After surviving for decades as a nonswimmer, a 37-year-old finally gets his feet wet.
Author Mike Guy Illustration Barry Blitt
IT’S PROBABLY BEST to get this out of the way: I hate swimming. Also, I’m really bad at it, which might be why I hate it.
The ironic thing is that I actually love water. In fact, I grew up surrounded by it. In the summertime, I stayed at my grandparents’ house on the coast of Maine with a beach just paces away from my bedroom window. One of my summer jobs was renting out inflatable floats down on Long Sands. I was a harbor rat, too, buzzing around on sailboats, dinghies and fishing boats in the islands of Maine and far out to sea.
No one knows quite why I’m incapable of such a simple and seemingly universal act. It could be hereditary—none of my siblings are very good swimmers—or it could be seeing Jaws at an impressionable age. I’ve always thought it was simply because I’m a sinker. Toss me into a pool, and I sink to the bottom like a coin tossed in a fountain. The only reason I’m still alive today is that—necessity being the mother of invention—I long ago created a desperation stroke, a crude, thrashing sort of anaerobic doggy paddle, wherein I hold my breath and windmill my arms furiously, creating a splashing tornado of froth while hoping to arrive at something fixed before I run out of oxygen.
Not that I wasn’t encouraged to learn. My parents tried their darndest, marching me to years of swimming lessons (always in an uncomfortably cold saltwater pool). I just couldn’t get past the breathing part.
It didn’t take long to start associating swimming with humiliation. At age nine, I went off to summer camp, where, on the first day, everyone was required to take a swim test. Campers lined up under pine trees by the main dock and nervously waited their turn to jump into the frigid early June lakewater and swim to another dock—one that looked so far away it might have been in Canada. When my turn came, I clambered over slick roots and sharp granite, dropped into the water and deployed my spastic half-doggy. But only a few feet past where I could touch the murky bottom my hands shot into the air in panic. A counselor reached out with a long pole, which I grabbed as though it were the hand of God. Four summers later, I became the oldest camper in the Minnow class, splashing around on Cadet Beach while the other kids sailed around Lake Winnipesaukee in little Sunfish sailboats like they had gills.
Fast-forward to this spring. I’m 37 years old, at a posh Caribbean resort with my fiancée, and we’re about to go snorkeling. Caught up in the joy of being on vacation, and perhaps entranced by the promise of warm water, I jump off a dock into the bathwater sea without putting on flippers. The current pulls me away from the dock, and after trying to fake a casual Australian crawl, I realize I’m going to have to use my desperation stroke. Thirty thrashing seconds later, I’m at the dock, breathing as though I’ve just sprinted up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. As I climb wearily up onto the wooden planks, Molly is stunned.
“Oh, my God,” she says. “Sweetie, you can’t swim!”
“Sure I can,” I say, with an edge of defensiveness. “I just did!”
“That wasn’t swimming. That was surviving.”
So with our wedding just months away, I promise my bride-to-be that she won’t have to marry a nonswimmer (also, she wants a honeymoon in Bali). To get past swimmer’s block before the big day, I enroll in a swim school near Union Square in New York City.
“I’m here for the introductory class,” I say to the receptionist on my first day.
“Great!” she says, with a wide smile. “Where’s your child?”
“No, it’s me,” I say sheepishly. “I’m the student.”
“Ooooh,” she says. “I see.”
I emerge from the locker room into the muggy pool area to find myself surrounded by kids, mostly very young teenagers. It’s the oldest class the school offers. As I step into the pool, one of them, a tough-looking 10-year-old named Colin, turns to a friend and mumbles something that sounds like, “What’s with the old guy?”
“Gather ’round,” says the instructor, a former member of the Canadian Olympic team who is built like the dad in The Incredibles. “We’re going to start with kicking, okay?” I pull on my bathing cap and Speedo brand goggles, grab the edge of the pool and start scissoring. A sloshing sound echoes around the pool room, and I turn and look at Colin, who is kicking with a precocious confidence. I haven’t seen him swim yet, but I can tell he’s better than I am. It feels like Cadet Beach all over again.
The problem with learning to swim as an adult is that I have 37 years of bad habits to overcome, and that desperation stroke is as fixed in my muscle memory as my walking stride or my baseball throw. And before I can do anything, I have to overcome that sinking feeling.
After half an hour of slapping the water with my feet, we try a couple of other nonthreatening drills, but I feel no closer to swimming normally. Molly picks me up at the pool, and as we head home I tell her something a Navy SEAL once told me a few years ago: “Dude, water is inherently hostile territory.” Tell me about it. It’s the one thing about swimming that makes sense to me, and explains perfectly why I can’t breathe and swim at the same time. It’s a simple sum: breathing water is dangerous.
At the next lesson, Colin and his buddies snigger at me again. I shoot him a look. (I may not have learned to swim at camp, but I did figure out how to handle bullies.)
“Today we’re going to focus on floating,” the instructor says.
“Okay, start out in the ‘airplane position’,” he says. Following his instructions, I spread my arms like a 777, grab a deep, slow breath and, keeping my back rigid, gently float onto my face. His words, “keep your bum in the air, don’t let it sag,” ring in my head. For a moment, I founder and consider thrashing to the surface, but a beat goes by and suddenly I’m floating happy as those babies you see on TV bobbing around gleefully in pools with their mothers. I’m not a sinker after all. It’s a small victory, but a victory nonetheless.
After class, the director of the school takes me aside and gently suggests I might be better off with private instruction instead of sharing the pool with a bunch of kids. I tell her that I understand completely, but I can’t help wondering if someone complained about a middle-aged man crashing the pool party. Colin’s mom, no doubt.
For my first private lesson, we’re going to focus on something called “shoulder roll,” which is evidently another important fundamental. For the first time in my life, I’m excited about swimming. I may never be able to do a butterfly or the Michael Phelpsian dolphin kick, but I’m pretty sure I can find my way off Cadet Beach.
Executive editor MIKE GUY is still deciding if he’ll honeymoon in Bali or somewhere drier, like central Africa.
Can’t swim? You aren’t alone. Around half the rest of the world can’t either, including these notable nonswimmers:
Former Baywatch lifeguard
FREDERICK THE GREAT
King of Prussia
THE SUNDANCE KID