It was time, my parents decided, for me to learn how not to drown. We live in Hawai‘i, so we’re surrounded by beaches on all sides. No matter where you are on any of the islands, you’re never more than a hop, skip, and a jump . . . and a dive from the ocean.
My father, born and raised here, was a good swimmer from his small kid days in Kekaha on Kaua‘i. He actually grew up right across the street from the beach, so when he wasn’t in school or working in the fields, he was swimming or surfing.
My mother, even though she’d been born in the middle of the continental U.S., had grown up a water baby as well, learning to swim in the not so warm Lake Michigan, and then continuing her passion for the water when she attended the University of Wisconsin, spending many of the summer hours in the waters of Lake Mendota.
My father was the first person I ever saw do the butterfly stroke, and if you’ve not tried it yourself, you can’t believe how thoroughly exhausting that style can be. It requires tremendous coordination to learn the synchronized timing of the arm strokes and the kick. I never did get the true hang of the butterfly.
So it was time to drown-proof me. What this meant was afternoon trips to Pālama Settlement at the end of the school day. They had quite a large pool there at a 100-yard length, so a lot of kids could fit in there. Multiple classes could be held simultaneously.
We, the beginner potential drowning victims, were consigned to the shallow end of the pool. There, a very nice man named Mike, would encourage us to hold onto the pool gutter and put our heads underwater, bobbing like that until we felt comfortable with the sensation.
After we’d done this enough times, the next step was to go down, again with our hands on the gutter, and hold our breath. We started off with a short count of ten, and gradually extended this submergence as we felt more comfortable doing so.
Thus accustomed now to the sensation of being underwater for an extended period of time, we were to let go of the pool gutter and learn to tread water. It was good that we all were accustomed to going beneath the surface, because the route to mastering the art of treading water involved more than a few full submersions as we figured out how to coordinate our hand and foot movements to keep our heads above water.
Next we began to be led from one side of the pool to the other, each of us holding onto a long bamboo pole, dragged along by Mike, who instructed us to keep face down in the water, turning our heads to the side to breathe as needed. There was no stroking or kicking involved. We were being dragged like that to get used to moving though the water face down, while we learned to be comfortable taking breaths.
In this gradual progression we now gripped the gutter again, our bodies extended full length in the water, and performed a scissors kick, pushing against the gutter so we didn’t, of course, slam our heads into it, and turning our heads to the side to breathe as needed. Each time we would go for longer and longer periods, concentrating both on rhythmic breathing and on building strength in the set of muscles we needed in order to kick this way.
Eventually this was followed by putting our feet in the gutter, our toes hooked into the edge, and then practicing the freestyle stroke – what my dad referred to as the Australian Crawl stroke. We again went for longer periods, working the muscles we needed to keep this stroke going along with steadying our breathing.
Having now “mastered” the freestyle stroke, kick and breathing technique, we tried our luck at putting all of them together in a coordinated imitation of swimming. For me this proved to be an exhilarating experience, finally feeling like I’d truly accomplished a quite involved feat of sophisticated coordination.
All of this did not happen in a day. It took six weeks to arrive at this point. Mike was an amazing teacher. This method he’d worked out did in fact turn us all into competent freestyle swimmers, some better than others, to be sure, but ready not to end up at the bottom of the pool waiting for a lifeguard to drag us to the surface.
There were a progression of courses at Pālama Settlement. I was disappointed that Mike would not be the teacher for all of them, but I did enjoy each teacher I had. What they all shared was this great joy of passing on their love of water activity. Their passion was truly infectious.
I moved up through diving and learning various strokes, how to do lap turns at the walls, and so on. All of us who stuck with the program eventually became certified junior lifeguards as a final class. Not that I could picture myself rushing into the ocean to save someone. That idea scared me a bit, because our instructors constantly emphasized that the person in trouble in the water would most likely be panicking. This meant that you had to be very cautious about how you approached the person given that he might drag you under as well, particularly if the victim were larger than you. Remember we were youngsters, not full grown adults.
I would spend hours at the pool during free-swim time, those periods when the courses were not being taught. Saturdays that would mean all day, and after school it would mean getting in the pool closer to dinner time, sometimes in the fall being in the water until it was almost dark.
One day Mike – the instructors would enjoy the free swim hours and act as lifeguards too – asked me if I would be interested in joining the swim team. After all this time in the water there, I’d never known that there was a swim team. I told him I would love to do that.
In reality, it was not so much a swim team, you know, competing against other teams from outside. It was a highly motivated group of swimmers who would compete against each other. While I did participate in all the events, freestyle, breaststroke (my mom’s forte), backstroke, and butterfly, my best event turned out to be backstroke. I became the man to beat there. I had a stack of blue ribbons for this, and I would practice it doing long laps at Ala Moana Beach.
I kept up my swimming even though I became too old to be on the team. My days of competitive swimming came to an end. Or so I thought.
At my church, the Lutheran Church of Honolulu, there was this girl, a year older than I, who always came to Sunday service with wet hair that appeared to be dyed green. She’d been at my school, but had transferred to Punahou School, directly across the street from the church.
One Sunday, mesmerized by her wet, incredibly emerald green hair, I asked her why it was always like that.
“Oh, I come here from swim practice. I swim a lot. It’s the chlorine.”
I wasn’t sure what she might mean by a lot, but I thought I swam a lot, and my hair never turned green. Of course she was a blond, so I don’t know. Maybe if I examined my hair more closely, I might see that it wasn’t the same brown it had been before I started swimming so much.
“You swim over at Punahou?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “I do swim for Punahou, but I also swim for Coach Sakamoto over at UH.”
“The University of Hawai‘i swim team, really? They let you do that even though you’re still in intermediate school?”
“Oh no, not UH. I swim for his team.”
This surprised me, I don’t know why. “There’s a team outside of school?”
“Oh yes, there are many teams not affiliated with schools. On our team, just like all of them, the guys come from all over the island.”
I had missed competitive swimming. This sounded like opportunity knocking. “Can anyone join?” I asked.
“Well, you have to swim for Coach Sakamoto. If he likes what he sees, you’re in.”
I asked her how to do this. She said they practiced after school every day, and in the mornings on weekends. Tomorrow afternoon I should show up at the UH pool and ask Coach Sakamoto if I could try out. This sounded like the serious kind of competitive swimming I wanted.
The following afternoon I did show up at the UH pool. Coach Sakamoto, a very soft-spoken man, listened while I explained how I’d been on the Pālama Settlement team, and how I’d like to try out.
“Okay, Lanny,” he said, “why don’t you get in the pool and give me fifty laps of freestyle. Take the first lane here so I can walk along side and talk to you.”
The UH pool was a full-size 100 meter pool. Fifty laps. Hmmm.
I jumped in the water and shoved off. Coach Sakamoto kept pace with me, but said nothing for the first ten laps or so. Finally, he began to coach. Loudly. I’d not expected he could get his volume up so high.
“Lanny, hold your hand like this when it goes into the water . . . cup your hand that way . . . relax your wrists . . . turn your shoulder this way . . . try not to breathe so sharply,” and on and on. He was giving me so many instructions I almost forgot how to swim.
I had a feeling I must have looked like a pretty crappy swimmer. Coach Sakamoto had probably laughed his way through my 50 laps. I was exhausted from trying to incorporate all the instructions.
“Okay, Lanny,” he said when I came to rest at the end of the marathon, “I’d be happy to have you join us.”
This seemed like a miracle. He must have seen something special glowing in me somewhere, although how long it would take to come out and shine I had no idea.
My folks were overjoyed when I told them the good news. My dad said, “Wow. Do you know who Coach Sakamoto is?”
I did not.
“Soichi Sakamoto is one of the greatest swimmers ever to come out of Hawai‘i. He’s coached Olympic medal winners. When he was coaching on Maui, he had his swimmers train in the sugar plantation irrigation ditches. The guy is a living legend.”
Now my making the team seemed even more amazing. Olympic swimmers. Me some day?
I continued to train with Coach Sakamoto. The grind was brutal, and I had a feeling my swimming career was beginning to fail when I decided I did’t want to train on the weekends anymore. Olympic swimmers train on weekends.
This decision was kind of a no-no, but Coach never said anything about it.
Then, alas, I began to smoke cigarettes regularly. That was the last nail in my swimming team dream coffin. I simply could not make it through all those laps anymore.
I never did tell Coach Sakamoto I had to quit the team. I just stopped going. I felt very badly about it, but I didn’t know how to say I had to stop because I couldn’t breathe well enough anymore. And so it goes.
* * * * *
Aloha #WriterTuesday. Today’s #WritingPrompt is
Use it to inspire a piece of writing, and then post that piece somewhere I can read it. I would love to see what you write : )