For people that know me personally, it’s probably not a secret that I’m not the best swimmer. In fact calling me a swimmer at all means you’re using the broadest definition of the word. I had lessons when I was 4 or 5 (I vaguely remember being dropped off at the community pool for lessons but it still didn’t make me a swimmer). I got by mostly through staying in water where my feet could touch bottom and by doing a mean dog paddle.
Then came West Point. Everyone who arrived during that first summer had to be categorized by ability so we could be placed into the right class level once the academic year began. This initial test established me as a rock, a classification which shouldn’t require any further explanation from me.
Rock swimmers stuck together. We all had our issues with the water, and we all had requirements to achieve, first to pass the course, but also to graduate. I got through these, hoping that would be the last time I’d be required to swim as a cadet.
It was not the last time. I got snagged for the intramural swim team my junior year. This is the part where it sucked to be a woman at West Point—most of the co-ed teams required at least two female members. Even if you signed up for Wallyball, you could be pulled for swimming just so they had the right ratio to be eligible to compete. Even if you were a shitty swimmer, it meant you were getting into the water and competing. Even if it meant certain humiliation, you jumped in. The only thing worse than drowning was being labeled a quitter. If you drowned, well, at least you tried.
Something happens to me when I know I’m competing against others. I might do fine by myself, but when the adrenaline’s pumping and some kind of prize is at stake, my entire body reacts, and not in the good way. This is also why I stink at video games. If my mind is geared to compete and my fingers are not intuitively adjusted to the game controller, I’m crashing into a wall, or getting shot up by aliens, or getting run down by the other team. If I had gone to the pool on my own, it would have been okay, but knowing that I had to race seven other people with a slew of others watching from the tiled surroundings was the equivalent of dropping me into Lake Superior with ten pound weights fixed to my ankles. I would finish the race out of obligation, but I would be last every time by minutes, and I'd do so knowing that every eye of every person was on me, and in every eye of every person was this: the look of pity.
Do you know how it feels to be on the receiving end of this look?
It’s the worst feeling in the world.
You’d think I would never swim again after that experience, but I still do. In fact, I will even go into the ocean. We went last weekend and hit one of the beaches on the Delaware shore. If you stay in the water long enough, the waves will make you so tired that you’re guaranteed a decent night’s sleep. I made sure to go far enough into the water that I wouldn’t have to deal with the waves breaking. Sometimes I had to adjust, and rush towards the wave so I wouldn’t get caught under it. The first time I was out there, I was with my husband. The second time I went on a solo mission because I knew after that, we would likely be heading home and I wanted to enjoy one last dip in the water. I bobbed around in the waves, marveling at how peaceful it was, relishing the simple joy of a cloudless sky and the taste of salt on my tongue. I could do this all day, I thought as I watched the water roll in.
In the distance, I saw a huge wave swelling up as it approached the shore. As it came closer, I realize I was beyond its breaking point. I attempted swimming towards it, but as the water curled above my head, I knew I wasn’t going to make it.
Do you know that feeling?
It's the second worst feeling in the world.
I turned around and promptly felt myself slam into the sea floor. At some point my head was clearly below my feet. I hope I don't get a spinal injury, I thought as my chin connected with the sand. The water retreated, pulling sand and rocks into my bathing suit. I started to stand up, but knelt back down when I realized some of my body parts had shifted out of my top. My chin stung. I coughed and ran a hand over my sand saturated hair. Then I stumbled out onto the beach without an ounce of grace.
“You really need to go rinse your hair.” My husband said, his eyes widened.
“Hell no.” I thought, while saying “I’ll just wash it out in the shower.”
Have you ever been physically hurt and realized that you’ve gotten to old for that shit? It’s not like when you’re a little kid and you skin your knee, cry for a second and then pop back up and keep going. Your pride sort of goes with the territory too. You got your ass kicked, and it shows, not only in the scrapes and bruises, but in your eyes that bear the look of defeat.
I studied my scrapes in the mirror on the back side of the sun visor in the car, thinking, “I got my ass kicked by the Atlantic Ocean. My neck hurt. I ran my tongue through across my teeth and sifted out grains of sand. My shoulder felt pinched. I had scrapes on my chest that burned. I stared at the marks on my chin and wondered how I could twist them into jokes.
“I went for some natural dermabrasion over the weekend.”
“I had a shaving accident…”
Or there was the option of letting someone else notice the scabs and ask about them. Sometimes that’s best. If you’re lucky, no one will say anything.
I arrived at work and one of my coworkers asked about the weekend.
“Oh, we went to the beach, “ I said, “And I got knocked down by a wave.” Then, in case he missed it, I pointed at my chin. So much for the clever jokes.
“Oh no,” he replied, and there it was on his face: the look of pity.