I consider not drowning a high priority in my life. I suffer from congenital bouyancy deficiency issues. I first discovered this at Boy Scout camp swimming in a lake in Belgium, when I failed the survival float drill. Somehow, I remained in denial regarding my condition and experienced an incident where drowning was an imminent possibility, trying to swim across the channel leading into the harbor at Santa Cruz. The fear of a large boat looming down on me compelled me past the point of fatigue and nearly giving up mid-channel.
Nonetheless, my denial of my condition persisted until college, until Wally, performed an intervention. I had won my first collegiate wrestling match on a Friday night wrestling up at 190 lbs. against the US Air Force Academy. The next day I was competing in the 180 lbs. weight class at the San Jose State tournament. In the second round of the tournament the wrestler from Air Force academy took revenge on behalf of his teammate, trapped my ankle, and put his shoulder into the outside of my knee.
I heard a loud pop as I went down. I thought I had blown out my knee. However, the next week the trainer said that because of my heavy weight training and conditioning, muscle tension had prevented critical hyperextension; I had only stretched my lateral collateral ligament. He suggested that I rehab by swimming laps with the kick board in the pool. That is when my confrontation with my condition occurred.
I walked on deck at Hickey Pool during the noon lap swim time with great eagerness ready to crush rehab and get back on the mat. I must have looked a little too damned happy for my own good, because the attendant lifeguard at the time, Wally, felt compelled to check me with a strong interrogative tone, “What are you doing here?”
Like an eager puppy ready to play, I barked out, “I am here to swim.”
Wally quickly disabused me of all delusion regarding my aquatic prowess by stating unequivocally, “NO YOU ARE NOT! You are not a swimmer. You are not designed to swim. I have seen your body-type before, and you do not float, so don’t expect me to pull your brick-ass out of the water when you start to drown.”
The benefit to being neurodivergent and not interpreting social cues was that I was amused by this tiny little woman that I knew from a campus Christian ministry was doing such a bold intervention. Undeterred by her statement, I jumped in the water. I was totally in the wrong lane, the fast lane. Eventually, I would learn that my place was at the other end of the pool, in the shallow lanes with the slower swimmers. I was swimming next to all the masters’ swimmers and former high school swim champions. As I swam my first lap my heavy legs dragged in the water at a forty-five-degree angle revealing my hydrodynamic impediment. Fortunately, one of them, a pretty young blond female former high school butterfly champion called Hoss (a sobriquet given to her by Pat Kam because her last name was Cartwright, like Hoss Cartwright on Bonanza), took pity on my pathetic plight and started giving me tips to stay horizontal on the water. I became dependent on the kindness of strangers: Because of Hoss, other swimmers decided that the socially appropriate thing to do is give me pointers. Eventually, one day someone said I should swim in the slower lanes.
The good thing is that I eventually developed my own stroke, which is a combination of breaststroke and butterfly. My arms recover out of the water like a butterfly stoke but then pull more like a breaststroke. My legs do a double kick that starts first like a breaststroke and finishes with a dolphin kick. The undulating motion lifts my head out of the water allowing me to breath. I still do swim workouts. Presently I swim 120 bpm minute heart rate intervals, which means I swim an interval and then rest until my heart rate returns to 120 before swimming the next interval. I just swim 1000 yards (2*200, 4*100 and 4*50 intervals). The goal is to reduce the time of the workout by both increasing speed of the intervals and reducing the time it takes to get heart rate down to 120 afterward. If I don’t swim fast enough, my heart rate does not get above 120 during the interval and I get no rest. If I upgrade an interval to a butterfly heart rate will most assuredly approach its maximum (180) and I might get to rest up to a minute. However, before doing that I have to count the costs.
At the backside of every strength is its weakness, but at the backside of every weakness is its strength. Because I have buoyancy deficiency syndrome, swimming is a power workout for me. I still sit low in the water and my legs drag, but I don’t ever have to use swim weights to increase my power like some people do. It may not be pretty, but my stroke is my own, Wally.
Wally does not recall making the statements quoted herein and doubts she would have said them. Some disparity between what Wally said and what I heard is highly probably. I clearly remember Wally referring to my body density and how likely it would be a disadvantage to me swimming. There was no hostility in her tone when she said it, more like a serious concern hidden inside some brash banter. Her admonition may have been gentler like "Try not to drown because I don't feel like doing a water rescue today." My first telling of the story was to my wrestling teammates later that week, and I might have conflated their likely response, “no one would want to have to pull your brick ass out of the water” with what Wally said. Hypoxia may have further impeded an accurate consolidation of the memory. By my third lap, the strain of dragging my thick legs through water left me in a state of severe oxygen debt clinging to the side of the pool.
I was so low in the water when swimming freestyle, it moved the more advanced swimmers to have compassion on me and teach me how to create a pocket of air with my arm movement so that I could rotate my head into it and catch a breath. When I first started swimming laps at UCD, I could barely finish 50 yards without having to stop and recover a minute. So, any statement Wally might have made about me not being a swimmer when I walked on to the Hickey Pool deck that day was 100% accurate, even though I know part of it was said in jest because she recognized me as a fellow Navigator, the one who was on the wrestling team. She knew what I was really built to do, and it wasn’t swim. I was entertained that she had the boldness to call me out on it.
That was one of the best days of my college career, because I discovered that swimming was a wonderful healing activity. These days, there is a item on my lab calendar for Wednesdays that says, "Derek in Therapy" from 0900 to 1030. My therapist is Dr. Pool, and with Dr. Pool I have worked through my anxiety by practicing breathing exercises. (The best breathing exercise is the butterfly stroke). I have performed physical therapy on my back by getting oxygen to my spine and lengthening my trunk support muscles. I have improved my cardiovascular health by improving vascular elasticity and cardiac recovery. All those things and the relief of stress has lowered my blood pressure. Whatever Wally said spurred something in me to try to prove that I could swim with the best of them. I still can't but I am so glad I keep trying. As for my friend Wally:
I thank my God every time I remember you. (Philippians 1:3)