Lessons from the deep end of Empire Pool

I’m 4 or 5 and sitting in the ‘dog seat’ in the back of my mom’s red Beetle. We’re driving along UBC boulevard and by the blur of trees I think we are going quite fast. No matter. My mother is confident in her abilities to get out of any ticket and had in fact been pulled over on this very road, cried convincingly to the officer, was reprimanded and let go. More likely the officer looked at the 6 or 7 children jammed into her small car and thought, poor thing and let her go.

I'm the little girl at in the bottom, middle of the picture.

I’m the little girl at in the bottom, middle of the picture.

We’re going for swim lessons at Empire Pool. I am nervous because all of my clothes are hand-me-downs and while I do have a new swimsuit for the occasion I have old, brown flip-flops that could have been a brother’s, shorts from the neighbour’s daughter down the street who was by all accounts a super-model by age 9, and a t-shirt that is for certain about to be torn into pieces and used on someone’s car in the garage.

I’m excited all the same. Any opportunity to sit in the sun and swim in a real pool makes me happy. I love the beach but the salt water up my nose makes me stumble out of the ocean like a character from a horror film, blindly searching in the air for my towel and curling up in a heap on some other family’s blanket.

Our class is lined up along the side of the pool when I join. Why am I late? I feel a blush develop. One of my older brother’s had told me, ‘you’ll never be a poker player if you blush like that, shows ’em what you’re thinking.‘ Why I had to prepare for poker playing I did not know but I took his advice and wrangled my embarrassment under control. Our teacher was very tall and slim, some might say gangly, but I could see it was a sporty, professional athlete kind of length to her and it gave me confidence she would be a good teacher.

We slipped into the pool and  just held onto the sides and kicked and did simple movements to get used to the water. Our teacher stood above us in her one piece Speedo and loose, softly faded cotton shorts that were tied with a rough string and slipped down her thin hips as she strode along the edge of the pool shouting out to us, “Good job, keep it up! Yes! That’s it, that’s it, kick, kick, kick!” I knew I was sweating in the cool water trying to do a good job kicking and kicking and kicking.

The following weeks were a series of similar exercises and I grew a little bored. When were we going in the deep end? Growing up with daredevils, I was used to a high-level of adrenaline. I watched in awe as divers plunged into the blue sky above me from the 10 meter board. At home later, my brothers would talk about the various stunts they’d seen or done from the same board. I didn’t admit I was still in the shallow end.

The following Saturday we lined up under the warm sun, not yet hot as it climbed towards its noon zenith. She calmly announced we were going to the deep end to learn how to tread water. This was it. The big time. Sink or swim. We followed her along the wide pool deck towards the end of the pool. Here you could see the daredevils back flipping off the boards, cannonballing and roughly pushing each other into the water. More my kind of world and mostly made of boys which was the norm for me with nine brothers. Our teacher gave them a look of disdain.

“Please stay in this area only as this is a busy pool with lots of divers and we don’t want to be in their way.” Well, neither did we! She announced that we’d be tested today on our treading abilities and timed. A lump formed in my throat. I had to pass. I imagined the scene back home when word got out I couldn’t even tread water, never mind dive off a board.

We swam out from the edge and began to practice our treading. I was treading well she said, shouting over the mayhem of boys behind me, “Hold your head up, that’s it, pretend an invisible string is pulling your head up, up, up!‘ I kicked like crazy but my body felt so heavy, heavier than it could possibly be in real life, pulling me down into the deep end. My legs flailed and searched for respite. I couldn’t touch the bottom. Panicked, I quickly swam towards the side of the pool and reached out for the wet cement.

Our lissome teacher bent over to see if I was okay. I brushed her off and said, ‘just taking a break!’ and smiled optimistically up into her sunny face. Reassured, she went on to another student. But I wasn’t optimistic. I was sure I would drown during the test. I began to think of excuses. Sudden stomach cramps? I was late for an appointment? A doctor? What could I come up with on a Saturday in July? Frantic and irrational, I tried to wave her down though she didn’t see my tiny arm whirling out of its shoulder socket amidst her brood of beginners.

I could see no way out. I pushed away from the edge and joined the other swimmers. She counted down and the test began. I was already exhausted. I longed to lie down on my towel. She yelled out encouragement, pacing up and down the side of the pool like a real coach and I focused on her sandy blonde hair moving from side to side, her long arms clapping and waving to us, her lean legs tensed into tanned muscle as she squatted at the edge and screamed “nearly done, nearly there!” My chin was now touching the water. I was going under. Soon my head would be covered. She likely wouldn’t see me for a while as I dropped to the bottom of the pool where I would lay unconscious.

A loud, shrill whistle sounded and through my wet eyelashes I saw a blurry figure clapping wildly and gesticulating at us to come back to the edge. I used what was left of my limp limbs to make it back. She must have sensed my struggle as she came and firmly took my hand and pulled me right out like I was a foam kicking board. I beamed up at her and she bent down to my face and said ‘good job‘ and briefly put her warm, powdery dry hand on my shoulder.

Later, my mother would pull out the paper octopus shaped award of achievement that said I had passed the course. The teacher had written nice things about me on each leg of the Octopus. My brothers hooted and screamed and made fun of my little octopus but I didn’t care. It was like a gold medal to me and I carefully placed it inside my Babar book next to my bed. I knew I would never grow up to be sporty like my teacher but it felt wonderful that night to lie in bed knowing I could survive in the deep end.

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