But the truth was, even before we bought the rings, my swimming days were mostly over. We lived in a place with no pool and a lake too cold to loiter in, and there was an injury to boot. One day on trail crew I’d tossed a long limb off a switchback and heard my shoulder snap. That ruled out swimming for years, long enough that I figured it’d be forever.
Until this spring when I decided to join some of the Whidbey MFA students in a triathlon right before our ten-day summer residency. A half mile swim? A cinch. I mean, it was a cinch twenty years ago, so it should be a cinch now. Right? Right? Maybe?
I started training.
I swam alone in the Pacific in the early morning fog before the Jesus people arrived to set up day-camp-on-the-beach and sing too loudly. (“I’ve got the joy joy joy down in my heart …” No no no, not again.)
I swam in New Jersey in a tree-ringed lake where my young nieces compete on a team with lane lines on the surface and sun fish and snapping turtles below. Watching them approach the starting block, strong shoulders held high … well, if that’s not inspiration, nothing is.
I swam a few times in the outdoor pool in the nearby faux-Bavarian tourist town, a half-hour workout wedged between the ferry and the city. Pure bliss.
I swam in Lake Chelan on the downlake end one morning, and because it was warmer than the end uplake, wore no wetsuit. Shivered until noon.
I swam uplake one evening and breathing one direction watched the pink sunset glow on still snowy mountains and breathing the other way watched the black sky of a fast approaching storm. Got home just before the deluge.
I never once swam indoors.
The race went fine. My favorite memory is all of us writer-triathletes, my tribe if ever there was one, treading water awaiting the start.
The next week I swam in Puget Sound on graduation morning with my first-ever thesis advisee. Cold even in my wetsuit, or afraid of being cold, I made it only a short distance from her rental house to the dock at Captain Whidbey Inn where dual red flags waved, the only color in the universe.
Here’s the thing. You buy rings when you’re twenty-five and wear them because of love until the silver wears thin and brittle, never imagining that someday – this November? Right? Right? – they’ll count for real. Meanwhile, there are other things, lesser things, that you give up despite love. So, what a delight, in your mid-forties, to find yourself, like I did today, swimming through the green water glow of a windless day, watching your shadow on sand. Just you and your thoughts. It’s like re-found love.
I’m not the only one. Diana Nyad was a long-distance champion in her youth, but she gave it up for thirty years – thirty! – before she decided to get in the water again. Today, right this minute, at age 62, she’s making her third attempt to be the first human to swim from Cuba to Florida. She’s not superhuman, but she’s super-committed. And she’s probably going to make it.
If that’s not inspiration, nothing is.