The Online Journal of Writer Kate Sykes
It’s almost time for my lesson to start so I go in search of the pool door. Figuring it must be connected to the showers I head back in that direction, but there’s no door to be found. Around the corner, I see nothing but another changing area with more lockers.
It doesn’t take me long to realize that whoever designed this place failed to connect the locker room to the pool, which means I’ll have to walk through the lobby in my saggy wet bathing suit.
I hike the thing up as far as I can, wrap my one tiny towel around my waist and make a run for it. As soon as I exit the locker room, someone opens the front door, and a blast of Vermont winter air hits me right between the shoulder blades. Two elderly men waiting for a tennis court stop mid-conversation and rubberneck me as I hurry past them, dripping water all over the carpet.
Of the health club’s four locations, this one seems to attract the most seniors. Residents of a nearby retirement complex come here for the pool and the exercise classes, which are all geared to a slower pace. Most days you can see a dozen or more grandmas perched on exercise balls pumping tiny hand weights. They’re adorable, and they make me proud to live in the healthiest state in the union. But it’s early February, and many of these snowbirds have flown south for the winter.
When I enter the pool, I’m relieved to find it’s practically empty. There’s one person swimming laps in the far lane and a mother supervising her two children in the splash pool. But I don’t see anyone who looks like a swim instructor.
The only source of light is the wall of windows that overlooks the parking lot, and the overcast sky flattens everything into two dimensions. From a distance, the water appears leaden, the surface still, the bottom obscured by a haze of chemicals.
I pick one of the seven empty lanes and sit down on the pool deck with my feet dangling over the side. I’ve been getting nervous about this first lesson for weeks. I even came close to cancelling it last night. But the subdued atmosphere and the sound of the water lapping at the edges of the pool calms me a little. In contrast to the air, the water feels warm, so I ditch the towel and slide in. When I touch down, I’m up to my armpits.
The pool is four feet deep, the same depth all the way across, so I don’t have to worry about hanging on to the side or treading water. This is good thing, because I’m a terrible swimmer.
It’s not that I can’t stay afloat. I grew up on a lake in Maine, where swimming lessons were pretty much mandatory. I learned all the basic strokes as kid, but I’ve never been a strong swimmer.
As I told Ben when we discussed my goals for these lessons over email, I can’t do the crawl with my face in the water, because I start to panic. I cough and sputter and generally look like I need the lifesaver tossed in my direction. My preferred method of locomotion in the water is an ugly mishmash of breast stroke, side stroke, and doggie-paddle. And, in deep water, I start to panic. Almost as soon as I’m over my head, my heart rate increases, my breathing becomes shallow and fast and I start thinking about sea monsters. It’s especially bad in open water, where I can’t see the bottom, but even in a swimming pool, I can conjure up a fear of something.
Like whatever germs are clinging to this band-aid floating by my foot. Gross! I kick at it, hoping it will migrate to another lane.
I spend the next few minutes taking a few practice strokes halfway down the lane and back. Then, at exactly three o’clock, the door to the pool opens and a young guy walks in. He’s thin, and blond and looks like he might be fifteen. By the way he’s scanning the pool, I decide he must be Ben.
I wave to him, and he comes over. He looks a little older up close, but not much. I guess he must be in his early twenties.
“Are you Ben?”
“Yep,” he says. “And you’re Kate.”
It’s not a question, and I’m struck by how confident he is, despite how young he looks. The woman at the front desk who took my payment for these lessons had nothing but great things to say about Ben. Already, I see why. He’s really sweet and charming in a kid brother sort of way. And he’s wearing clothes, which is profoundly relieving. Having no idea what to expect out of these lessons, I envisioned all kinds of uncomfortable scenarios. This I can handle.
“Let’s have you move over there.” He points to the lane closest to the edge.
While I duck under the lane dividers to get there, he walks to a shelving unit on the far side of the pool and comes back with some props. One is a kick-board, which he hands to me first.
“We’re going to warm up with some kicking,” he says.
This is obviously a softball, and I’m happy to be doing something easy to start off. I hold the kick-board straight out and begin to flutter kick, churning up a big splashy wake behind me as I go. Ben walks along the side of the pool, scrutinizing my form. His face is very serious, almost comically so. I mean, it’s just a warm up, right? How hard can kicking be?
When I get to the other end, he tells me to turn around and go back, so I do.
By the time I’m back where I started, my heart rate is up, and I’m winded but feeling energized.
“That actually looked pretty good,” he says. “How did it feel?”
“Great!” I say, trying to breathe in a way that makes it look like I’m not breathing so hard, which only makes me have to breathe harder.
“Your pace is great, and your body is level in the water.”
“Thanks!” I say, feeling pretty pleased with myself.
“So let’s try that again, only this time I want you to keep your legs straighter,” he says.
I’m not sure what he means by this so I try to clarify. “You mean, you don’t want me to bend my knees?”
“Don’t bend them quite so much. Try to kick more from your hips.”
This seems to make sense, so I nod and turn around with the board out in front. As I begin to kick I immediately see how easy it is to kick with bent knees and how much harder it is to keep them straight. It’s as though the water has thickened to the consistency of mud. So much for my awesome pace! This kind of kicking slows it down by half. Plus, my torso feels completely unstable, the action of my legs making me barrel roll back and forth with each kick. I have to grab the board and clench my stomach muscles to find any sense of a balance point.
“That’s it!” Ben calls from the sidelines. “Now point your toes!”
As soon as I do this, I feel the water close in even tighter around me, sealing me in completely. I can’t believe how such a simple adjustment can create such a radical change. This is a whole different world I’m swimming in.
It’s also an exhausting world.
By the time I make it to the end of the lane, I have to stop and catch my breath. I thought I was in pretty good shape from skiing all winter, but maybe I’ve been fooling myself.
“How did that feel?” Ben asks.
“Good,” I croak, totally sucking wind, but trying to make it seem like I’m not.
“Do you feel like you’re pushing more water?”
You mean like the whole pool? I want to ask. Because, yes, that’s how it felt. But I don’t have the lung power to utter a single word, so I just nod my head.
Before I’ve recovered completely, he sends me down the lane again. I go slower this time, but still I have to stop at the other end to breathe. I ask him a few inane questions to buy myself some more time until he finally says, “Now let’s see you swim.”
What I just did was so difficult that when I start swimming, it actually feels easy. I do the crawl all the way down to the end without inhaling any water at all.
When I get there Ben is waiting for me. “Not too bad,” he says, “but you’re breathing every two strokes, which is a lot.”
“It is?” It doesn’t feel like a lot to me. The more air the better, as far as I’m concerned.
“I’d like you to try taking a breath every third stroke, that way you’re breathing on both the left and right sides.”
To my oxygen deprived mind, “both sides” has somehow translated as “more air” and so I foolishly agree to this plan. I flip my goggles back down onto my face, and head off down the lane. The first couple of strokes I take are okay because I’m breathing on my left side, but as soon as I turn my head to the right and open my mouth, I suck in about a gallon of water.
I immediately have to stop. My feet scramble to find the bottom as I cough and gag and burp in a most unladylike way. Worried Ben might think I’m in trouble, I hold one arm up to indicate I’m okay. Breathing on the right side feels so foreign and impossible to me that I realize I must have never tried to do it before.
“Let me try that again,” I say, when I stop coughing enough to speak.
“It’s okay! Take your time,” Ben says.
On the next attempt, I totally chicken out. I turn my head to the right, but I keep my mouth closed instead of taking breath. This means I have to wait another stroke to breathe on the left where I’m more comfortable. This seems to work out okay, so I do it again, finding that I really can go four strokes without breathing. By the time I make it to the end of the lane, however, my lungs are on fire. And, when I stop, the room is spinning. I’m so off-balance, I have to hold on to the side of the pool for a second so I don’t tip over.
“How did that feel?” Ben asks.
My instinct is to gloss everything over—for my sake because I feel like a failure, and for Ben’s sake, because he seems like a nice kid, who wants other people to love swimming as much as he does. But I realize that if I keep playing it cool, I’ll never get any better at this. I need to admit that I suck. I just need to give in. “Honestly,” I say. “It felt like drowning.”