Swimming Lessons – Jean Callahan
I am gliding through water, lap after lap, eyes open, focused on the blue line at the bottom of the pool, concentrating on my breath, the rhythmic motion of my arms and legs. At 65 years old, I have just learned to swim.
“You must promise me something,” my friend Dorothy asked that winter. We were looking forward to the first two weeks in July when we’d booked a remote cabin in northern Maine. Because summer comes late to Maine and most tourists don’t show up until August, we expected to be alone on Mooselookmeguntic, a lake that is 25 square miles around with a 132-foot maximum depth.
“I want you to spend some time improving your stroke,” she said. The summer before, another friend of hers had drowned in Mooselookmeguntic. He and his wife were enjoying a twilight swim when, suddenly, he vanished. “I don’t want to be the one to notify your daughter,” Dorothy informed me in that well-bred, ironic tone of voice that makes me think of Maggie Smith.
Dorothy knew that I wasn’t a strong swimmer, but what she didn’t know was that I really couldn’t swim at all. As a timid child with indiscernible athletic ability, I cowered at the back of the crowd during Girls’ Club swimming lessons. Eventually, I advanced from polliwog (dipping my face in the water) to guppy (flailing across the width of the pool, gasping for breath), but persistently failed to pass minnow (swimming the length of the pool, through the dreaded deep end). As a teenager, I spent summers basking on beach towels and wading into the ocean up to my chest. I could fool my friends by faking a few strokes, but I always stayed close to the shore where, if I had to, I could touch bottom.
Now, so many years later, I finally felt ready to battle my bête noire. One icy January morning, as dawn broke, I drove to the gym to keep my resolution — learn to swim. At first, embarrassed, I set out to teach myself. I donned a swim cap, tight-fitting goggles, and fins; then, before easing into the shallow end of the pool, I secured a nylon flotation device around my torso. In this get-up, I looked more like the creature from the black lagoon than long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad.
Nonetheless, I threw myself into it: pumping arms, scissoring legs, twisting my head back and forth, thrashing with all my might. Of course, I had to grab the side of the pool every few strokes to catch my breath and there I was, coughing and sputtering, when a bemused lifeguard bent down and smiled at me. “I think I could help you,” he said.
The gym website advertised it as “Masters’ Swim Class,” a blatantly aspirational title. Far from masters, we were rank amateurs. My fellow students were Alice, a woman about my age who wanted to swim for exercise, and a man whose name I have forgotten, also in his 60s, whose goal was to swim a few lengths as a surprise treat for his son’s visit from Australia in August. He gave up, abruptly, after missing several lessons and suffering through the classes he did make. He had been a poor student anyway, arriving late and leaving early, begging off with excuses like a hangover, or a business call or doctor’s appointment. I see him around town from time to time, but he doesn’t recognize me without goggles and a tank suit and I am reluctant to trigger PTSD by saying hello to him.
Admittedly, my own early efforts were not much more impressive. Inspired and supported by my swim coach, Christian, a good-looking Peruvian in his late twenties, I made it one-quarter, then, gradually, halfway down the length of the pool, before collapsing, practically convulsing, where I could still stand up. The long-suffering Christian commended me and urged me on toward the deep end of the pool.
“You can do it, Jean,” he said with a hint of a Spanish accent. “You know you can.” He tried to assuage my fear of drowning with a little biology lesson. “You would have to swallow a lot of water, go down to the bottom of the pool and swallow much more water. It would take you at least 30 seconds to drown. I can jump into the pool and save you in two seconds.” Instead of dreading a watery death, I began to visualize the handsome swim coach leaping into the pool, taking me in his arms and fishing me out of the water where I would recover quickly, drenched but happy.
Eventually, I did improve. I was able to swim the full length of the pool, then back and forth for a whole lap, then several laps without stopping to suck in oxygen. I basked in the glow of success, elated by endorphins, thrilled with the marginal development of my triceps, biceps and quads. As I gained strength and endurance, Christian concentrated on my technique. “Move your body as if you were dancing — sway,” he said, demonstrating with a few poolside salsa steps. Charmed, I began to turn my shoulders and hips, just a smidge, with each stroke, and felt my body move more efficiently through the water.
Christian found a better job at another gym, but, before he left, he assured me that I was his favorite student and that he was proud of me for learning to swim at my advanced age. I missed him, but the new coach, Matt, taught high school swim teams and had a school-spirit approach that helped me through the sophomore slump I experienced after Christian’s departure. Alice and I enjoyed competing on sprints and drills to improve our strokes and kicks. We warmed up with 150 yards freestyle, 150 yards backstroke and 100 yards breaststroke. To be honest, Alice invariably won whenever we raced but I put a positive spin on defeat. This became my new goal: to swim as well as Alice. (I am still working on it.)
Matt also had a different set of metaphors for instruction. Instead of rescue fantasies and salsa dancing, he gave me prompts developed in his work with adolescents. For breaststroke, he suggested I envision a big bowl of chocolate pudding. “Reach your arms out into the bowl, scoop up some pudding and bring it back to your mouth,” he urged. It was actually a little gross to think of chocolate pudding floating in the chlorinated water and certainly not as inspiring as Christian’s salsa demonstrations. I have not yet developed a good breaststroke.
But, that summer, I went up to Mooselookmeguntic with Dorothy. We hiked, kayaked, swam and (spoiler alert) I did not drown. We read books and listened to loons at night. A bald eagle soared over our cabin every morning and every evening. Full disclosure: I never dared to swim all the way out to the raft and back. But the next fall, I signed up for the class that was no longer called Masters Swim Class but, more aptly, Adult Swim.
I had an epiphany that session. “Make the most of the glide,” Matt instructed me. “Don’t cut it short. Enjoy it. Glide as long as you can until you have to take another stroke.” As I get older, in or out of the water, it is reassuring to know that I can be propelled forward by energy already spent.
There were so many great things about learning to swim in my mid-60s.
I felt appreciated. Coaches, lifeguards, and even women I met in the locker room praised my persistence and slow, steady progress. One of the advantages of age is that you can learn something new without fear of failure. At my age, I knew I would never become a great swimmer. Olympics were not on the agenda. Triathalons were out of the question. All I wanted was to swim well enough to save myself from drowning and I appreciated myself for making the effort to do that.
I kept a commitment. Swim class started at 8 am. In the winter, I woke in the dark and trudged through snow squalls to reach the overheated locker room, then the fluorescent-lit pool room where I eased my reluctant body into the water, cold at first, but soon comfortable. On summer days, I left balmy breezes and sunshine behind for the soggy, claustrophobic atmosphere of the pool house. I showed up, paid attention, and followed instructions.
Swimming is a meditative practice. When I swim, my mind focuses on stretching, slowly moving my body through water, counting strokes, taking smooth and steady deep breaths timed to the motion of my arms and legs. I swim with my eyes wide open. I am in the present, thinking of nothing else.
Swimming is great exercise. I am exhausted after an hour of doing laps and fully self-righteous before I doze off for a post-swim nap. When I awake, I am revitalized and carry a sense of accomplishment throughout the day. Disappointingly, I haven’t lost weight (swimming makes me hungry), but I am nonetheless fitter and stronger.
Learning something new, especially a demanding sport with a complicated set of skills, is an accomplishment at any point in life, and, according to researchers, there are particular benefits to taking up a discipline like swimming at an advanced age. One recent study at the University of Texas proved that older people who learned and practiced a complicated skill also improved their memories. Other research suggests that the intense and prolonged physical exertion of an hour spent swimming may prevent cancer by slowing the decline of the telomeres, tiny caps on the end of DNA strands that tend to shorten and fray with age.
Possibly the best part of learning to swim at 65 has been getting to know myself better. I am patient and persistent. My left arm is stronger than my right arm, resulting in a tendency to drift into the next lane when I do the backstroke. I am interested in other people (some might even say nosey). It was always my curiosity — as much as my desire to postpone the next lap — that motivated me to quiz Matt and Christian on their life stories. Finally, I am realistic. At this point in my life, I am unlikely to become a master swimmer, but, one day, I may make it out to the raft.