The first challenge to my fledgling and never fully-realized athletic prowress came in the swimming pool when I was five. My lessons were held at the NC State University aquatics center. The college coach, Mr. Shea, was relegated to teaching the “snot-nosed brats” until his scholarship athletes returned in early August, and he taught with an iron fist. Sensitive little boys and girls didn’t respond well to his loud kick-board commands and the class reduced in size as each day went by. The 50 kids who showed up for the first class dwindled to 30 by the second week, as more and more children were subjected to Mr. Shea’s ultimate punishment. When an obstinate six year-old let his feet touch the pool floor during kick practice, Mr. Shea would pick up the wayward child and carry him kicking and screaming to the high dive where he would drop him, pale and petrified or red-faced and twisted, into the deep-end of the pool. The frightened child was inevitably forced to “swim” to the side.
Parents appeared to have mixed emotions. At first, some seemed to appreciate the fact that the undisciplined trouble-makers were finally being “handled.” But when the discipline began to involve their own kids there were looks of horror from the bleachers. Sadly though, none of the parents ever tried to stop Mr. Shea. Some of them just never returned to class.
Determined to excel at everything I tried, I focused intently on my kicking and gradually improved my natural dog paddle to something slightly resembling a freestyle stroke. Mostly, though, I was concerned with the ever watchful eye of Mr. Shea. If he saw me trying so hard, surely there was no way I’d be a victim of the deep end.
But one Wednesday morning, Mr. Shea announced that today was the day we would begin backstroke lessons. It was hard. I couldn’t see where I was going and if I kept my eyes open, the water kept splashing into them. As much as I tried, I couldn’t figure it out without bumping into the wall and it didn’t help that Mr. Shea kept blowing his whistle and shouting “heads back!”
Suddenly, I felt myself being yanked out of the water! Before I realized what was happening, I was face down as the red and white tiles sped by with Mr. Shea’s arm tightly wrapped around my waist. The high diving board was getting closer. I didn’t cry. I didn’t squirm. I was in disbelief. I never disobeyed. I just hadn’t figured out how to do the backstroke. I panicked. And then I got mad. How dare he humiliate me! I was beloved by my kindergarten teacher. I was a protective big sister who always kept my room clean. I never talked with my mouth full. He is going to pay for this, I thought as he climbed the rungs to the top of the board behind me, forcing me to ascend to my doom. I was so close to the dark brown wooden rafters I could almost touch them, as he held me out over the water, which seemed a mile below. All the wet faces stared up from the lap pool across the room. All the parent faces stared blankly from the bleachers. And the normally noisy aquatic center suddenly became completely silent. I took a deep breath and prepared to drown, as Mr. Shea held me by the armpits and dropped me in shouting “SWIM!”
I broke through the water with my toes and, as I sunk, I let only a little bit of air out at a time. I was resolved to drown before I would let Mr. Shea win. No way would I swim to the side of the pool like all the other fightened kids. I would make him come in and get me. The water was cool and clear. I could see blurry faces looking down at me from the side. The number 18 danced on the wall beside the ladder, getting clearer as I rose to 10 feet then 8 feet then 4 feet from the surface. I was about out of breath and my face was beginning to feel a little warm and panicky. I really wanted to take a breath. I was just about at the surface and had to decide if I’d stay face down or flap around like I couldn’t swim. I heard shouts and saw a cluster of faces coming into view. I closed my eyes. If they were to think I was drowning, they couldn’t see me looking at them. The top of my head bobbed up. “She’s going to drown!” someone shouted. “SWIM” demanded Mr. Shea. I had to take a breath so I mixed the two options by popping up and drawing a deep breath, flailing my arms and then letting myself sink. Finally, Mr. Shea gave in and dove in after me, pushing my limp little body over to the edge of the pool, where one of his assistants picked me up and wrapped a towel around me. I coughed violently. A great effect, but I HAD actually swallowed some water. I proved to be stubborn and determined to draw attention to inequities and to right wrongs at a very young age. I was willing to die for my cause if that is what it took.
Mom held me close and told me I’d be learning to swim elsewhere. And indeed, in so many ways, I did.