I’ve been promising to talk about my swimming journey since I started here, and I’m going to do that in a minute, but first a moment of illumination.
I can’t even remember when I first started getting in a pool. My father was a big, powerful swimmer and loved taking us to the local pools. I took swimming lessons at the Y when I was about five, I guess, but even then, I didn’t like to put my face in the water. When I was about seven or eight, I dove in a pool, cracked my head on the bottom and passed out. My dad was watching and snatched me up before I drowned (no doubt the lifeguard would have done so in any event), but it scared the living daylights out of me. Nothing could persuade me to put my face in the water again.
In tenth grade in Colorado, children are required to learn to swim. I dutifully learned every stroke—back, side, breast—but they couldn’t get me to breathe in the water for freestyle. No way.
Thus it remained for decades. I loved swimming, with my kids, on my own. I’m a strong swimmer, too, thanks to all the muscles from gardening. It’s relaxing and enjoyable and easy. I can swim back and forth for hours—back, side, breast.
Three years ago, I decided enough was enough. I was going to learn how to swim a proper free-style. I would take lessons and figure it out and practice until I got better, and then, eventually, I would be able to swim a mile without stopping. Even if it took a decade.
I hired a teacher, who was all of seventeen. She could not understand what I meant when I said I didn’t know how to breathe in the water. I said, “What would you tell a small child who was learning from the start?” That’s where we started.
I didn’t master it in that six weeks. I was too embarrassed to practice in front of her much, and even more embarrassed at my gargantuan slashing in the pool next to smooth lane-swimmers who barely broke the water. But I practiced.
And practiced. I choked and coughed. I splashed massively and embarrassed myself by stopping mid-lane more than once. It took months before I found any kind of rhythm at all, and months more before it felt even remotely like something I could sustain. I tried two-breath strokes. Four-breath. Finally tried three, but that was hard, turning side to side. For anyone who learned to swim young, this seems ridiculous, I’m sure. In fact, swimming is not a simple activity. The brain is absolutely certain the body is going to drown any second.
For awhile, discouraged by my excrutiatingly slow progress, I gave up on swimming and started focusing on other things. I moved to a new gym and they had a pool outside. One night, I saw a woman swimming luxuriously at dusk and I desperately wanted to be her.
I started practicing again. I knew the three stroke breath was the best, and focused on making that work. I showed up at the outside pool when there were not many people in the lap area, and swam under the open sky. I started feeling the way I had as a young girl and then teen, who would do any chore, anything, to get to the pool every single afternoon and stay there all day. It was absolute, complete bliss.
Maybe because I finally relaxed. Maybe because I was more comfortable at the new gym being a clutz (there are lots of us there), one evening, just at dusk, I warmed up as ever, and then moved into my freestyle—
And just swam. I forgot about counting or breathing or being careful not to go too fast. I looked at the light on the bottom of the pool and felt the air on my arms and breathed and moved and breathed and moved, and then I swam another lap and another, and then I didn’t care if it was freestyle or side stroke or backstroke, in fact if I swam backstroke, I could look up at the sky and the mountains, and the water stroked my body and I was free and light as feathers.
All those days of practice finally came together into muscle and body memory. Victory! I still can’t swim very far. I’m slow and likely not that graceful. But I can swim with my face in the water. I was 50 years old when I took lessons from that teenager, and it meant I had to be a total beginning and make myself vulnerable.
I am inordinately proud of myself. I have learned a new skill. I will get better at it, over time. Better and better. One of these decades, I’ll be able to swim a mile without stopping. Freestyle, breathing. You wait and see. (Also, I am going to swim in that pool in Sydney, I swear it. Isn’t it fantastic? There is one in a hotel in Singapore, high above the city, that I want to swim in, too. At night. This is also one I loved, a retired 1930s pool in Rotorua NZ, where CR and I swam in the pouring rain. GLORIOUS day!:
What would you learn if you gave yourself permission to be a beginner and risk looking foolish? What secret desire lurks in your heart?