Adventures in Swimming: When Stupidity Makes You a Better Athlete

Last week, Steve and I were visiting my parents both for Thanksgiving and also to go to my ten-year high school reunion, which was sort of awesome in its ridiculousness. Part of the thing about that kind of a trip, particularly since my parents now live about a mile from where I grew up in Chicago before we moved to the suburbs (*boo hiss*), is the reminiscing and the stories and the ‘remember how Kelly used to be so much cooler than she is now.’

Since they live very close to the park where I learned to swim and spent most of my afternoons as a kid, some of the stories were about swimming. Including my favorite story:

When we moved to Chicago, my parents signed me up for swim team. I had, theoretically, learned to swim in the backyard pool of the guy who owned the daycare I went to in Florida. In reality, I had not learned how to swim. But, I didn’t know this. When I got to swim team, the first thing everyone had to do was prove that they could swim one lap. The coach said ‘Swim a lap.’ So, I did.

I didn’t think about the fact that I couldn’t or never had or didn’t really know how. I jumped in and started “swimming.” Since I was 100% convinced that in order to swim good you needed to breathe a lot — like really a lot, like every time my arm left the water I picked my head up, every single time — I mostly was flailing and gasping and swallowing gallons of water. It looked like this:

If you try to search for photos or videos of kids failing at swimming, there basically are none. But, MOST kids fail at swimming. Parents stop lying to yourselves.
If you try to search for photos or videos of kids failing at swimming, there basically are none. But, MOST kids fail at swimming. Parents stop lying to yourselves.

But, and this is my favorite part, I didn’t stop. Just as it never occurred to me that I couldn’t swim a lap before jumping in, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t do it even as I was failing. Because safety, we were doing our lap in the lane right next to the wall. I was “swimming” along the wall and could have just reached out to touch it if I needed to. In theory, that was the point. In theory, if a kid was drowning, they would stop. I didn’t stop. It never even crossed my mind to grab onto the wall until the coach looked down and was like ‘Whoa, kid, stop.’ And, then, I basically thought the coach was telling me to stop because I was doing so good.

I failed the ‘can you swim a lap’ test and got put in Remedial Swim Team or Adventures in Swimming, which met an hour earlier. I actually learned how to swim and moved out of Swimming Adventures pretty quickly and up through the swim team lanes. Maybe it was because I went to practice a lot — swim team practice was every day but most kids only went 2-3x/week; not me, I had nothing else going on — or maybe it was because it simply never occurred to me that I couldn’t do what the coaches said.

By the time I was 9 or 10, I was good enough that I supposed to move out of the medium lane, where the 8- to 11-year-olds were, and into the fast lane with the middle school and high school kids. I hated it, though. I didn’t know the older kids, they hadn’t moved up from Adventures in Swimming with me, they didn’t like me. And, worse, I couldn’t do what the coach said, I would get lapped and struggle through workouts. So, I discovered that if I told the coach I didn’t feel good and wanted to swim down a lane, with my friends, then the coach thought I was being a trooper for still coming to practice when I felt bad and I didn’t have to swim with the high school kids. It was a win-win.

Or, I guess, it was a lose-lose. Eventually, I did that less and less, until I was always swimming in the fast lane. Eventually, another kid moved up with me and a few of the middle school girls took me under their wing and I got faster. Eventually, I actually got pretty good and started making finals and semi-finals at city-wide meets, something that never happened for the kids coming out of my tiny park district pool. But, I had learned how to make excuses and you can’t unlearn that. Once you realize that you can grab onto the wall, that it’s right there, you really can never go back to when quitting never occurred to you. Once you know that’s an option, you really can’t unknown it.

I kind of wish I could go back to being that stupid kid.