Swimming through the hardest winter…

Swimming has always been my happy place, but it took a bleak pandemic winter to remind me just how much.

In early March, 2020, hopeful that the Coronavirus pandemic would be a short-lived phenomenon, my wife and I hunkered down and began sewing masks for our friends who are in health care professions. A month passed. Then we expanded our efforts to supply anyone else who wanted them. As that need was met, we turned our attention to emergency fundraising for a national organization of which we are members. Weekly zoom meetings and a stream of related tasks filled our hours through the rest of the spring. That challenge was met, as yet another couple of months passed. Summer, with its warmth, bright sun, and our outdoor pool made isolation more tolerable. I decided to have a needed foot surgery. Why not? I wasn’t doing anything it would inconvenience. That took care of June, July, and part of August.

Since it was still summer and my foot had healed enough to swim, I was eager to make the best of our remaining home pool days and I began to swim a few laps. Mind you, our pool is only 40 feet long—that’s 13.3 yards, or about three to four strokes. It felt great. The more I did it, the better it felt, and I barely noticed the pains that came with the recovery from joint repair in my foot. In these sessions, I worked up to 120 yards, then 200.

Yet, as fall approached, and the end of social distancing was nowhere in sight, I began to feel an additional, familiar dread—that of my seasonal depression. For me, it is usually pretty bad. My tendency, left unchecked, would be to mope, grump, and isolate—and I was already isolating! I would usually cope by scheduling, far in advance, to attend workshops at craft schools, creative retreats in warm places, or travel to visit friends. Even though exercise is always recommended as a part of a depression-combatting regimen I have had problems sticking with it. For me, osteoarthritis, two replaced knees, wonky hip joints, and fused foot joints rule out a number of weight-bearing activities. Inevitably, I slacked.

September and the first part of October are “swimmable months” in our heated pool, and at first I thought I might be able to just keep the heaters running and continue to swim through the winter months. That was a pipe dream, literally. The cold was just too much for the heat pump. One of my dear friends had been swimming at our county’s recreational facility, a place where I’d sometimes swum before in the winter months. He encouraged me to give it a try because they had implemented stringent Covid protocols. To use the pool, you had to reserve your swimming times (a week in advance, around midnight on Wednesdays, when new openings were posted). You were, and still are, required to wear a mask at all times except when in the water (yet, those who were doing water aerobics chose to wear them in the pool as well). You checked in at the front desk where your temp was taken. The locker rooms were closed, so you had to be prepared to disrobe down to your suit, swim, and dry sufficiently poolside, slap your mask back on, wrap up, and depart immediately through an exit door to the parking lot. That took some imaginative dressing. Nevertheless, I registered online and took the plunge. I soon got into a routine of swimming laps every other day, life’s events and icy weather allowing.

Once in my lane and under way, my mind was constantly marveling at how good this activity felt, and I began to recall that I have always had a very special relationship with swimming. It came back to me, in forty-five minute sessions, as I built the length of my swims to encompass 500, 750, 1000, and eventually 1200 yards.

My swimming story begins with my mother’s total and complete fear of water any deeper than the bathtub. She grew up in a very small town in the Oklahoma Panhandle and never learned to swim. She was terrified that there might come a time when my brother or I got into deep water with no other adult around. She was determined that her children would be able to save themselves because she wouldn’t be able to save us. She enrolled us, at ages six and four, for beginning swimming lessons. I still remember my first swimming teacher’s name—Mr. Ogden, of Perryton, Texas. He was terrific, with the ability to assuage anxiety and help us build confidence in the water. It was in his care that I learned to dog paddle, and could cross the pool.

The next year, we returned to Lubbock, Texas, to a house that was within six blocks of KN Clapp Community Pool, and I had regular swimming lessons from third grade onward. It was clear to my parents how much I enjoyed my time in lessons at the pool. In fact, whenever I experienced nightmares and my mother would come to my bedside, she would suggest visualizing myself swimming in the pool—and this was way before creative visualization was a universally named “thing.”

When I was 11, almost 12, I spent hours glued to the television watching the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. My heroine was U.S. Swim Team member, Donna de Varona, who, after she was well on her way to setting a career total of eighteen world best times and world records, won the gold medal in the women’s 400-meter individual medley. She defeated the second-place finisher by a margin of six seconds and set an Olympic record. She also earned a second gold medal as a member of the world-record-setting U.S. team in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay . With that inspiration, I tried out for the local swim team, and was invited to join, but a small family drama ensued—my parents couldn’t afford the expenses of team participation plus my orthodontia. Ultimately, it was decided that my dental health was more important. I was heartbroken, but was determined to swim as often as I could, and redoubled my efforts to learn and try to perfect new strokes. In the back of my mind, I prayed that the swim team coach would see my efforts and offer me a “scholarship” position on the team. That never happened.

I continued swimming whenever, wherever I could. My Girl Scout camp installed a beautiful in-ground pool and offered two-week sessions for swimming instruction—I earned my Red Cross Life Saving certificate there when I was sixteen, which allowed me to have my most appreciated summer job ever. During the summer between my junior and senior year in high school, I worked as a swim instructor and lifeguard at the Seahorse Swim School, in Lubbock, TX. It was a 2.5 mile, easy bicycle trip from my family’s home. The Seahorse was a privately owned pool where swimmers over 12 years old were not allowed. I taught beginner swimmers’ classes from 8:00 to noon, then sat on the lifeguard stand from 1:00 to closing at 8:00. Occasionally, I could lifeguard for private parties after 8:00. I actually did save a kid from drowning once. He was a two-year old, who accidentally stepped off the edge of the deep pool, into a big muddle of splashing children, without his mother noticing.

My hourly wage was $1.00 per hour, but I would have done the job for nothing. After a summer of this work—eating shrimp salads for lunch from the seafood place a block away, and swimming laps during the hourly ten-minute timeout periods, I was in the best shape of my life. At the end of the summer, I expressed this to my boss, who was a kindly, eccentric middle-aged man who said, without any hint of improper intent, “My dear, women are never out of shape, only out of condition.” And that, my friends, was the first body-positive thing anyone had ever said to me in my life to that point. In the fall of 1969, I returned to my last year of high school and because of the positive changes in my diet and fitness, many people didn’t even recognize me.

After that, what can I say? I went to college. No time to swim. Then came graduate school. Then came a teaching career in a northern place where it was very, very hard to convince myself to go to the university’s pool before, or after, an eight hour stint of teaching, and in -5° F. temperatures. Opportunities for summer swimming were few and far between, and were only presented as cold, cold lakes. On a beginning teacher’s salary, jetting off to warm beaches in February, as did many of my colleagues, was out of the question. Eventually, after my early retirement, some sterling opportunities presented—snorkeling in Hawaii, Florida, Corsica. Snorkeling is still one of my favorite vacation activities, and it is always on my bucket list. Oh, the things I’ve seen.

This winter, as I swam my laps at our county’s sportsplex, alternating with the breaststroke and crawl, all these swimming memories flooded back. I also told myself that I was getting into “condition” to better snorkel when travel restrictions would finally be lifted. When the memories were recounted and current events slipped back into my thoughts, I kept thinking of my wife’s continual encouragements to give gratitude and count my blessings. I found myself creating a ritual during every second lap of the breaststroke. There is a point, mid-stroke, where the hands come together underneath your body, moving headward along the torso, and they nearly clasp at the heart, as if in prayer. At that point in the stroke, I would call a name (in my mind), with a wish for health and survival. With every stroke a different name. The next breaststroke lap would bring more names, and more names. I tried not to repeat names in a swim session, but some of you got named many times as my mind couldn’t seek others fast enough. If wishes were fishes, my entire tribe of friends and kin would survive this goddamn mess and live on to lead their lives in good health.

It’s a year on now. Our home pool is almost ready for us, but I plan to keep going to the county pool for lap swimming. The benefits outweigh the inconvenience of leaving the house. What my mother didn’t realize, those many years ago, was that I’d inherit osteoarthritis from her and swimming would also save me from the perils of inactivity. Plus, I have much more thinking to swim.

Anita Mills
May 18, 2021

PS—You may like to know that the tile lane division markers at my county’s pool are comprised of exactly 1,314, 2” square tiles. I know, because I counted them.

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