IT WAS THE SUMMER BETWEEN SEVENTH AND EIGHTH GRADE. I HAD A YEAR OF LIVING IN SUBURBAN AMERICA UNDER MY BELT AND A WHOLE LOT OF LEARNING AHEAD OF ME. I COULD NOT HAVE IMAGINED THAT I’D END UP IN SOUTH FLORIDA AND THAT WATER WOULD SAVE MY LIFE.

This summer, we wouldn’t be going to the Rockville Day Camp down the hill with little kids. There was a new venue opening in the neighborhood: the Potomac Woods Swim Club. We’d watched it being built next to Susie’s school all spring and could hardly wait for it to open its doors on Memorial Day, a mid-week holiday that we’d never heard of, like February’s Presidents Day, when the stores off Rockville Pike had sidewalk sales. 

It was sunny when I woke up, a perfect outdoor day. I pulled on my old bathing suit feeling the rayon rip a little where the Bogotá Country Club chlorine had eroded its elasticity. I was taller too, and the suit felt tight over my bottom. I pulled on a pair of shorts that hid my cheeks, hoping that I could grab a towel quickly later on when I got out of the water. The whole neighborhood would be there. 

Mom drove us to the pool, although the lot was full so she had to park at the school just up the hill. Susie and I ran ahead to look for our neighbors: Susie’s best friend Barbara Murray and her little sister Janet from across the street and their parents. Mrs. Murray was Mom’s best friend, and, unlike Dad, who was using the holiday to work, Mr. Murray was also on hand. He’d been talking about the swim team that would be starting as soon as school was out. 

“You girls are coming out for the team, right?”

I smiled and shrugged, feeling my suit strap cut into my shoulders. You just didn’t say no to Mr. Murray, but the swimming we’d learned at the ocean-side pool in Cartagena barely kept me afloat. 

“Well, sure you are.” Mr. Murray answered his own question as Mom caught up to us. 

“Hi, Nan,” Mrs. Murray said as she hugged Mom. “Isn’t this great?”

Mom smiled. “Fantastic.” She pulled out her wallet as we approached the front desk. “Three summer passes,” she said. 

Dad wouldn’t use the pool: Mom had grown up swimming at the Winona Y and in the Mississippi, even becoming a life guard before college, whereas Dad nearly drowned in the Hidewood Creek near the farm. I hadn’t seen him in a swim suit since Cartagena.

The damp cement floor of the girls’ changing area pulled at my flip flops as we walked through in the dim light of the few high window slots. 

“Quick showers, girls,” Mom said.

I pulled off my shorts, nearly entangling them in my flip flops before draping them over Mom’s outstretched arm. Susie beat me into the shower but the water was still cold as I danced through. My suit clung to my butt in all the wrong ways.

“Towel?” I said.

“Oh, let’s keep them dry for later,” Mom said as she walked toward the sunny opening to the pool. 

I raced out and down the steps to the pool’s shallow area before lifting my head to see who might have seen my rear end. No one. I sank into the water and allowed myself to float. 

By the time school was out, Susie and I each had two new suits and we were riding the bikes we got at Christmas the six blocks to the pool every morning for the two-hour swim team practice. After practice, our eyes pickled and weepy from the chlorine, Susie and I would bike back home, eat lunch during Jeopardy, and head back to the pool for the afternoon to play Marco Polo and practice jackknifes off the diving board. The bigger kids played cards. I pretended to be interested, but it was way more fun to work on my dives.

The daily morning practices were two hours of torture, beginning at 8 with we had a ten-lap freestyle warmup, a line of us following each other like kicking caterpillars; inevitably I’d be ahead of a good swimmer and they’d pass me at the wall with a barely concealed glare. Speed drills followed, so at least you had the lane to yourself but not very much time to feel like you were no longer dying before your next go. Then relays, watching tremulously for the swimmer’s hand to hit the wall before you dived it, trying to keep it shallow, then knowing you had to get to the wall before your squad gave up on you. 

Our coach, VJ, looked like Dean Jones, only tan and often shirtless, so when he said I had the broad shoulders of a butterflier in the making, I guessed that Dad smacking me on the back had cured my habit of slumping. I discovered that I was pretty good at the butterfly and even better at breaststroke, and so, even though I was prone to zigzagging down the lane in the backstroke, I trained for the Individual Medley. It was one 25 yard length of each of the four strokes. 

The first Saturday meet was at our own pool. The parking lot was filled by eight thirty as swimmers and parents from the opposing team streamed in; late arrivals had to drop off swimmers and park next door at the school. Banners of triangular flags flew at both ends of the pool, where raised start stands were set up for each lane. Mr. Murray and Mr. Chaitt, along with other men and women wearing lanyards and whistles or stopwatches around their necks, stood together comparing notes on clipboards. Mr. Murray had the bullhorn. Mr. Chaitt had the starter gun. Mom stood in the grassy area where more practiced parents were sitting on portable chairs from home.

The first events were the medley relays by age. The littlest kids kicked away like tadpoles and got lifted out of the water by their arms, their blonde hair gleaming a bit green. As the age groups proceeded, the swimmers were larger, the technique better, and the speed faster. The teams screamed, the parents yelled. It was a little like a soccer match, but not so loud.

Mid-way through the morning, Mr. Murray hollered through the bullhorn, “12-and-under IM, on deck!”

I walked away from the team, shaking out my arms like I saw other swimmers doing. My fingers slapped at each other; it was the first Latin American gesture that I’d ever allowed myself to enjoy in America. I walked under the flags to the shallow end of the pool repeating the stroke sequence under my breath: back, fly, breast, free. I found my lane and jumped in, grabbed the starting block bars, and walked my feet up the side of the pool. I pulled in tight.

Pow! The starter gun echoed against the concrete and I pushed off onto my back,  willing my legs to kick and each arm to reach back, around, back, around. Past the first flags. Water splashed into my mouth and up my nose. I blew out snot and spit and chlorine. Kick, reach back and around, kick kick. Past the second flags, watch out for the wall. My hand whacked against the tiles but I’d made it. One length down, three to go.

The underwater push off the wall was a moment of quiet heaven, then I broke through surface, chest up, head high, arms flying to the sides. Steal a breath, quick. Arms sweep forward, chin in, dive, dolphin kick. Break thorough, fly, dive, kick, break through. The crowd noise started and stopped, started and stopped. I slapped the wall with both hands, tucked my legs in, and turned.

Another underwater glide above the long black line, my head between my arms, fingers and toes pointed, the longest I’d ever felt. Push the water down and back with your arms and surface as you pull your legs in, wide, together. Suck in, blow out. Keep your hairline at the waterline. Push, lift, together. Push, lift, together. The black line reached the T. Last turn. Freestyle.

No easy rhythm now, just kicking and turning the arms over, go, go, go. My fingers were pushed apart as my hands pulled through the thick water. Where were my legs? I glimpsed a blurry VJ alongside the pool as I gulped for air. My lungs burned. There was the T. Done.

I was last. 

“Room to grow,” Mom said as she drove home. 

“Nowhere but up,” Dad said when I told him over dinner.

THE POOL AT LA FITNESS WHERE I NOW SWIM

2 thoughts on “LEARNING TO SWIM

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