Lessons from the Pool

When I was a sophomore in high school, I went out for the swim team. My brother and I both did, figuring that swimming since age three for both of us was bound to count for something, and we were right. After a week of time-trial tryouts, we both landed swiftly on the team.

At my first meet, the coach put me in the 500-meter event: twenty laps of the freestyle stroke. In case you don't know, this is the event nobody watches, as it runs over five minutes at its quickest and upwards of nine at its slowest. Couple that with its being run four times in succession -- twice for boys and girls JV and twice for boys and girls varsity -- and it is, hands down, the point at which everyone stands up and takes a break. Except, of course, those poor souls inside the pool.

The first time I swam this event, I didn't know all these things. I didn't know this 500-free event was the most ominous and foreboding of them all, not to mention the most boring. All I knew was that my coach had put me in it, and that meant I would swim it.

Except that about three minutes before the girls JV event was to start, I found out I needed a lap counter. That's right: a lap counter. This event is so long and disorienting, it requires asking some merciful person to stick around for the whole event and count your laps with you. It means having them dip a huge, white, rectangular board with the bold, brazen, blue number of your lap into the pool every time you reached the far end so you don't lose count and can perhaps plan a little speed strategy.

I had no idea I needed one of these lap counters. In a scramble, I ran to a friend and asked if she'd be there to count my laps. Having just learned what this mammoth of a swim actually meant in the first place (twenty laps, really?!) and that I was actually going to swim it, I waited with dry mouth and jumbled nerves for her to say yes. (She did.)

And so, shaken and very nervous, I assumed my position on the mark board. I looked at my friend at the other end of the pool, now sitting there with the lap counter boards and looking very small across that wide expanse of water, and realized I was about to jump into a literal pool of the unknown. I had no idea how I would do it. I had no idea if I had even the strength to do it. All I knew was that once that shrill whistle sounded, I would jump in the water and then put one hand in front of the other again and again and again. All I knew was that I would do what I had been trained to do: swim.

To my surprise -- and the surprise of everyone else! -- I placed first in that event. I placed first the second time I did it, too. By the third time around, my coach pushed me up to varsity, and that's point at which I began to lose. Badly. From that point forward, knowing I would lose and how far I had to go, swim meet days became almost unbearable.I still participated in meets (I had to, to stay on the team), but it was the 5:30 a.m. morning practices and the afternoon swim period practices I craved. It was the missives from the coach to swim a 200-free or a 100-breast or some kind of inordinately hard speed drill that I gobbled up like candy. It was, in no short order, the practice, not the meets, I loved.

It has been twelve years since that time, and I haven't swam serious laps since. At least, not until this week. This past Saturday, Kirk and I were at Sea World. The Sunday before that, we were at Discovery Cove. Both of these are water-intensive theme parks, and both of these are filled with animals who love to swim. I gawked at their magnificence and marveled at their sheer love of the water. And what can I say? Their ethos for the water got to me. I came home from Sea World last Saturday and headed straight for the gym, swim suit in tow.

I'll say right off the bat, having completed two workouts of twenty laps each, that I am nowhere near as good a swimmer as I was twelve years ago. My form is off, my breathing's shallow, and my muscles have a long way to go to glide me smoothly and swiftly back through the water. But I'm choosing my love of the water and the movement of my body within it over all these other things. I'm exploring what it feels like to let my body and the water -- and not my brain or expectations -- do the talking. I'm asking myself to swim each day for love of water. To swim for love of the feel. And maybe, just maybe, I'll learn to apply this same grace to life outside the pool just someday soon.