Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Mile Swim



It's hard not to be distracted these days by all of the hype and hoopla surrounding the election. It's a historic event. It's an important decision. And it's interesting as hell. But, meanwhile, life goes on.

One of the best ways I have found to clear my head of external distractions is to go swimming. Spending forty-five minutes with my face submerged in water is a great way to block out the world. My main focus when swimming is on my breathing. That and counting. It's pretty basic. When you pare down your conscious processes to just breathing and counting, you are pretty close to a state of pure being. Plus it's great exercise.

I have always loved the water. When I was a kid my family lived in a neighborhood with a swimming pool just down the road. We could easily walk there and on summer days we practically lived there. Back then, swimming consisted mainly of 'horseplay'. Jumping, diving, splashing, inventing games, anything to spend more time in the water. But the real fun was jumping off the diving board. And in order to do that I had to pass a test. One of the first real tests of my childhood: to swim the length of the pool.

Swimming The Length was a major rite of passage in my neighborhood. I still remember the day I did it. It was during one of the fifteen minute breaks each hour when the adults were permitted to swim and the kids had to cool their jets. It was a major event, because during 'break' all the other kids were sidelined with nothing else to do but watch you.

Gordy, the redheaded lifeguard, walked slowly along the edge of the pool as I made my way out of familiar shallow territory and into the exciting and dangerous realm of the Deep End. My Mom walked just behind Gordy, offering words of encouragement and a confident smile. I can still see the tiled wall at the far end drawing slowly closer. Below me, nine feet of water. There was no turning back. I was determined not to fail. Finally, I made it. I had swum The Length. Friends and neighbors applauded. Gordy congratulated me. Mom hugged me with a warm towel.

The next summer, I was persuaded to try out for our neighborhood swim team. I'll never forget that day either. My older sister Cindy was on the team. She was a great swimmer. My Dad had been on the swim team at Wesleyan. I felt like I had a legacy to uphold. Only I didn't want to be on the swim team. I liked swimming for fun, not for competition. I was a pretty scrawny kid and lacked the upper body strength for real swimming. I just liked goofing around in the water.

The first day of practice we swam a twenty lap warm up. It was a huge struggle for me. I barely finished. I felt like I was going to puke. I tried to get excused from the rest of the practise, but was pressured to continue. Things got a little better when we started racing. I was actually pretty fast in the short sprints. I even did O.K. in a couple of meets. But I never forgot the shame of that first practice. I just wasn't cut out to be on the swim team.

I never stopped loving the water, though. I spent as much time in the pool as possible during the summer. And on our family trips to Florida, I enjoyed swimming in the ocean just as much. At summer camp as a Boy Scout I even learned some lifesaving techniques. But there was one thing I was always afraid to try, even though I secretly wanted to. And that was the Mile Swim.

The Mile Swim is a merit badge awarded by the Boy Scouts, or "Scouts" as they now like to be called, for (you guessed it) swimming a mile. There are a few other requirements as well, but it's pretty much the swimming the mile part that gets you the badge. I remember passing by the pool at Camp Covered Bridge one day when they were holding the qualifying swim for the Mile Swim merit badge. I stood and watched as about a dozen boys swam lap after lap, still haunted my own humiliating performance at that first swim team warm up. I thought about how cool it would be to earn that merit badge with the little red seahorse on it. That would be some real vindication.

I never did try to swim the mile, though. It seemed impossible. A mile! Who could swim that far? I couldn't even swim twenty laps.

But all that was a long time ago and it's all water under the bridge, so to speak.

Several years ago, after injuring my Achilles tendon, I started swimming laps at a local pool as an alternative to running. I started off easy, swimming for about twenty minutes at a stretch, which was enough to leave me dizzy and gasping for breath. Over time I have gradually increased my workouts to the point where, earlier this summer, I was doing 1500 yards three times a week. It occurred to me that I was only 260 yards shy of the coveted Mile Swim. So, I decided to go for it.

It being summer, I was swimming on the early morning schedule Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. So one Sunday morning, I got up at seven a.m. to arrive at the pool by seven-thirty. The pool was nearly deserted, which is just the way I like it. I swam my usual 1500 yard workout and was feeling pretty good. I decide to keep going. Technically, I needed four more laps, plus another sixty yards, so call it six. Surprisingly, the additional six laps went by pretty quickly. It was over before I knew it. I had done it. I had completed the Mile Swim. This time there was no applause. No congratulations from Gordy the lifeguard. No warm hug from Mom. But there was a deep feeling of satisfaction. One of those little shadows from the past that had been lurking about for all these years had been turned into a halo. It felt good.

I decide to reward myself for my achievement, so I went on eBay and bought a vintage 1970's BSA Mile Swim merit badge. The one with the little red seahorse on it. The one I've always wanted.

Now that I have conquered the mile, what next? For a while I rested on my laurels, thinking a mile was plenty long enough for a workout. But after a couple of weeks, I decided to bump it up a little more. Now I'm up to two thousand yards. I still make a mental note when I pass the mile mark. It is no longer the unattainable goal of my childhood, rather simply another 'milestone' along my path. But it will always be a special one. It took me a long time to get there. And each time I pass it by, I will remember the journey.

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