At the swimming pool this morning I’d completed 500 yards when a fellow in the next lane over had a question about the substance I’d used on my goggles to keep them fog free. That led to a discussion of swimming in general, and he launched into his life story.
I’d commented that he seemed pretty fast when I was swimming next to him one lane over. Turns out he swam in high school “back in the day,” as he chuckled and smiled. He’s seventy-five years old, he told me.
“When I was a sophomore, I went out for swimming and was one of the last guys on the team. Plus I was a pudge due to some allergic reactions to the chlorine in the pool. But when I was a junior I figured out that I was snapping my head up on every stroke. So I quit that and put my head down into the water and started winning races.”
He continued, “By the time I was a senior, I was the best man on the team. Because I wanted it,” he grinned, pointing at his head. “The coach wrote in my yearbook, “He’s proof that if you try hard enough, anything is possible.”
He served time in the military on an aircraft carrier. “We were out to sea once and the waves were so big they were breaking over the flight deck, eight-five feet up,” he marveled. “The destroyer behind us spent more time underwater than out,” as he demonstrated by whooshing his hand over and under the surface of the pool.
“Some guy got drunk once and took a dare to jump off the ship,” he related. “Fortunately, someone saw him and the destroyer following us picked him up.”
He recalled that during time on base in San Diego, there was a swim competition but he did not sign up. That morning, his squad commander called him out of bed, “Come on, you’ve got to represent us!” he instructed him.
“I won six events; freestyle, backstroke, breast stroke and everything. But when the meet was over, the Officers noticed that I hadn’t signed up. So I didn’t get credit for any of it.”
“My squad leader felt bad about that, so he signed me up for a regional meet between bases and I decided to get in shape. I only had three hours of duty at the time so I swam and lifted weights. Then I met some Navy Seals who swam three miles up from their base and ran back. I started doing that with them and when I was done, I had a 44″ chest and a 33″ inch waist.” He drew a clear triangle with his hands. “I was shaped like that.”
A life in science
Out of the military, he worked in scientific fields including a stint at a laboratory doing molecular research. “One day, they put two pipes together and shot some energy through them but the compression didn’t work. So they had us line up twenty-five guys deep and each of us had to do 25 seconds of work before we had to get out of there because of the radiation. Those 25 seconds changed my life…” he said, his voice trailing off. “My life was never the same.
That exposure to radiation caused thyroid problems that lasted for decades. Later in life, he visited a doctor about some memory issues as well. When relating his experiences the doctor immediately tied together that radiation exposure with how the swimmer’s mind did not work in some specific functions.”
These days, he’s still swimming because it feels good. Following a series of laps at a decent pace, he upended his body in the pool doing handstands for “flexibility,” he informed me. “And for the lungs.”
Between my laps he offered instruction on the difference between short-distance swimming form and a long-distance or open-water swim stroke. He had me hold up my hand and showed how to position the thumb so that it was on a parallel with the rest of my palm and fingers. We talked about pulling all the way through past the hips and getting the proper rotation and breathing practice together. “And keep your head in the water,” he suggested, pointing to the place on his forehead where the water should flow.
After watching me swim a couple laps he said, “You’re doing pretty well!” I thanked him for that.
We thanked each other for the conversation. “You’re a good man,” I told him. “I like you.”
“So are you,” he replied. Then he climbed out in his black swimming suit and vest and disappeared into the locker room. I finished the rest of my workout thinking about all that he’d told me, up to my neck in another swimmer’s life story.