As a new Para-triathlete, people are constantly asking me which of the three disciplines is my favorite sport. Hands down- 150% I’d have to say swimming each and every time. Why would I say this when some feel that for the blind, swimming can be terrifying and disorienting? For me, it is the one time of day that I am completely alone, untethered to a person, a desk, or my guide dog.
I was raised in the pool. My mom was a sun-worshiper and before I could walk, I was already in the water. She’d strap the styrofoam bubble to my back and swimmies on my arms, and hang with me while I splashed around joyously in our above ground pool. When I wasn’t busy grooming or riding my pony, I was sure to be found in the water, or diving into the water, showing off my diving and cannonball skills. By the time I was 6, I joined the town swim team and became a pretty decent swimmer as both a breaststroke and backstroke swimmer. Growing up only a few miles from the town park, I would ride my Chincoteague pony each morning through the Pound Ridge Reservation to swim practice as the sun came up, and bring a halter and lead-rope so I could tie her up to the bike rack while I swam. I loved watching the little white puffs of warm air escaping from Chuckle’s nostrils on the chilly morning rides to the park, as she steadily carried me over several miles to arrive safely at our destination. I would shudder at the thought of hopping into the incredibly cold water at such an early hour while others still were fast asleep. After practice, my teammates would come and give her affection, and I’d ride off to meet friends and play cowboys and Indians in the woods on our ponies. It was the best time of my life.
I continued all through school, and joined the high school team the moment I could. At the high school level, I mostly swam as the anchor on relay teams and was pushed into joining the diving team (which I was not very good at). Ironically, I was afraid of deep water and would close my eyes the moment I touched the bottom of the pool. There was something about the vastness of that space that felt suffocating to me. Yet I was totally addicted to the feeling of flying high off the board, feeling tall and graceful and powerful- three things I didn’t feel on dry land.
Re-discovering swimming as a newly blind triathlete has been another experience entirely. My entire day is spent attached to either my wonderful Guiding Eyes Labrador Elvis, or to a white cane or someone’s elbow to guide me. I need help to get from point A to point B. While I can safely navigate my apartment and places I’m familiar with or places that are wide open and free of people and obstacles, those places are rare when living in a downtown area congested with people and cars. There are no places that I can be totally free and safe. Except the water.
After undergoing two years of chemotherapy, many eye surgeries and steroids which all caused weight gain, my body was worn out and in a great deal of constant pain. The ONE place that nothing ‘hurt’ was the pool. Now, convincing my protective and water-loving Labrador that I could safely swim without him was another thing entirely! I started by tying him up to the bleachers beside the pool at the YMCA, and slowly backing up towards the pool while keeping eye contact with him, and repeating the word, “Stay” multiple times. He would whine in frustration, both out of excitement to join me and anxiety that I was going in without his protection. I swam backstroke the first month, keeping eye contact with him and repeating the word, “stay” until he got bored with this routine and eventually settled down for a restless snooze.
The pool became my playground. I have no ropes, no harnesses or people to lead me. I can go where I want, when I want to do it. The feeling of weightlessness makes me feel light, graceful and free; something I never experience on the pool deck. I can do back somersaults and hand-stands like a ten year old girl, and cannonball into the pool at any opportunity, much to the chagrin of both Elvis and the not-so amused lifeguards and fellow lap swimmers.
I follow the black line at the bottom of the pool, and count my strokes to determine when I’m nearing the wall. When I’m flying, I get there in 15 arm strokes. When I’m warming up it’s 20. I dive underwater and look around me in the vast space, taking in the playful shadows of the sun striking the water’s surface, causing a shimmering effect on the bottom of the aqua-blue pool. With each pull of my arm, my body rotates like a blade being turned on its side, long and straight in the water. I can go as fast as I want, and know I’m going to hit nothing but the end of my lane in a moment. There’s no sidewalk to trip over, no children to avoid stepping on, no overhead branches to duck from. Just me and the water.
My body gets this rolling rhythm with each stroke as I corkscrew through the water effortlessly. It’s like a metronome, and I love playing with the tempo and trying new drills to meditate to in the water. My favorite is ‘catch-up’ drill, which has the swimmer leave one hand pointed straight out in front of your body at all times, keeping an ‘Aqua-dynamic’ (similar to aerodynamic) profile to be as fast as possible. The other benefit to Catch-up drill is that in leaving one hand in front at all times, I can safely go faster without the fear of hitting the wall with my arm or head.
The hum of the massive pumping and filtration system becomes like a chanting in the background as I warm up, quickly drowning out any ‘stuff’ that may be floating around in my head. The shadows and sparkles of the water delight me with their ever-changing visuals and distract me from the constant strobing lights that make up my limited and damaged eyesight. On dry land, the strobing causes me to swat from time to time at things that simply aren’t there, but somehow appear magically in front of me. The floaters and flashing I see fades into the background and just becomes part of the big, blue underwater scenery instead. The smell of the bromine pool chemicals feel like I’ve been cleansed and purified from the inside out, and I smile at the notion of the antiseptic quality to the water. The coolness of the water soothes my aching muscles, tight from cycling 4 days a week, and with each flip turn, I feel more limber and loose, as though each and every muscle fiber has been stretched, elongated and pulled further apart.
Being ‘un-tethered’ for this one hour three days a week is addicting. It is my one place I am totally in charge of my body, and can command it safely without outside influence or intervention. It is my cocoon of safety, bliss, and sheer joy of freedom. So the next time you see a 38 year old blind chick doing a cannonball into the YMCA pool, give me a high five. Then let’s race. I’ve GOT this…….