That night, Mom sat me down for another Serious Talk. This time she sat on my father’s leather chair while I sat on the couch. The cloud of failure hung heavy in our den. Thankfully, Dad himself was not yet home.
“Why don’t we quit the swim team?” my mother said seriously. Then: “I think we should quit.”
I stared at my mother and again tried to parse her words. At five-foot-four, she was of average height, but she was blond and thin and intensely vain about her appearance. She’d been a “Vol Beauty” as a sorority girl back at the University of Tennessee, a signature honor for a woman who styled herself first and foremost as a “Marine officer’s wife”. A small town Southern girl thrust constantly into new situations, Mom cared about appearances as a matter of course. As far as my mother was concerned, being uncool was the very worst thing that I possibly could be.
|My Boy Scout Troop during a camping trip to Gettysburg. I'm on the far right.|
I had embarrassed her in front of her friends, and yet I didn’t believe for an instant that she actually wanted me to quit. How would that look?
I wasn’t sure what my mother wanted me to say.
“No,” I said at last. “I’m not quitting. Heads don’t quit.”
My mother gave me a hard look, clearly appalled. “No, let’s quit,” she said again, more forcefully this time. “It’s okay to quit. I think that we should quit. I want you to quit.”
“No,” I said, somehow finding conviction in my voice. “I’m not quitting. Heads don’t quit!”
My mother sat stunned for a long moment, but I thought that she was maybe a little proud, too. I hoped she was, anyway. She continued half-heartedly trying to talk me out of my decision, but after her initial outburst, I could tell that her heart wasn’t really in it. Once she saw that I’d made up my mind, she agreed for once to let me have my way. This was the first time that this had ever happened. It was the first real decision that I’d ever made for myself on my own. It was a conversation that my mother would bring up periodically as a source of amazement for the rest of her life.
* * *
The next day’s swim practice went off so routinely that it failed to register in my memory in any meaningful way. Prepared now for the task of swimming in cold water, I did exactly that in a way that was so completely average that no one save my mother ever again mentioned my abortive swim team try-out. The whole thing was forgotten by the end of the week.
We settled quickly into that worst part of the school year, the two weeks leading up to summer break. I swam every day after school but didn’t yet think of myself as a swimmer. The kids who really new how to swim, the real swimmers, were all much better—much faster and much more confident in the water—than I was. They intimidated me, though I refused to let this show.
One day, the coaches polled my little group of newbies, saying, “Who here knows how to swim breaststroke?”
I raised my hand, eager to find some way to stand out. “I do!”
One of the assistant coaches came over to me. “You can swim the breaststroke?”
Sure I could. They’d taught us at the catholic school I’d attended in Norfolk, Virginia, back when my dad was stationed at the Armed Forces Staff College.
I liked that assistant coach. Though she looked old to my ten-year-old eyes, she was just in her mid-twenties, and she was always incredibly patient and kind. She stood a little heavyset with shoulder length hair that she wore swept back off her face, and she was deeply tanned from years of being outside. She wore a white sun visor with a blue shade whenever she taught, even when she was hip-deep in the water. She was a natural brunette, though chlorine and sunshine had long since bleached most of her hair a decided California blonde. She stood in the water with us that day, wearing a navy blue racing suit that I found far from flattering. But she smiled when she spoke, and this made a world of difference. I wasn’t worried about failing publicly for once, in front of her or anyone else. Instead, she encouraged me in a way that made me believe that I could swim the breaststroke, and that she would correct any mistakes that I made until I got my mechanics right. This gave me the confidence to try despite the uncertain circumstances, free from all the brave-faced bullshit bravado that I usually kept up whenever I was unsure of myself.
She pulled a little group of us over into the shallow end. Camelot’s pool was shaped something like a zig-zag, six lanes wide by twenty-five yards long. It had a shallow section on one side with steps down for toddlers and a deep end at the other, complete with both one- and three-meter diving boards. We assembled in the shallow end next to the first lap lane.
“Okay,” she said. “Show me your breaststroke.”
I jumped off the pool deck and dove down, ducking my head under the water. I then pulled through a heart-shape with my arms, just like they’d taught us in catholic school, and I kicked my feet like a frog. My head bobbed, and I did it again. Another evolution, and I came back up. I looked at my coach, ready to hear what she had to say.
She looked up at the head coach and pointed at me. “We’ve got a breaststroker here!”
Really? A surge of pride shot through me.
The assistant coach gave me a mischievous look. “What about butterfly? Can you swim the butterfly?”
I took a hard breath, suddenly panicked. I shook my head. “No, I don’t know how to do that.”
Everyone said that the butterfly was hard. Only the good kids swam fly, the real swimmers.
“It’s easy. I’ll show you.”
You will? It seemed impossible.
“Stand on the ground with your arms at your side, jump off the bottom, and throw your arms forward, above the water. Then dive down and touch the bottom of the pool. Do that a few times to get the feel of what it’s like. That’s how it’s supposed to feel.”
That sounded easy. Every ten-year-old I knew had spent uncountable hours grabbing rings off the bottom of the pool. So had I. I jumped forward, arms straight out from my shoulders, just like you see every butterflier everywhere do when they look up to take a breath. My hands came together, and I ducked my head, dove to the bottom, touched, and popped back up.
“That was great. Let’s do that a few more times—all the way across the pool.”
Simple enough. This area of the pool was maybe three feet deep. I jumped across the bottom, practicing the iconic recovery and the undulating motion that is at the heart of the stroke. I got it instantly. It sank straight into muscle memory. I could feel it right away.
“Hey, that was pretty good. Now let’s try the kick. It’s a dolphin kick—with your feet together. Kick from your hips, not your knees.” She demonstrated, standing with her hands held straight up above her head, looking like a belly dancer. “It’s a funny motion when you see it like this, but it makes sense in the water. You’ll see.”
I did see. Kick from your hips, not your knees. Use your whole body. We’d just been doing that, and I could feel immediately how the drill we’d done translated to the dolphin kick she’d shown me. We dolphin-kicked across the pool a few times. It didn’t take long at all.
“Okay, now let’s add the arms. You pull through like an hourglass. Or, some people say, like the shape of a woman. It’s wide at the top, narrow through the middle, and then you push out wide at the hips. Recover like we did a minute ago, when you were jumping off the pool deck with your arms out across the water. There are two kicks—one at the top of the stroke and one at the bottom. That’s important. Use your kick to drive your stroke. Butterfly is all about the kick. Kick hard and get those arms out of the water. You got it?”
I did. Maybe I should have been intimidated trying to put all of that together so quickly, but I wasn’t. I knew I could do it, and I did. It came together in an instant.
Some things you’re just born to do.
Learning to swim butterfly that day wasn’t like learning at all. It was like unlocking some secret part of myself, a part that I hadn’t even realized existed until someone showed it to me. It didn’t change who I was. It was the invention of who I was. I just did it, and my whole life snapped into place.
“See? I told you that you could swim the butterfly.”
I could. I totally could.