More Than Treading Water

200258039If you’ve been reading this column for a while, you might remember a piece or two about my being a lap-swimmer. My swimming “career” did not have an easy start: “Woof woof,” my fellow summer-campers would tease as they were mastering freestyle and I was still doing the doggy-paddle. So the spring I was 9, anticipating another humiliating year at camp, I walked to the JCC on Raritan Avenue, back when kids could walk places alone, ambled up to the front desk, unfolded a 5-dollar bill and boldly asked if someone could give me private swim lessons for a few weeks. I didn’t want to ask my parents because I’d already talked them into piano lessons and budget-conscious even then was sensitive to asking for more financial favors. As it turned out, I got free lessons for two months: an hour after school every Tuesday and Thursday from one of the lifeguards, who’d been my camp counselor and took pity on me.

My swimming life had begun: first competing and then swimming for exercise. I prided myself as I passed more and more milestone birthdays that I could still swim a lap in under a minute, that I often swam faster than women 10 then 20 years younger could. Eventually, though, Nature enforced a reduced speed limit and that mile started taking longer and longer until last winter, when my life as a “lapper” came to a screeching halt. (Excuse the mixed metaphor.)

In the slow motion of my fall down our front steps on a black-ice morning, I saw my legs come up to eye level and my hand go to grab the handrail. And I did grab it, while also tearing my rotater cuff. The injury wasn’t bad enough to warrant surgery; injections were suggested, but I couldn’t reconcile how a shot could help a tear. Instead, I would wait for it to heal and choose new activities. I tried Zumba®, which I loved until I came down wrong and not only felt but heard my knee pop, injuring my lateral meniscus, which did heal after several weeks. And while it was healing, I attempted the elliptical trainer, but was bored out of my mind. Chlorine runs through my veins; I wanted back in the pool.

But my shoulder still hurt.

During all those back-and-forth years, I’d been watching them from beneath the surface: the women – and a few men – wearing light-blue flotation belts, bobbing around on their marionette legs in an aqua aerobics class. I told myself, That will never be me. I will always be a swimmer. But now I was crying uncle. My ego said, Are you kidding? But my body, craving the water, won.

Still the competitor, I joined an advanced class in the fall and chose to do the workout without a belt. But with a limited range of motion in my arm, while the rest of the class was doing upper-body strengthening with hand-weights, I treaded.

Well, it was more than just treading; I started deep-water jogging. It felt so good that I started showing up at the pool on non-class days and asking lap-swimmers, many of whom knew me, if I could hang out in the deep end and “do my thing,” working up from 20 to 45 then 60 minutes, huffing and puffing away, keeping my chin above the surface – with two or three 30-second rests and a sip from my water bottle left within reach on the deck. Ladies in the locker room, recognizing me now as “the pool jogger,” asked if they could join me. So today, the Y generously allows us a lane of our own from 10 to 11 am every Friday.

Fact: I am not as young as I used to be. Fact: Before my injury, I could not swim as fast I used to. Fact: I may never be able to swim a distance doing freestyle again. But here are my new facts of life: I am in better shape than I might be otherwise; I am still active, even though this is not my activity of choice. Best of all, I am still in the pool. That 9-year-old worked hard to become a swimmer, and this sunny-side-of-60-year-old honors her.

I know with certainty there will come a time when I can no longer do this. When that day comes, I’ll snap on the light-blue flotation belt and the lap swimmers can watch, from their sub-surface vantage point, my little marionette legs dancing away. And after that, maybe water yoga.