Swimming lessons for life

"I know I can do this because I swam a mile."

Each summer in the Sixties brought group swim lessons at Eastridge Pool. The last Friday of a session we took a skills test to pass that Red Cross swimming level. The lifeguard instructors didn't cut us any slack. They weren't afraid to say we didn't pass. I didn't pass Beginners two or three times, being unable to blow bubbles or back float. The girl next door was happy for the teasing ammunition.

Then one summer I passed Advanced Beginners on the very first try. My parents were so pleased that we went to Lee's Restaurant to celebrate. My parents were not nearly as impressed with my accomplishment as I was. For a skinny, wimpy kid who was always called to run over during Red Rover, this was a major triumph. I was motivated to work hard to pass Intermediate class on the first try the next summer. I knew that I could swim. Unfortunately, my thoughts were, "I'll NEVER be any good at recess, but I can swim. The kids will ALWAYS tease me at recess, but they won't tease me at the pool."

Each June we added strokes, built endurance, and perfected the skills from the previous level. There was a golden moment the year I managed 100 yards each of crawl, backstroke, sidestroke, and breaststroke, and finally mastered a basic dive. I found myself swimming and diving for FUN, and being invited to play Marco Polo by the same kids who shunned me at recess on the playground or picked me last for the kick soccer team.

Then one summer the ranks of swimming lesson students was culled to the serious. It was time to swim a mile, and to also swim 25 yards under water. Mastering the mile swim forced me to pull all my gumption up from my toenails and focus on a goal. Strangely, I remember thinking that if I could just survive the mile, I could take a hot shower then bike home for a lunch of hot dogs in Spaghetti-Os, followed by sitting on the carport fence eating bing cherries and reading about Minoan archaeology.

I was old enough to ride my bike to the pool by myself wearing goofy cover-ups I sewed myself out of faded and frayed pink bath towels. I could ride to the pool in the morning when it wasn't crowded to practice my dives and swimming underwater. It was wonderful to take turns diving or making the biggest cannonball splash with the other kids.

I could even stay after five when most families went home to supper. That was the best time to try back dives and flips off the board, or to just enjoy the great feeling of propelling myself through the water for lap after lap.

The summer after the mile, everything changed. The pool was a place for wearing a two-piece, rubbing on CopperTone or Sea&Ski for tanning, and talking to boys. Girls only went into the water to cool off, but the guys in their Speedos showed off their dives. Somebody brought a paperback of The Godfather to pass around with the page dog-eared for the horse head in bed. Guys told jokes about sea men. The kids who swam fast or dived well joined competitive swim clubs.

The group of guys focused their efforts toward luring the least parentally-supervised girls "down to the creek" behind the pool. Rumors flew from beach towel to beach towel about what happened there, and what was done to whom by whom with a hairbrush. It was good to still be skinny, wimpy, uninteresting and clueless, but also sad. It was better to get into the water and just swim alone with my perfected strokes and endurance and the silver turquoise water under the golden sun.

When I've been afraid about hurdles in life, I've told myself, "I know I can do this because I swam a mile." Since I knew I could swim a mile, I believed I could do natural Lamaze childbirth. Since I survived natural childbirth, I knew I could run a 10-K. Since I ran a 10-K, I knew I could survive divorce. When I survived divorce I knew I could pull all my gumption from deep down in my toenails to be a single mom and launch my sons off the cosmic diving board to their own self-sufficiency, endurance, and stroke perfection.

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