Thanks to Judd Cribbs for contributing this story.
A half-century later, I’m asking: “What the heck took so long?”
Just before my third birthday, my mom first threw me into the pool behind our Pittsburgh home. It was a big, in-ground pool, about 20,000 gallons to a depth of eight feet.
It was literally sink or swim for me. Luckily, my mom, a caring mom, threw me into the shallow end, where the water was only about a foot over my head.
I vaguely remember adults in the shallow end with me. My mom told me I doggie-paddled. She said I took after my grandmother, who was a strong swimmer. That was how I learned to swim – they just threw me into the pool and watched.
Every day of every childhood summer was spent in the pool. We used to paint the pool’s concrete each year – just slapping new paint over the old. Filling it up with the garden hose was the best day. I used to slide down the deep-end incline into the expanding puddle at the bottom.
And I used to race all my friends. I was always fast, having grown up in the water. Once when I was on vacation in Clearwater, Florida, I went swimming with my relatives in their community pool. There was a local kid there and he wanted to race me. One of the adults said, “Oh, no one ever beats him.” That lit a fire in my 12-year-old gut. I swam as hard as I could for those two lengths, and when I touched the wall, I looked up to see the local kid touching at the same time.
In high school, I had to decide between the volleyball team and the swim team. I chose volleyball, not because it was my natural sport but because the swim team practiced at 5am. 5am! I was a teenager! I barely knew 5am existed. The volleyball team practiced at 3pm, which was much more considerate to a 17-year-old.
As the years, then decades, rolled on, I participated in a variety of sports. I coached and played tennis. I played golf, softball and volleyball. I still went to the pool and the beach now and then, but just for fun.
I also ran in quite a few races (slowly). Somewhere in there, just before my wife and I had kids, I ran a marathon. It took me 4:43. The winner, who ran it in about 2:30, was probably at home having lunch when I finished. After the kids came, I basically quit working out. I’m a middle-aged dad, so just changing all those diapers was enough of a workout for me.
Once the kids got older (4 and 6), I decided I needed to get back in shape. The markers on my annual blood test at the doctor’s office were creeping up into the unhealthy range.
Then, because of Google Earth, everything fell into place. I was feeling nostalgic one day, and because I now live in Florida, I was looking up some places on Google Earth. Places in Florida I had visited when I was a kid, like Disney World, Cocoa Beach and my relative’s Clearwater community. I zoomed into their street, saw their mobile home, saw the pool where I had raced that fast kid to a tie 40 years before.
And then I had a moment of swimming serendipity.
Why, oh why, I wondered, if I was actually somewhat competitive in swimming, why didn’t I ever swim competitively? I had no answer. How fast could I go, compared to others my age? I certainly knew the answer when I was running: Not very. But I kept running in races. It was fun to see how I stacked up, year after year.
And now here was my best, most natural sport, the sport I did before any other sport, standing before me and asking “Why have you neglected me for these past 50 years?” I was dumbfounded. Again, I had no answer. So I went out – just before my 53rd birthday – and bought my first pair of swim goggles.
I called a coach. I made sure to find a coach who was around my age, because it made me feel better about starting so late. I started doing cardio again. The first time I met with my coach, he said my stroke was okay and I mainly needed to work on my breathing. I agreed, seeing as how it was more like gasping than breathing.
Now, two months later, I’m not gasping anymore and I can work out in my target heart range for about 45 or 50 minutes. The workout is extremely calming.
But the best thing is, I am still completely comfortable in the pool. That feeling never went away. It’s like moving back to the place where you grew up.
I haven’t entered a race yet; that’s at least a few months off. And I don’t care anymore how fast I am. I’m just glad to be home.
Judd Cribbs is a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University. When he is not swimming or teaching, he enjoys gardening, playing the piano (poorly), and chasing his two kids around the house.