“What do I have to do to become a competent swimmer?” I ask.
“Can you swim at all?” the instructor asks.
“Well, jump in and show me.”
I walk over to the ladder at the shallow end of the pool, gingerly lower myself into the water, and start doing a side-stroke down the length of the pool. She follows me on the deck. “Can you do the crawl?”
Reluctantly, I take a deep breath, turn on my stomach, and try to remember the crawl stretching my arms out close to the surface of the cool water as far forward as I can. I take quick gulps of air on alternate stokes, trying to relax, but my arms reach up, and my feet kick faster. After three breaths, I turn on my back and show her my back stroke, relieved I can breathe again. Soon, we are at the deep end: me treading water, her squatting down, “Not bad, you know how to swim, but you don’t look like you are enjoying yourself.”
She had hit the nail on the head. I want to get as much pleasure from swimming as I do from cycling, walking or skiing.
“Let’s talk,” she suggested holding out my towel.
Sitting on comfortable lounging chairs, on the deck of this adult-only pool, she waits for me to start.
I am not sure what she needs to know about my life-long fear of water. Maybe I should tell her about how I have tried to learn, my series of failures.
No, I think, she needs to know why I want to learn to swim, my puzzling attraction to water.
“O.K., well, you already know I am 70 years old, seventy and a half as my grandchildren would say.”
She chuckles and glances at the information sheet I had filled out. Birth date: November 8, 1946. Place of birth: Biggar Saskatchewan. The prairies, she thinks.
“I enjoy the water and some water sports.”
She looks surprised.
“During the summer I crew on some sail boats. We race twice a week on Lake Deschenes. Winters, I like to travel to warmer climes. For the last six years, I have been diving.”
Her eyebrows rise involuntarily.
“Scuba diving,” I gush. “I learned in the Red Sea. The reefs are fascinating.
“I even guided wilderness canoe trips one summer after graduating from university.
“This summer, I am learning to row… those long narrow boats. I like the full-body workout and the team-work.
“But I would like to enjoy swimming as much as these other sports. I want to be able to dive into the water and swim just for fun.”
“Are you afraid of the water?” she asks.
“Well,” I hesitate, “yes. Not as much as before; sometimes I still panic in the water.”
“I wonder why. You seem to know the basics,” she states.
“I am the only person in my family who knows how to swim. We didn’t have any lakes around where I grew up. Mom sent me to swimming classes one summer. Maybe I was six or seven, but the pool was crowded and some kids tried to dunk me. It was a noisy, dangerous place. I was afraid and ashamed.”
“Ashamed?” she prods.
“Yes. Ashamed of how skinny and white I looked in a bathing suit, and ashamed of being afraid.
“Then one summer, when I was sixteen, I worked as a nanny for a very rich family in Montreal. They had a pool behind their city home and a lovely house at a lake in the Laurentian Mountains. In my spare time I would try to get a tan. One day, at the public beach, I ventured out onto the long dock. I could see people playing in water up to their waists. I walked farther out and jumped in. The water was much deeper out there.
“I went down, my feet touched the bottom. I bent my knees and pushed off as hard as I could, hoping to reach the surface and grab onto something. Emerging from the water, I gasped for air and saw a rope that looped along the edge of the dock. I reached for it and missed. I went down again. Tried to push off harder this time. Missed. I think I did this four times before some kind person noticed and helped me climb up onto the dock.”
“Wow,” she says, “it is amazing how well you reacted. You didn’t really panic. You had a plan.”
“Well, I never jumped into any water again.”
“When did you learn to swim?” she asks.
“In my thirties, I used to watch our son at his swimming lessons. On Sundays, we would go and play in the pool with him. He would try to teach me. Finally I decide to take lessons myself, but they could never get me to dive or even jump into the water. I can feel a huge lump in my chest right now just thinking about it.”
“So how did you ever learn to scuba dive?”
“I was teaching in Egypt. The whole staff went to Dahab, on the Red Sea. The water was so warm and inviting. I tried snorkelling out to a nearby reef, but I was very nervous and afraid the water would come in my snorkel. So I rationalized that if I could breathe without fear of water entering my nose or mouth, I could explore the reefs. Scuba diving seemed like the perfect solution.
“My first dive was just an exploratory dive very near the surface of the famous Blue Hole in Dahab. It was spectacular: so many fish, such a colourful variety of coral and sponges. I wanted to learn to dive!
“It wasn’t easy, but that year, I got my Basic Open Water and Advanced Open Water certificates.”
“What were the hardest things to learn?” she asks.
“Oh,” pausing as I felt my chest tighten and my knees stiffen up. “Jumping off the boat into the water. I felt like in those movies where the guy with the parachute is at the open door of the plane, so afraid to jump out. My knees were shaking and the crew would give me the countdown. I would feel like giving up. Maybe I was just too old to learn. Sixty-four, already. Pushing that excuse aside, I would take a big step and sink into the ocean before rising again to the surface.”
“And now, how are you?” she asks.
“Not a problem,” I smile, “but there are some other manoeuvres that are more difficult.”
“Like what?” she pushes.
“Like taking your mouthpiece out of your mouth when you are ten or fifteen metres under water. You have to learn to do that in case you ever need to use someone else’s air. Some instructors do it for fun. They can blow air rings, or they let a small fish nibble at their teeth! I would like to be that relaxed.”
“O.K., I get the picture. You want to have a different relationship with water. You want to have fun.”
“You are right, but to have fun, I need to have confidence.”
“Well, you have come a long way already,” she smiles.
“Yes, let’s get started. I don’t have another seventy years. I need to fast-track this bit,” I said throwing off my towel as I stood up, still tall, white, and skinny.