The day after Christmas I got an e-mail from the local swim club where my son swims.
Parents of swimmers were invited to begin training for the Parent 500, a 500-yard freestyle race to be held in mid-May, a week before the Indianapolis 500. Practices would be held every Sunday afternoon.
“No minimum commitment! No experience needed!” the e-mail continued.
Between the enthusiastic lines, I read: “So get off the couch, you lazy sloth! Get in the water! Experience what your child does for hours every day! Challenge yourself! Can you do it?!”
No, no, no, no, no, I thought, shaking my head.
I love to watch my son and his teammates swim. For years I have admired the sport from afar, volunteering, waving from the pool deck, screaming like a maniac. We’re in the midst of Jack’s first high school season now, which has been a blast.
My own swimming skills, meanwhile, are pretty pathetic.
I can stay afloat. I can dog paddle. I can attempt strokes similar to freestyle, breaststroke and backstroke, though none would satisfy USA Swimming judges. I know the order of the individual medley.
But I am not, in any technical or practical sense, a swimmer. I don’t even work out.
Yet something about the invitation appealed to me. Maybe it was the timing – during the holidays, before the new year, when even the most lethargic among us reconsider exercise. Maybe it was that Jack had begun to focus on his 500 freestyle and had just been talking about strategies and goal times.
Mostly, I think, it was morbid curiosity: Could I learn to swim a decent freestyle stroke? Could I swim 500 yards – 20 lengths of the pool – without stopping? Could I manage a flip turn? Could I even put on a swim cap? Those things are tricky.
Could I survive? I had to try.
I attended my first practice last weekend, nervous but hopeful, armed with Jack’s extra goggles and cap. I greeted the other parents, joking that we’ll either impress or thoroughly embarrass our children in May. I picked a lane, jumped in the water and swam my first 25 yards.
Then I stopped at the wall, already winded. This is going to be harder than I thought.
I swam another length, trying to keep my face in the water and breathe to the side, the way real swimmers do. They make it look so easy. I kicked my legs and flapped my arms. I abandoned freestyle and switched to breaststroke, pumping my legs like a frog, trying to establish some kind of steady breathing pattern.
This is nuts, I thought. What the heck am I doing? I don’t belong here. Help.
When I got to the wall, there may have been some curse words.
I climbed out of the pool – no ladder, by the way, what’s up with that? – and trotted down to the slow lane, where my feet could touch the bottom and where I could spend the hour working on fundamentals, such as not drowning. Our coaches, members of the swim club’s elite competition teams, offered tips and encouragement. And bless their hearts, none of them laughed.
I kept going. My friend Craig and I shared Lane 2, where the toddlers usually swim. We swam 25 yards at a time, resting as needed.
“This hurts,” I mumbled at one point, barely seeing Craig through my fogged-up goggles. “I had no idea.”
We kept swimming, slow and steady, and I thought of a poster I had seen once: “No matter how slow you go, you are still lapping everybody on the couch.”
This, I thought, will be my mantra. From now until May, I will do my best, I will learn to breathe, I will keep swimming. I will try to practice a few extra times a week. I will cheer on my son and his teammates with new-found appreciation.
And I will lap everybody on the couch.