Swimming Lessons

As a lifelong competitive swimmer and lover of everything aquatic, I've spent a great deal of time with my head under water, pondering. And in the semi-euphoric, semi-meditative state created by the coupling of oxygen deprivation and bubbly white noise, I've found that there is much more to learn in and around the pool than just how to swim. This is the log of my most treasured Swimming Lessons.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A Swimmer's Worst Nightmare

In his very first swim competition - an international Master's championship meet in Atlanta - my best friend experienced an emergency from which I feared he might not recover. I witnessed it from the far end of his lane where I was leading a series of cheers, and I will never forget it.

It was my friend's debut event, the 100 yard breaststroke, and his lane was lined with teammates, friends, and other onlookers from around the world. I could sense his anxiety as he climbed the block. The time had finally come for him to stand up in front of all the world wearing nothing but a tiny little blue Speedo.

He had, I'm quite sure, been "swimming" this event over and over in his mind since we awoke that morning, and on the van ride to the pool we reviewed the basics: two-hand touches, strong underwater sequences, an explosive start.... As the starter commanded Swimmers Take Your Mark I could swear his lips were moving as he mouthed Pull, Kick, Glide...Pull, Kick, Glide.

His start was a bit flat, but powerful. It wasn't a belly-flop by any stretch, but it left him shallow enough that I feared he might skip the underwater sequence. Keep It Down, Baby...Work That Start, I thought to myself. And he did! Brilliantly, he used his first pull to go deeper, where he could fully benefit from the drag-free glide. He surfaced even with the rest of his heat mates.

But then, horror: I didn't recognize my friend's face! It seemed...disfigured.

Upon his impact with the water, my friend's goggles had rolled down the front of his face and gotten hooked under his nose, which was now being stretched up toward his forehead, making him look a bit like a pig. With every stroke, his shocked, monstrous expression was revealed to us all, for four seemingly endless lengths.

For my friend, it was every swimmer's second worst nightmare* come true. Funny-looking but still determined, he finished the race to find a throng of fans waiting, some worried, others chuckling. And in his true fashion, he exited the pool and turned to the audience, giving them a victory wave that drew applause.

Watching him, I was amazed at how unaffected he seemed to be by what had just happened! He was neither embarrassed nor defeated. In fact, he seemed to gain a sense of freedom from having survived his first competition swim, equipment malfunction and all!

A very important fact of life dawned on me just then: There is freedom in vulnerability. Those who accept vulnerability gracefully live to acknowledge that survival and contentment are not dependent on perfection. My friend's very public moment of vulnerabilty did not deter him. In fact, it gave him confidence and brought him into communion with a great many empathetic onlookers.

Swimming Lesson: We gain strength and connectedness through vulnerability.

*Every swimmer's worst nightmare is the loss or disintegration of his/her swimsuit, especially if such loss or disintegration occurs on the block.