At age 39, I’ve decided it’s time to learn to swim.
It’s not that I’m afraid of the water. I can’t remember ever having been. I can paddle around and get where I need to go in a pool. I can do it well enough that I could pass a “swim test” at summer camp to go into the deep part of the lake when I was a kid. I even learned to water ski when I was a teenager. I can sorta dive. But I’ve never learned strokes or how to properly swim.
My parents tried. They sent me to Red Cross swimming lessons at Hickey Pool in Russellville, Arkansas for several summers in a row. I never got past Advanced Beginner. It’s the breathing. I’ve never been able to breathe without nearly drowning myself.
The thing about learning to swim when you’re an adult, it’s humbling. I really can’t think of anything quite as humiliating as flopping around in the water trying to turn my head at the proper angle to let air in, but not water. Fortunately, my lessons are at a time of day when it’s pretty much just me, some toddlers and a few seniors at the pool.
The whole thing is counterintuitive. Running, yoga, any other exercise instructs you to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. In swimming, you breathe in through your mouth and out through your nose. My body is so confused. So there’s lots of flopping and water inhalation.
I was surprised at the amount of anxiety I had before my first lesson. I’m taking lessons from my son’s swim team coach. She’s not much older than me, but infinitely more patient and kind. She’s also taught innumerable people to swim. She knows what she’s doing. She’s done her best to put me at ease.
She told me at my first lesson that she’s a believer in timing. Swimming is little more than rhythm and timing. And so is life. “I get a lot of adult students who feel like they should have done this sooner,” she said. “But if you’d done this, then you wouldn’t have been doing the things you were then, and who’s to say that wasn’t exactly what you were supposed to be doing then? It’s ultimately what brought you here today. So this is your time to do this thing.”
If you’ve gotten the idea that she’s pretty zen, you’d be right. And that’s really helpful because let’s face it, I’m the opposite of zen most of the time. As ridiculous as I feel doing this, she insists I’m progressing very nicely. In fact, she told me I show promise of being a good swimmer. If I’d had any interest as a kid, I might have been very good at it.
I was never an athlete. There were some ill-fated attempts at basketball and softball. Mercifully, my parents saw how wretched I was, and didn’t make me play more than a couple of seasons. I never tried anything else. I was on the drill team and cheered during high school, but I’ve never considered myself athletic beyond the ability to kick my legs very high in the air while wearing a short skirt. No, I don’t still do that sort of thing.
I’ve never been sad that I didn’t play sports. I don’t think I missed out on some critical piece of life, and I’ve had a deficit because of it. I didn’t have anything against sports. They just didn’t really seem to be my thing. I was doing other things, and for the most part, being happy doing those. So I was surprised how proud I felt when she said I had some natural ability as a swimmer. I’ve never thought of myself as having natural ability at much of anything that didn’t involve words.
Maybe I could have been a swimmer sooner. Maybe not. But there is now a little place inside me that’s full. I didn’t even know it was there or that it was empty before. It’s full of the idea that this path was never truly closed to me. It’s just never been my time to be on it until now.
My son told his friends I’m taking lessons. Because second grade boys are often contrary, one declared I would never be a good swimmer. Jackson bowed up the way only a little boy can in defense of his mom, “My mom is gonna be a GREAT swimmer! You’ll see.”
After hearing that I have some modicum of skill and my son’s grand defense of my swimming prowess, I got so full of my own self that I challenged him to a race this summer. When the club opens the 50 meter pool for the summer, we’re having the 2015 Case Race. I’m going to have to practice a lot between now and then. He’s getting pretty good at swimming on his team.
By the sober light of day, I’ve become reasonably sure he’s going to smoke me. And that’s really ok. I’ll be in the race, which is more than I ever have been before. And I have a good 40 years or more to get better at it.