As Michael Phelps attempts to become the most decorated athlete in Olympic history at the London games, across the pond at a municipal swimming pool in Boston, a man nearing forty will get in his dozen or so laps four days a week. This man is modest in his ambitions and has no illusions about his ability as there are men twenty years older who can swim far faster. His repertoire is limited to dog paddling. But it gets him from one end of the pool to the other and that is all that matters. There will be no one cheering him on and this suits him just fine. In fact, he likes it best when he has the slow lane all to himself. It is that moment when he is without a worry in the world. His worries can wait. This is when all goes swimmingly.
It wasn’t always so. For nearly half his life, he could not swim although not for lack of trying. His mother took him and his siblings for lessons and though he tried he could not get the hang of it. He was afraid of both the water and the other children. Although his mother stressed the importance of learning how to swim, this boy simply dreaded going to the pool. He could not imagine ever being able to swim.
I know this because I am both the boy and man in question.
Things would change after entering university. During my freshman year, I lived in a co-ed residence. As with most freshman males, I wanted to socialize with the fairer sex. It wasn’t easy but one night an opportunity seemed to present itself with not one, but two young women. All seemed to go swimmingly until one of them suggested we actually go swimming. Normally I would not have even entertained the idea. But I was not going to pass up this opportunity even if I couldn’t swim. So I took the plunge.
I should add that I was overweight at the time and feeling self conscious I wore a t-shirt with my bathing suit. It became quickly apparent that this was going to be awkward. Don’t get me wrong. The young women were nice about it but it was clear nothing was going to come of it. I don’t know if it was pride but something in me decided that I to do something about this deficiency. For the first time in my life, I swam a handful of strokes on my own. It was only a few feet. But I realized this was something I could do. I just needed to practice on my own and at my own speed.
Soon I was at the pool several nights a week with the women now an afterthought. The pool was a godsend. Life in residence revolved around drinking and drugs. I had just given up drinking and was not interested in drugs nor did I want to be around people in those altered states. So while others were getting drunk and stoned, I was learning how to swim and was losing weight. It wasn’t long before I jettisoned the t-shirt. You’ve probably heard about the “freshman fifteen.” In my freshman year, I lost forty pounds. It was the first year I was away from home and it was a difficult adjustment. I don’t know what would have happened if I had not taught myself to swim that year.
I moved off campus the following year and, despite good intentions, as time went by swimming became a sporadic activity. But as the sunset of my thirties approached I realized that I did not want to go to seed and that it was incumbent upon me to partake in regular physical activity. So over the past 3½ years I have rededicated myself to swimming. As of 2012, I have made a point of going swimming four days a week. Oh, I admit there are many days when I do not want to go. After a busy day at my day job, I would rather go home to sit on the couch and watch a ballgame or a current events show or surf the web. But prudence prevails upon me and I make the trek down to the pool. When I have finished my swim, I almost always feel better for having gone.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my Mom has occasionally expressed skepticism about my swimming. She asks, “Are you sure your feet don’t touch the bottom of the pool?” But my younger brother Micah can attest that I can swim after we took a brief dip into Atlantic during a visit to Nova Scotia last summer.
But there’s nothing like swimming in fresh water. My favorite spot to swim is at Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts, just a couple of miles away from where the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at the Old North Bridge. Alas, on most days I am content with chlorine.
The dedication of Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte, and the other members of the U.S. swim team is nothing short of astonishing. Yet I’m sure if President Obama had another candid moment he would tell them that they didn’t earn their gold medals. After all, someone else built the pool and they benefitted from good coaching. But it isn’t a question of who built the pool. It’s a question of the time you spend in the pool. As for guidance, a swimming coach can lead you to water but he or she can’t set a world record for you.
I must emphasize that I have no special skill at swimming. Yet if you were to ask me about my proudest accomplishments of my life, I would have to list learning how to swim at the very top. I did it on my own.