‘CAN I BUY A PASS to swim?” I asked the sleepy young man working the front desk at our local pool one morning last winter. He paused for a second, and I blurted out that I hadn’t swum seriously in decades and in honor of my upcoming 50th birthday, I planned to reclaim my former national ranking in the 50 freestyle. I refrained from adding that he was bearing witness to the launch of a midlife comeback nonpareil.
“I’ll give you one freebie,” he said, and I thanked him and promised that I would buy a monthly pass after my swim. I looked through the glass window at the pool and spotted several young swimmers I recognized from my kids’ meets. I wanted to brag to the young desk clerk that my ancient times were faster than these swimmers’, but then I’d have to reveal that I’d been checking out the heat sheets at my children’s competitions.
After the pool cleared, I put on my cap and goggles and jumped in the water, expecting my body to remember my freestyle, as it had during the few times I’d swum over the years. I’d lap the lap swimmers.
The water was too warm. My toes hit the bottom of the pool, and I pushed off from the tiles and started to swim. My arms and legs felt like concrete bricks, and my trunk sagged. When I took my first stroke of freestyle, a searing pain tore through my left shoulder. I could not lift my arm out of the water. I swam breaststroke for a few hundred yards, but I was paddling through milk.
I left the pool with deep goggle marks inscribed on my face. The sleepy man asked me if I still wanted to buy that package, but I respectfully declined. I was embarrassed by my grand proclamations to both random strangers and my college swim buddies, whose Facebook posts of impressive nautical accomplishments and cozy reunions at the U.S. Masters National Championships had partially inspired the idea for my comeback.
I’d also already plotted out the narrative arc of my essay, which would appear in a glossy magazine, complete with accompanying photos of myself in a bathing suit, maybe even a two-piece. Perhaps the bikini was a stretch. A few days before my disastrous return to the pool, I’d visited a swim shop where a chlorine-blonde salesclerk sized me up and pulled a gigantic Speedo from a rack of suits. I gaped at the built-in bra and yards of Lycra, recalling how I used to race in a suit so tiny that I could palm it. The granny-Speedo fit perfectly. Bummer.
My plan had been to swim for a few weeks on my own and get in good enough shape to join a Masters program. Then I’d follow the intense sprint and cross-training regimen of Olympic comeback-goddess Dara Torres. Like Dara’s, my hard-earned wisdom would enable me to swim smart and fast. I wouldn’t burn out or choke this go-around, having coached my students and children through performance jitters and disappointments.
After my first painful swim, I didn’t get back into the water the entire spring or summer. Rather, I enlisted the help of both a personal trainer and physical therapist to diagnose and heal my shoulder problem. A bad fall, horrible posture and years of hunching over my keyboard had caused shoulder impingement syndrome. My upper and lower body were also tight as a bass drum. They told me if I wanted to swim, I needed to drastically improve my flexibility and strengthen the muscles around my joints. I’d never stretched before a swim practice or run in my life. Damn hubris.
Instead of progressing from lap swimming to Masters swimming to my Dara Torres-style program, sans the masseuse, I spent April through mid-August cooped up in a gym, lifting one-pound weights, performing wall angels and wheeling my upper torso up and down a foam roller to increase the mobility of my thoracic spine.
By late August, my physical therapist cleared me to swim. I made up a million excuses to stay out of the water. Now that the thrill of parading around my achievements had worn off, I was starting to remember that I hadn’t much cared for training when I was in my prime. In my mind, I’d never swum fast enough, even on the days when my stroke felt effortless. I’d stuck with the sport for the glory, camaraderie and chocolate donuts after practice.
I wanted to ditch my project, but I couldn’t. I’d already told my kids that I was going to start competing again. Yet something else nagged at me even more; I’d always assumed that my swimming would be there for me whenever I wanted it back, and now I was experiencing that Joni Mitchell/”Big Yellow Taxi” you-don’t-know-what-you-got-’til-it’s- gone regret. I felt as though I were standing on the high dive, contemplating my jump. Eventually, you have to either leap or climb back down the ladder. I spent three weeks stuck on that board, agitated as hell.
The answer to my conundrum materialized mysteriously and was as welcome as the discovery of a wad of bills in an old purse. I remembered my physical therapist telling me that during my first few weeks back in the water, I could swim no more than 20 laps of freestyle per workout. No matter what. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t follow my typical M.O. and join a Masters team, work so hard that I would feel fluish in effort to keep up with a faster and fitter swimmer I’d deemed less accomplished than I, and dread returning to the pool the next day. Yes, I could handle 20 laps, nice and easy.
I packed a swim bag and trotted back to the pool. I paid for a one-time pass in silence and suited up. The lanes were organized by speed. The shallowest lanes consisted of ex-swimmers with competent butterfly strokes and over-developed lats. Lean triathletes in swim caps tattooed with racing numbers occupied the next lanes. The deepest lane, my lane, buttressed the section of the pool cordoned off for deep-water running, a cousin to water aerobics. Most of the ladies in this lane were older than my mother.
The water was cold, and I clung to the gutter. My muscles tightened from my shivering, and the inside of my mouth cottoned. I considered high-tailing it out of the pool, but the deep-water runners were huddled around the ladder, and I couldn’t hoist myself onto the deck without damaging my shoulder. “Woman up, Michelle,” I said aloud. I adjusted my goggles and pushed off the wall. I swam breaststroke gingerly at first. No shoulder pain. After eight laps, I tried out my freestyle. One stroke, and I knew that I’d regained the range of motion in my shoulder. I could lift my arm out of the water. I could swim my 20 laps, albeit with great effort and terrible form.
I followed my physical therapist’s instructions to build up my yardage gradually. I focused on kicking steadily and moving my arms, nothing else. I discovered that swimming fires the synapses in my brain. While I’m in the water, my iPhone safely tucked away in my swim bag, my thoughts unspool marvelously. After my swim, I gather them, sit at my computer and bead them together.
A dozen swims ago, my body recovered from its amnesia, and my freestyle came back to me. My arms and legs moved in coordinated independence, propelling me through the water like a real swimmer, at least for half a length. The next workout, my rhythm lasted an entire lap, and now I’m in good enough shape to vary my speed. I can’t sprint yet, but I can swim fast-ish. It’s so much fun. I used to delight in racing my brother up and down the pool, blissfully unaware of the rankings and times that would soon sully my passion.
Yesterday, I squeezed a trip to the pool into a jam-packed day. I still haven’t bought that monthly package, and I’m not so concerned with how fast I will swim when I turn 50 next summer. I’m taking it one swim at a time. I haven’t encountered that sleepy young man who worked the desk the morning of my first swim, but if I do, I’ll thank him for giving me the free pass to swim.
— Michelle Brafman