THE WHOLE TIME I'D BEEN FIGHTING IT, I'D REALLY been fighting myself.
It had been a quarter century - that would be 25 years - since my three-foot tall, bony body shivered a foot from the edge of the fiberglass diving board at the Gresham Park Community Pool. A gray sky swirling above, 200 miles from the nearest saltwater, you couldn't tell me that Jaws, Jaws 2, and Jaws in 3-D weren't sharpening their razor teeth in the 10-ft. deep waters below.
A half hour before, there were a dozen other shagged boys and cornrowed girls waiting in line to take their first leap. But I could not remember, for the life of me, whether they even survived. All I could remember were the days leading up - weeks of kicking, breathing, and stroking exercises in the shallows, which now seemed a continent away - all I could remember was the leaden dread of the moment of truth: when I'd be forced to give up the security of the shallow end's sure concrete floor and exercise faith that these new dubious waters would hold me.
And so I stood, less than a foot - farther than an impossiblity - from the edge.
I never made the leap.
So two weeks ago, my friend K___t_, agreed to give me lessons. K___t_ is a man of many hats: a husband, a father, a photographer, and among other things, a preacher at the church where I was baptized. After learning that I couldn't swim, K___t_, (in his mid-30's and a swimmer all of his life), having the power to do something about it, did one of the things that makes him such a valuable friend:
He did something about it.
"You wanna learn how to swim? No problem, I can teach you."
I had no faith in the water, but I did have faith in K___t_.
That first day at our gym's indoor pool had the makings of a bad comedy routine.
TUESDAY, JUNE 8, 2004
After a short interview, K___t_ said, "Show me what you know."
So I performed what I could remember of the freestyle stroke. About midway across the 50 meter pool, at the end of my first held breath, I thrust out of the water gasping for air.
"Okay, you need to breathe." K___t_ said. "Like this."
He took off down the lane, and I watched.
Stroke-stroke-stroke-stroke. Breathe. Stroke-stroke-stroke-stroke. Breathe.
That looked easy enough.
He touched the far end, and I plunged into my lane to meet him.
Stroke-stroke. Breathe. Stroke-stroke-stroke. Breathe. Stroke. Breathe. Stroke-stroke. Br-
I self-destructed not quite halfway across the pool. There wasn't a hint of rhythm to my mechanics. This was a fight. And I wasn't winning.
As chlorine gushed down my nose and into my mouth, I gasped in great heaves for air. If it weren't for the roof above us, I think I would have sucked all the clouds out of the sky.
As I gathered my bearings in the 4 feet of water, K__t_ was certainly laughing at me behind my back.
To my surprise, he wasn't. He was laughing at me in my face.
"Okay, okay," he was trying to control himself. "Let's start you at square one. Your problem is your breathing. Let's get you comfortable in the water.
"What I want you to do is to dip your head underwater, and breathe out through your nose."
"My nose?" I was puzzled. "You mean, underwater?"
"Yes, your nose. And, yes, underwater. I know it's gonna feel uncomfortable, but you have to develop a breathing pattern - kinda like running.
"When I run, I breathe every four steps. You have to do the same thing in swimming. Breathe out when you're underwater, and breathe in when you turn your head to come up for air."
A lightbulb came on. Just like that. Was it really that simple? Instead of fighting against the water, I was supposed to work with it. So for the next five minutes, I practiced exhaling underwater through my nose. It tickled and was crazy uncomfortable at first, but that was only because it was something I'd never done before.
"Okay, we're gonna change up a bit," K___t_ said. "Let's see if you can float on your back. Try this."
K___t_ threw his head back on the water and his legs rose to the surface, like magic. He moved his arms a little and, whaddayaknow?, the water supported him. Just like that.
Now, K___t_ is 6'2" and just under 200 pounds - meaning, he is fit, but no small man. So it should logically follow that I should be able to get my 5'11", 165 pound frame to glide across the surface with no problem. Right?
"Just lay your head back on the water, and kick your legs near the surface. Your legs are naturally gonna wanna go down, so keep your head back to compensate."
"Keep your head back," K___t_ said.
And I tried.
"Keep your head back!" he yelled again.
And I tried again.
"Keep your head back. Why do you keep looking?" he said like a parent to a stubborn child. "What are you trying to see?"
He was asking for the impossible - for me to have blind faith.
After about 10 minutes of awkwardness and futility, with K___t_ even putting his hands beneath my back to support me, he looked around the pool and decided on another approach.
"I'll be right back."
He returned with a kickboard.
He put the kickboard beneath his back and floated down the pool.
"Now, you try."
I fell off the board a couple of times before something clicked. I found that if I arched my back - that is, put the back of my head in the water (which is what K___t_ had been asking me to do all along) I could float.
And with my head in the proper position, I could see my lithe body in the mirrored ceiling, easily advancing down the pool. Propelling myself backward with my arms, gliding on the kickboard, I made the entire 50 meters without falling off!
"Great," K___t_ said. "Now we're making progress.
"But that's enough for today. So between now and your next lesson, here's what I need you to do: Continue practicing with the kickboard; get accustomed to having your head underwater; and, most importantly, get comfortable breathing."
It always comes back to breathing. It is the one voluntary act that we do every moment of life. In childbirth, in meditation, in sex, in swimming, in running, in singing, in public speaking, in dreaming, in hypnosis - when our breathing betrays us, we fail.
The secret is to be in tune with the hum of the universe - to not cry out in discord against it. It is there to support you.
If you let it.