As a child, I never went into deep waters. Even though I am a Floridian and I love the beach, I’d never stray far from the shore. I felt the same way about lakes and pools, chilling out in the areas where my feet comfortably touched the bottom and the water never came too close to my chin.
Around the 3rd grade, I remember watching an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that featured Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi) swimming underwater. She looked peaceful and made it seem easy. That little scene–not The Little Mermaid or my friends playing in the deep end without me–motivated me to dunk my head for the first time, sit down, and stay there until that little point just before you drown and die. It was kinda cool! I wasn’t afraid of being underwater. I just did know what to do once I got there.
From then on, I’d venture into deeper waters, doing the breaststroke underwater for short distances and coming up often for air. (Somehow, I picked up a variation of the breast stroke by sight.) I didn’t know how to tread water so I’d just float on my back until I caught my breath. While I was more comfortable in water, I knew couldn’t swim efficiently. I was at that awkward age where I felt too embarrassed for swim classes.
Recently, I’ve started challenging myself to do things I’d never done before, often things “black people don’t do” like camping, canoeing, and yoga. (I can’t add running here because, apparently, we’re supposed to be naturally good at that though I didn’t get that gene.) Now’s the time to learn to swim.
I enrolled in swim classes at Cumming Aquatic Center with a bit of anxiety. The set up is humiliating: the adult basics swim class takes place at the same time as children’s classes in one massive pool. And there I am, nearly 29, trying to master the basics of not drowning.
We’ve had three classes so far. I’m decent during our isolation exercises. First, we held the hand rails, let our torsos float out behind us and practiced kicking. Then we used the kickboards to practice kicking while moving, then repeated the exercise bobbing our heads in and out of the water. That was all fine and dandy.
Then we introduced arm exercises. At first my arms were too straight, moving like a windmill. Then I got into the hang of bending them properly, then adding the reach/extension and rotating my shoulders to pull back as much water as possible. I’m not perfect but I’m getting through the water faster with much less effort and much more confidence.
Then the supreme failures started. Integrating timed breathing was a train wreck. All of my relatively pretty isolated movements crashed into an ugly catastrophe–it’s like watching a bunch of Miss America contestants falling off of a bridge into oncoming traffic. It’s bad.
My instructor noticed while each movement looked good, something kept me from getting the breath I needed. Even when resting my ear near the should of my extended arm and turned my chin upward and behind me, I would sometimes still be under water and unable to get air. He couldn’t explain why I was sinking so low: I’m still kicking evenly; I keep my bum lifted; I’m pretty lightweight. A classmate said that my bones may be really dense so I sink naturally. That happens with some people, especially runners. I don’t think I’m that much of a “runner” to change my bone density but who knows. If I can’t figure out how to stay closer to the top of the water, I’ll never be able to swim long distances because I can’t breathe!
A fellow classmate thinks it might be how I push off of the wall, that I’m diving in too deep in the beginning. But it seems so far that my inability to skim the top of the water is what’s standing between me and becoming a decent swimmer. If I were a mermaid, this would not be an issue.