Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How Drowning Taught Me To Swim

In one of her latest blog entries, Cindy showed off pictures of her adorable bubs cavorting in the sickeningly blue and gorgeous sea that makes up San Diego's beach estate. In the comments section she asked me how I came to learn how to swim. And I figured it was a good enough story to tell here.

It goes without saying that this is not the preferred method for getting motivated to learn.

Back when I was 6 years old and still Catholic (another story), my mother enrolled us at a local day camp in the Bronx run by the Sisters of St. Rita of Cascia. In addition to spending all day doing arts and crafts in the back room of the church, they would take us kids on field trips to various parks and pools. On one such occasion, we all drove out to the suburbs and spent the day at a very large private pool, complete with a kiddie slide and diving board. Unfortunately, the kiddie slide lined up with the deep end of the pool. I know, wtf?

I bet you think you know where this is going, but you're wrong.

You see, I was not dumb enough to attempt sliding down that slide (though I dearly wanted to) until I could guarantee I would not end up in the deep end. I was too smart, you see. So I walked from the shallow part out into the middle of the pool until I neared the invisible line where the deep end began. Since I couldn't see it, I had to "feel" it out by sticking one foot tentatively in front of the other, all the while lining up my position with the bottom end of the slide. Like I said, I was a genius!

And just when I was perfectly lined up with it, a grin spreading on my face -- swoosh, down I went! How was a 6 year old supposed to know that the deep end of the pool was really a downward sloping hill as slippery as a ski slope? Before I knew it, I was way over on the deep side, with no way to get back to the shallow end. I sputtered and flailed my arms, then sank like a stone 8 feet down to the bottom. I remember feeling my feet touch the floor of the pool, then kicking with all my might for the surface. When I broke, I tried to gasp for air and scream for help at the same time. My body deemed it could not do both of these things simultaneously, so it picked the more important one: breathing. I slapped my hands on the surface as I felt myself going back under. Right when I made to scream, water entered my mouth and I choked on my way down. But did I see the lifeguard finally take notice and turn my way? God, I hoped so!

On the way back up for the second time, I saw the lifeguard girl diving into the water. I quickly grabbed some air, my heart pounding and legs kicking like crazy, before going down for a third time. Then suddenly I felt strong arms come up under me and hoist me to the surface. I don't remember getting carried from the pool, or unceremoniously dumped on the side. But I remember everyone staring at me.

"Are you okay?" was all the girl asked, wanting to get back to chatting with her friends.

"Yeah," I croaked, too embarrassed to admit that I almost died. She shrugged and turned around and left me there to cough out what felt like half the contents of the pool from my stomach. I guess lifeguarding standards were different back in those days. I'm sure looking back now that the girl was probably no older than 14 or 15.

I never said anything to anyone, but that incident scared the hell out of me. I could not stop thinking about how I had almost drowned. To this day, this remains my most frightening way to die. I'd take getting gored to death by an ornery rhinoceros over drowning or asphyxiating. Not that I want to get gored to death, mind you. I'm just saying.

Anyway, the next time they took us swimming, it was to a lake. I was 7 at the time, and I spent the whole day teaching myself how to swim. The camp counsellor's idea of teaching us was to throw each kid in the deep area of the lake and laugh as we spluttered and kicked and caused a big commotion. After my incident the previous summer, I wanted no part of that. So I stayed by myself in the shallow end while my friends (who knew how to swim) played around me.

Eventually I learned to just relax with my head under water, and then to imitate someone falling over flat on his face. Once I got over the initial fear of letting my feet leave the ground, the rest was just a matter of rhythm. In the shallow water I felt safe to experiment, so I alternated between kicking with just my feet, to stroking with just my arms, then finally doing both at once. Each time I panicked, I knew I just had to set my feet down and I would be fine. Before long I was swimming like a fish. It's amazing how fast kids can learn things, even in the grip of fear. Especially if your friends can do it already. Peer jealousy is perhaps the greatest motivator for a child.

Anyway, ever since that day I swam every chance I got. My family went to the beach often, and I spent one summer when I was 12 going to the local public pool every single day (even when it rained). In this manner I became quite an adept swimmer. In high school, I took swimming class just as a way to avoid boring regular gym. The coach was so impressed with what I thought was an untrained style, that he *begged* me to join the swim team. I mean, literally, he begged. He would not leave me alone. But there was nothing I hated more than being at school at that age, and the thought of having to be there even longer to participate in some extracurricular sport was anathema to me. Hell no!

Looking back I wish I had, though. It wouldn't have been so bad. Maybe I could have been the next Michael Phelps? Nah, okay, let me not get too carried away now. :-)

And this all came about because I almost slept with the chlorinated fishes one summer afternoon when I was six. The fear and humiliation of having to be rescued drove me to never allow myself to be in such a helpless position again.

I'm sure there's a metaphor for life there somewhere.

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