke and turning my head in little more than a symbolic motion.
I started breathing.
My breath under control and my body better acclimated after a few weeks of visiting the water, I moved to the head of my class (the class I’d previously graduated, then been moved back to, but it felt like a victory nonetheless). I didn’t have any illusions about swimming at a higher level than I really could--about swimming at Olympic speeds or with any more perfect form than I had developed. But with my breathing under control, I felt the sensation that I could swim forever. That I could keep going.
Throughout my middle and high school years, there were occasions to swim. Swimming during recreational activity periods at camp. Swimming at pool parties. A trip or two to the Enchanted Forest water park. When I headed off to college and in the immediate aftermath, the reasons to swim grew fewer and further between.
But I always had faith that my swimming would stick with me. That once I had remembered/learned how to swim for real, the skill would never leave me.
Fast forward to me at age twenty-five. A beach trip with friends.
The others made it to a sandbar forty yards out, where they could stand again, high above the waves. I tried. Tried again. I was in decent shape at that point in my life, but hadn’t used my swimming muscles for years. I tried one more time. My heart raced and I swallowed a mouthful of salt water. And I headed back for the shore.
I was nine years old again. Before I remembered how to swim. Before I believed I could swim forever. And though I wasn’t any more proud to return to the shore than I once had been to stand up in the middle of a lap, I knew what I was doing.
Back on the beach, ten, fifteen minutes after my skin had dried, my friends returned, hair slicked, dripping ocean water, and asked me why I hadn’t joined them. They said I seemed like a strong swimmer.
I shook my head.
I swam once more, a week after I got back from the beach trip, in the swimming pool at my apartment complex. Without the unpredictability of waves to contend with, I managed to swim three and a half laps without stopping. Then I stood, there in the center of the pool. There was no deep end there. Yes, my muscles tired, but I wasn’t exhausted. I could carry on. I thought to myself I would come back to that pool, once a week or so for as long as the weather held out and the pool stayed open. I would persevere.
I haven’t swum again since.