I’m standing atop a diving board, my hand firmly clamped on a metal railing. The water’s surface sparkles in the late afternoon sun. My two brothers have already completed tasks for their swim patch — holding their breath underwater, swimming from end to end, jumping off the diving board at our neighborhood pool in suburban Chicago — and disappeared inside the low-slung concrete block building to retrieve towels and shoes from numbered wire baskets. I’m the only shivering swim student left.
Our instructor, a young man in a red Speedo not much older than my brothers, stands beside my mother. His lips move, but the buzzing in my ears drowns out anything he’s saying. Mom’s wearing her frilly green swim cap. Her fear of water is the reason we’re here. My fear is disappointing her.
But my fear is too strong to make the leap, and, after staring at the water from my spot on the wobbling board, I turn around and climb back down.
“It’s okay, Kimmy,” Mom says. “Maybe next time.”
She drives us home in the family car, a 1960s-era Chevrolet Impala. I am six, the youngest child, the only girl, the only one to fail swimming class.
I’m sitting in the open bow of my uncle’s runabout boat, the sun warming my body while the bright, earthy scent of lake water rises off the surface. Maple and dogwood trees embrace the shoreline. My two tow-headed cousins waterski, swishing and swooshing from one side of the lake to the other, their taut bodies knitting together happy memories of childhood.
We have a pact, my mom and me, a condition on which my summer rests. I can spend my school vacation with my cousins at Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri, but because I still don’t know how to swim, she warns, I’m not allowed in the water, and that’s fine because the lake is dark with whiskery catfish and snakes as thick as ropes that could swim between my legs. But there’s something about the water. I love how the surface goes smooth as butter at the end of the day.
My aunt is younger than my mom with a halo of blonde hair and radiant smile. “I won’t tell,” she swears, and I stretch onto an inflatable raft. I’m 13, exploring my boundaries, shedding inherited fears.
I’m swimming, sorta, with Diana Nyad as my instructor. The famous swimmer speaks at a conference in the morning and gives lessons in the afternoon. Freckle-faced, Diana stands with confidence and tells me to think of my body rotating around a rod running down my spine, and I swim — face-in-the-water-breathing-every-other-stroke swim. But my hand grabs the side after every length of the pool.
Diana was the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida without a shark cage or fins, a rough-water crossing of 110 miles. She did it in 53 hours. She did it at the age of 64. She did it after four failed attempts. Diana stands on the side of the pool, hands on her hips, “Find a way,” she says in a deep confident voice.
At 32, I sign up for my first triathlon.
Days before the triathlon, I drive to a local community pool. I swim a lap. Stop. Swim another lap. Stop. Swim. Stop. Swim. Stop. I think about Diana. I swim a lap, turn, push off the wall for a second lap. Swim two laps. Three laps. Four. In one day, I go from swimming a single lap to three dozen consecutive laps without stopping. There’s a random phone on the wall, and, dripping wet, I call my best friend to share the news, the scent of chlorine my reward. “I can swim,” I say.
I’m bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean off Eleuthera, an island in the Bahamas, carrying a scuba tank on my back and breathing like a rabbit — in-out-in-out-in-out-in-out-in-out. It’s near sunset or “feeding time,” according to my scuba instructor. An ex-Navy SEAL with thick shoulders, Chris says, “Lead with the mind, and the body will follow,” and so I match my rapid-fire breathing with his words and create a mantra: I am strong. I am fearless. I can do this. My hand lets go of the boat, and we descend into another world.
At 45 feet below the surface, we settle on a sandy patch. Chris forms a circle with his thumb and index finger. Are you okay?, he asks, and I mirror his gesture. Yes. He points toward the open sea. I line up the needle on the compass strapped to my wrist and head out at 270 degrees, counting fin kicks. Fifty gets us to a wall that drops into a velvety blue, like outer space, and my breath starts skipping again until I notice the staghorn and star corals, the angelfish and tangs swimming a ballet around us.
Scuba diving technically isn’t swimming, but it is something my six-year-old self could never have imagined. I’m not sure what keeps me coming back to the water. It certainly wasn’t my mom’s disappointment in my swimming failure. She never shamed or scolded me. For me, water is something more than hydration. Water calls to my being time and again, and I respond.
Chris signals to head back. Orienting my compass, I lead, counting fin kicks. At 20, a shadowy figure emerges. Slowly, the visage grows larger. A shark? No, it’s a turtle. We watch as it passes and 30 more fin kicks, we’re back at our starting point, the smile on my face breaking my mask’s seal, allowing water to seep inside. I’m hovering over the seafloor, breathing comfortably, my relationship with water growing stronger.
We break the surface and the sun, a perfectly round cantaloupe melon, perches on the horizon of slick, calm turquoise water. I take three breaths of Earth air and watch as the orb slips below the horizon.
“Congratulations,” Chris says. “You’re certified.”
Image: From Pexels by Marcus Spiske, licensed under CC 2.0.