Back in the Pool

June 30th, 2009

It’s weird how I can identify a fear as totally irrational, and yet, still feel afraid. I was looking down through the glass at the college pool, one floor below, with my new friend Gail. She swims frequently, and the quiet pool called to her. For me, even though at one time I had swum over 3000 yards every day, I just saw an empty pool that looked ominous and lonely rather than peaceful.

Even getting ready was unnerving, despite the fact that one summer I’d even occasionally swum laps in this very pool. All of that seemed so distant, ever further away than when I’d packed my swim bag the night before. When I unearthed my old Reebok bag that was missing a zipper pull, I wasn’t too optimistic about the endeavor. Yet, when I pulled out everything inside I was shocked that my bathing suit still fit, my cap was not a solid piece of silicon (apparently because it was unused), and there were my goggles, ready to go, too.  I even found my Ultra Swim shampoo which claims to chemically extract the chlorine from my hair. It was like I hadn’t left off swimming so long ago.

Standing in the locker room, however, I didn’t even know if I’d even remember how to stuff all my hair into the swim cap. Gail had run back to her room to get her swim gear, and I wandered around in my Speedo and cap, damp from the “shower before entering pool,” warm water dripping out from my cap onto my shoulders. I considered myself in the mirror. A bit of unsightly bulge at the back, but not as bad as I expected. Speedos sure squish everything in. From some angles I looked kind of svelte. In fact the whole picture kind of looked like an ex-swimmer, which now I was afraid would unfairly raise expectations of anyone who happened to see me before I got in the pool.

I was never a real swimmer. As a high school freshman I joined the swim team because I thought I’d be good at it. The kids who were good, however, had been swimming on the YMCA team for years, and it never even occurred to me that with diligent practice I might be able to catch up. All I knew was, I was in the slow lane, and still had to get out many days in the middle of practice to take my inhaler. Then the coach would berate me for standing around. So I’d jump back in. By the end of the season, my asthma was bothering me all the time, not just swimming, and I found myself winded just walking up a flight of stairs. That was clearly no good, but the real reason I quit was because I was angry with the coach. After a swim meet where every one of us swam, she only took the varsity lane out for pizza to celebrate the victory.

Sometime after the season was over,  I was seized with the idea of swimming on my own, and getting better on my own. Who knows where such ideas came from. I don’t even know why I thought I could do it. I bought a membership to the Y, and began swimming by myself. I started with whatever I could do in I think a half an hour. When I look back on that first day it seems like I did some absurdly short amount. Like 250 yards–10 lengths. Maybe I did 500 yards, the race that seemed impossibly long to me when I was on the team. Whatever it was, I decided that every two days, I’d add another 50 yards. Somehow, with only that decision as motivation, I got up to 2500 yards, (later, even more) at least five days a week, maybe six or seven. (I guess I didn’t know about rest days.) Miraculously, my slow patient method paid off. I never had to get out of the pool to take my inhaler again.

I’m not sure if I was in high school or college when I injured my shoulder. I remember feeling something go terribly wrong inside my right shoulder,  in the middle of a lap, and I knew I couldn’t swim another stroke. I let my feet drift down to the bottom of the pool, but I couldn’t quite stand. I sort of bobbed my way down to the shallow end. My friend the lifeguard saw that something bad had happened and in his zeal to help me out, grabbed me by my right arm and hauled me out of the pool, by that arm. If I had to guess when I actually tore the labrum in my shoulder, I’d say it was right then. I didn’t get an MRI until many years later, however. I didn’t even see a doctor for months. I tried to hide my injury by eating left handed that night, but Mom knew right away. Still, we all kept thinking another couple days rest, ibuprofen, and ice.

Years later, after rounds and rounds of physical therapy, swimming again, not swimming again, I gave up on swimming altogether. I kept canoeing, despite the fact that it clearly was hurting my shoulder, though, because I could still do it. Until, you guessed it, the one day that something went horribly wrong inside that shoulder. I had to have my husband haul me out of my canoe by my life vest.

Then there was surgery, long painful recovery, and finally back to canoeing, but I never got back into a pool again since giving up swimming before the surgery. So here I was poised to enter the pool again, and I was nervous. I told Gail as we perched above the water, “I don’t know why I’m so nervous”

She said, “don’t worry it’s shallow here, and the life guard is right there.”

“It’s not like I’m going to drown!” I joked. “It’s just that it’s been so long, and when I’m in my whitewater canoe and I swim, that’s like, really bad news. I don’t really know the last time I’ve swum without a life vest.”

Gail had jumped in by this time in my stalling, rambling, excusing. “It’s cold!” she said, “I’ve got to start moving.” Off she went, and there was nothing to do but lick the inside of my goggles yet again and go. In fact, the first 500 yards went by interminably slow. My breathing was wrong, my flip turn was so far off that I abandoned it, my shoulder hurt, and I actually did feel like I was going to drown. I told myself to relax, but the Anxious Annie in my head wants to know, how am I supposed to concentrate on my breathing when all I can do is gasp for a breath every several strokes? When is the meditative, relaxing part going to kick in? Maybe I really can’t swim anymore.

Then, without announcing itself, a calmness finally came to me. I noticed that my breathing was getting easier, even as I got more tired. 100s were going by faster, and I found myself in my old trouble of keeping count of my distance. I still worried about what I was doing to my shoulder. (Was this the signal from my body I’m supposed to pay attention to or ignore?) But I decided to keep going until Gail was done. Then I was at 1900 and decided I couldn’t leave without making a nice round number. At 2000 yards, I was done, and so was Gail.

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