Deep waters

A young man's drowning prompts a swimmer who knew him to reflect on what leads us to take the plunge

June 15, 2010|By Colleen Webster

For nearly a year, I have been trying to re-immerse myself into the sport and skill of swimming — more specifically open-water swimming, in which one entrusts the body and mind to a lake or bay of some unknown power and depth. This is more terrifying than that calm sentence implies. Sure, I have been swimming in pools — clear, visible, well-demarcated lanes of civility — for nearly 40 years. But this hardly prepares one for murk, chop, tides, wind, waves, passing vegetation that wraps the feet and legs, cold spots and warm currents. If one adds, as I do, countless flailing arms and legs of swimmers starting a triathlon, this further complicates the activity.

But at least I have some history with water.

I was born by the Pacific Ocean on the California coast and spent some early years being flung, as many are, from the arms of my father as he stood in the breakers. I am told I laughed as my mother gasped and worried on shore. Eventually, once on the East Coast, I began a decades-long love affair with pools as I mastered swim classes and became a lifeguard for many teenage summers. I even began to love the back and forth of lap swimming, following the black line, touching the reassuring lip of the deep end after completing 25 yards and heading back to the shallows.

Since last summer, I have begun this lapping in earnest: building shoulder strength, finding my breathing rhythm, and adding more lengths as I move into longer distances. After a lifetime love affair with running and completing many marathons, I was advised by a wise doctor to abandon distance running if I wanted to avoid surgery. In the last year, I have come to love the smooth way water moves beneath each of my pulling strokes, the way my feet seem to know to point once I level out horizontal. I even love the big, empty hunger that only seems to arrive after a good swim.

Just a few weeks ago, I completed my first Olympic distance triathlon, which required that I manage a mile-long swim in a lake — a dark, murky lake that sat still but cold beneath a rainy morning sky. Somehow I put on my cap and goggles and pushed off with about 100 other forty-something women as my wave started out. After treading water, bobbing in the drizzle and listening to nervous chatter, I began flutter kicking and breathing each third stroke. I counted buoys and turned eventually back toward a distant shore.

I was not fast and most likely not consistent, but I swam for the first time in open water without panic. I knew I could make that damp sand and grass that marked a runway to my bike. I held my own in that water and swam without fear.

But now I feel some of that heaviness that I did not have last month. Today I am dry, having only gone for a short trail run. But I have recently read the paper's sad news that 23-year-old Anthony Ibewuike drowned in Loch Raven Reservoir on the first Friday in June. Death is always sad, death of a youth even more difficult to accept. And for me, the death of this vibrant, joyous and smiling former student feels like my struggle with water continues in some new form. How could he have drowned? Why? Why was I not there?

Anthony was an enthusiastic presence in my English Composition course a few semesters back, and we stayed in congenial contact as he worked just off the campus. How many times had he slung his arm around my shoulders, smiling, wishing me a good day and encouraging me to attend his comedy club's show? Who cares that I have conquered my fears of the open water when I would have gladly accepted all the fear in the world if it meant I could have held up that shining young man and brought him to air?

Twenty years ago, in one of my last lifeguard summers, I stood on a dock in Michigan with a lifesaving pole in one hand and clipboard in the other. Day one of each new set of campers, we tested their swim skills in 10 feet of water. That morning the weathered boards were heavy with heat and the weight of two dozen teenagers from Detroit. One brave boy with broad shoulders and a muscular frame answered the teasing of his peers by flinging himself into the water that had already held up the bodies of all who had swum before him. When he surfaced, his arms churned and he twisted and kicked frantically; the other boys laughed at what they took for fooling around, a good athlete pulling a joke on them.

But I knew that panic. When he could not focus to grab my offered pole, I knew I had to go in. After two failed attempts during which I had approached wrong and was nearly drowned by his desperate grabbing, I managed to grasp his hips, spin him away from me, then sling my arm over his shoulder and get his arms away from me. By the time I got him to the ladder, we both still clung to each other and that metal security frame, our hearts thudding.

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