The kids were jumping in and out of the pool, splashing each other, giggling, laughing, and doing everything else that makes the swimming pool the happiest place on earth, a place of worship for children. What kid doesn’t like to play in the pool?
My earliest memories start around age three, when I distinctly remember lying in the kiddie pool viewing the main pool about 20 feet away. With my belly scratching the bottom, creating knots in the Lycra from rubbing against the bottom of the pool, my eyes skimmed the top of the water, blowing bubbles, intently watching the older kids in the main pool who appeared to be having so much fun. Like an alligator watching its prey, I was waiting for my moment to act. The clouds came and went, and the joyful noise of the kids also dipped in and out as I pondered whether I was brave enough to jump into the big pool unnoticed. It was heaven and a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow all wrapped up in one..
My mother walked around the pool deck at the country club with my one-year-old sister in her arms. My brothers swam in the big pool, playing with their friends, while I waited and waited. Six weeks of summer had already flown by. At this point my only friend was the broken mermaid statue sitting in the middle of the kiddie pool and the big oak tree that shaded me from the bright sun when I spied on the big kids’ pool. Now was the right time with the lifeguards busy with some of the kids horsing around at the deep end, while my mother was in deep conversation with my little sister on her side, while the kids in the shallow end played Marco Polo.
It was like my Siren song. I heard “Marco” and then there was a silence as the swimmer swam under the water to another part of the pool to yell “Polo.” In those moments of pure silence I so wanted to share their experience. I heard their “Marco” one more time and pushed up off the bottom of my 12-inch deep pool as the water rolled off my back. I took that cautious but calculated step across the baby pool, being mindful to not slip, because time was precious, and I had very little of it. Now at the edge of the big pool’s shallow end, I saw that the lifeguard was still engaged with the other kids’ misbehaving. I had to take my chance, and so I gulped in a big breath and swung my arms in the air as I hurled myself into the pool with all the force I could muster.
The game ended when the young swimmer saw me jumping into the pool—at that moment the lifeguard stopped yelling at the kids. I sank to the bottom of the pool. The silence, the comfort of being fully submerged was overwhelming because there wasn’t enough room inside of me to hold onto the excitement. Then my feet touched the bottom, and my eyes opened to a blurry vision of bodies moving toward me in slow motion. I let out a bubble of air that propelled me to the surface. I knew I had arrived since my head was above water again, immersed in this mass of water. I was free for a moment. I was in my own personal heaven.
That feeling was short-lived when the young swimmer quickly grabbed me and plopped me back on the side of the pool. The lifeguard dashed over to make sure I was removed safely from the big pool and I was returned to where they thought I belonged: the baby pool. Then my mother ran over, sister in tow, asking what was going on. The lifeguards informed my mother that I was not allowed in the big pool until I knew how to swim a lap.
My mother, in her defense, asked when I could take swimming lessons because obviously I was bursting at the seams to learn. The lifeguards explained that it was too late in the season to register for lessons and that I would have to wait until next year. How could they do that to me? Did they not understand I had discovered my newfound freedom? How could they deny me the joy that I so coveted all summer?
As you can imagine with any child who doesn’t get their way, they scream like they’re burning the place down. And I had a set of lungs that gave out such a primal cry, where I couldn’t breathe, but tried to talk at the same time. I screamed to anyone who would listen that, “I know how to swim!” I swore with such confidence that I could swim a lap like they told my mother I needed to do. Of course up to this point I had not had one swimming lesson and all that anyone knew about me was that I was the kid from the baby pool.
I screamed so loud that my mother had to get my father off the golf course, just to calm me down. All I could repeat was that, “I can swim, I know how to swim!” However, I had no proof to back this statement up other than what I knew in my heart and mind. All the screaming in the world wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind until I could prove to all of them I could indeed swim the required lap.
My tired red eyes resisted and persisted until my father made his way to the pool, mad that my stubbornness (or was it my confidence in myself ?) pulled him away from his weekly golf game with his friends. Yet, what father could deny his little girl, who expressed excitement for the very same thing that he himself loved so much and continued to do every day?
My father reached down to put his hand on my shoulder and asked, “What’s wrong?” There was a magic in his touch and a twinkle in his eye. In that moment I knew he was my advocate and I would do anything to please him and gain his love, which was now being shared four ways with my brothers and sister.
I squeaked out in my high-pitched and panicked voice, “They won’t let me swim in the big pool.” At that point the lifeguard cut in and said that I needed to have swimming lessons in order to be able to swim in the main pool. My father was quick enough to ask if I could swim one lap, would I be allowed in the pool? The lifeguard paused for a moment, which seemed like a lifetime to me, but responded with a nod and a mumbled “yes.”
I sighed with relief, as well as with the fear of what I needed to do. The panic and fear was still there, but I released it with the biggest breath I could muster.
My dad said he would buy me a plate of french fries if I made it across the pool. The distraction of food, combined with the joy of knowing I was at the end of the rainbow, eased the pressure I had found myself under.
I quickly jumped in the pool and swam a few strokes to immediately make my way to the side of the pool. The lifeguard stood over me larger than life to tell me I couldn’t do it, and with a touch. of disdain continued to say that I wasn’t ready for the big pool. Before he could finish speaking, I pushed off the wall and put one stroke in front of the other.
I looked down at the blurred black lane line at the bottom of the pool. I moved my body like a snake in the water, swiveling my hips side to side to propel my body forward. Only knowing when to breathe when my eyes bulged out of the sockets, I brought my head up to the surface, capturing a snapshot of my brothers at the other end, who laughed and taunted me, but for the sake of the moment we’ll say they were cheering me on. I was halfway there
Everything stood still as I swam over the noticeable edge that delineated the drop off in the deep end of the pool. I was doing it. It was the moment that my courage became pride. I put my head down and pushed over the deep water, not sinking at all, but moving steadily across the water. All that I envisioned and taught myself in the baby pool was happening. I was in another world. I made it.
I touched the wall and my father leaned down and put his hand on my head to shake it in a term of endearment. My father’s smile meant the world to me. I had made him proud. I too was proud. At that moment, I became Daddy’s little girl.
Wow, I’m a swimmer now, I thought with a big grin on my face. My dad was so proud, and my brothers had their first of many conversations about “Little Annabelle” and her ability to swim. The excitement ran so deep that I went to sleep that night with my swimsuit on. It literally became a part of me. The next morning came and I woke up to an itchy scratchy swimsuit, with indents in my bright white delicate skin, but it was worth it.
Every day for the rest of summer we would wait for what seemed a lifetime for our mother to be ready to take us to the country club to hang out at the pool all day. I asked my mother a million times, “Are you ready yet? Can we go swimming? Can we go?” I doubt that I took a breath between all those questions and spoke as quickly as I could. I guess it’s like pressing that elevator button a bunch of times, like it will get you there quicker. You don’t understand. I’m a swimmer and I need to go experience my newfound freedom.
Eventually, my mother packed us all in the car and we drove up to the Maple Bluff Country Club, a small community, in Madison, Wisconsin, where I grew up. My mother dropped my brothers and me right outside the pool entrance, as she parked the car with my baby sister.
The day after I qualified for the “big” pool I walked into the pool and it was different; something had changed inside of me. I could feel my eyes twinkle as I studied where I wanted to enter the big pool. I’m a real swimmer now. I could try the diving board as my first point of entry. Although that was exciting in its own right, I wanted to save that experience for another time. My piercing three-year-old eyes scanned the entire pool and chose the closest spot, right in front of me. I whipped off my clothes and dropped them right there on the pool deck.
I stood on the side of the pool, almost like I was paying my respects before I became submerged in the magic of the water. It was truly magical when you jumped in and it just held you. It was like being wrapped in unconditional love. The perfect touch on your body, it laid right up next to you. Nothing was quite like it.
I couldn’t wait to repeat my lap and show off to everyone that it wasn’t a fluke. I saw my mom walk by with my sister and waved to her, so she could see. “Look at me!” I put my head down and rotated my arms around like a windmill hoping to skate quickly toward the wall. I saw the blur of the black “T” on the walls, which seemed to not be coming much closer; I frequently crested the surface to see if I made any progress. I put my head back down and kept trying until I made it. After that lap, I quickly pushed off the wall to repeat my accomplishment over and over again. I was determined to swim like the big kids. I was a big kid now.
My mother walked to the side of the pool after speaking with someone and asked me if I wanted to join the swim team. I couldn’t believe my ears! Yesterday I was in the kiddie pool and today I’m on the swim team! I took a split second to say “yes.” I pushed off the wall and my excitement was so great that I let out a scream under the water. I naturally didn’t want my pure joy to be revealed.
The country club swim team had never won a swim meet all summer, and in fact they had never won a swim meet ever. On that swim team there would turn out to be five Olympians (four of them gold medalists in their sports), a Stanley Cup winner, and the famous actor Chris Farley and the Farley family. What a team of talent and we never won one swim meet, not one!
The country club needed a fourth swimmer in the Girls 8 & Under relay, and I was it for the big final city meet. How exciting—I had reached the pinnacle of success! I wonder how many other Pre-K kids made the team.
I didn’t really care about the other kids; all I really cared about was telling my dad. The love that my dad showed me was nothing like I had experienced before. The delight in his voice and now how easy it was to get to sit on his lap after dinner. I just seemed to move right up the ranks to Daddy’s little girl, and was close to being his favorite, not that our parents meant to have any. If I could have captured and held that look in his eye when I told him that I was on the swim team and competing in a real swim meet, my life would have been filled with love to last many lifetimes. I didn’t know what any of this really meant—it was how my dad responded to me. It was a look and feeling that I would spend the rest of my life chasing.
The minutes, hours, and days were endless waiting for the swim meet. In the summer, the nights in the Midwest stay light until after 10 p.m. and my bedtime was around eightish, so while I lay awake, I had a lot of time for my mind to race in wonder. I would practice over and over in my mind, moving my arms around and around getting ready for the big day.
Morning finally came; the swim meet was really here! My brothers and I got ready because they were competing too. I’m fairly certain I was waiting in the car way ahead of time and before anyone else was anywhere near ready to go.
We arrived at the meet and there were lots of people screaming really loud. It scared me. I would hear “Go!” over and over in some sort of rhythm, and then suddenly it stopped with all the other cheers.
I went from excitement to scared in a split second and then back to excitement. I wasn’t sure what I had to do. We walked onto the pool deck and I didn’t just see the kids swimming; they were diving in from the starting blocks that stood about three feet high from the edge of the pool. Not only had I not seen these starting blocks before, I wasn’t much taller than they were. I hadn’t practiced this part of the race in my mind. What was I to do?
I tugged on my mother and told her that I didn’t want to do this. I started to cry. My excitement had tipped the other way; oh what to do. My mother found the coach to tell him I wasn’t going to be able to swim. Then my father arrived to see how upset I was. My dad lowered himself to my level and asked me what was wrong. I pointed at the high blocks. I had tears of disappointment. I was so devastated.
My dad grabbed my arms and swung them up over my head together, to demonstrate how to dive in. He patted me on the head and said, “Little Annabelle, you’ll do great.” I took a deep breath and started practicing, putting my hands above my head over and over. I watched, without anyone seeing me, while I studied the other swimmers diving in for their races. I could feel the rhythm and movement in me gain confidence as every race went by. Little by little my fear started to fade away.
My relay race came around and the other three girls, who were all eight years old, held my hand as we walked over to the blocks. I was instructed that I needed to wait until my teammate touched the wall and then I could go. They put me in fourth position, which typically was saved for the fastest swimmer, but in this case, they didn’t want to be too far behind by the time I went.
The three girls swam before me, and while the third was in the water my two teammates stood beside me and told me when I was to step on the starting blocks. I watched with such concentration as these big girls, who were more than twice my size, swam next to me. My time was coming up so fast.
I had my dad’s confidence in me and that was all I needed. After the girl touched the wall I peeked over the top of the blocks to see my dad. My attention zoned in on his voice as he yelled, “GO, Annabelle, go!” That was the only voice I heard among a mirage of screaming parents and kids.
I took my cue and threw my hands above my head, but I forgot to push off with my legs and fell off the starting blocks, doing a half belly flop that propelled me toward the bottom of the pool. As I submerged, my father’s voice of confidence faded off into the distance. I knew I couldn’t touch the bottom because we would have been disqualified. My eyes popped open and I let out a gasp of air that immediately launched me up to the surface. I skimmed right on up and saw my dad’s big grin, as bright as a Christmas tree. I moved my arms as fast I could, keeping my head down until I really needed a breath. It was like time just stopped and air wasn’t necessary in my world of peace and joy.
That was so much fun. I got out of the pool and ran over to my dad and hugged him all wet, leaving an imprint of my body on his pants. I touched my father’s heart. That was the day I felt safe and protected from everything.
During that summer I had the thrill of seeing my dad every day after work when he would come up to the country club and swim laps. I got to swim with my father by holding on to his neck and resting on his back. He would pull me across the pool like I was the grand marshal in a parade, passing all the other kids with such happiness across the pool. As he swam with me on his back, I would submerge my head with his, valiantly not letting the swirl of water push me off his back as he swam breaststroke. I practiced closing my eyes and holding my breath with his. I was determined to guess the rhythm of my father’s swimming, hoping to be in perfect harmony as we would move up, down, and forward in the pool. It was like I was constantly trying to have our hearts and minds beat as one. This became a common thread in my life.
As the summer wound down, those joyous moments with my father were coming to an end. I felt an immense sadness for the loss of my time with both of my everythings: my father and swimming. This weighed heavily on me. It was my first understanding of loss. The emptiness of not being in the mysticism of the water and cherishing the moments with my father, doing something that we both loved. A dark cloud hung over me. As I fell asleep at night it seemed like all I could think about was: How could you take away my best friend, my companion, the only place where my heart was truly full, and the one place that I felt safe and where I belonged? I never wanted summer to end.
I started first grade and I could feel myself becoming lost. The long nights in the water were quickly becoming just a distant memory. The pride of the children in the streets and the malaise of noise from the pool had died down to utter silence. The seriousness of life and the order of school was staring me in the face.
I went to a school called Edgewood, a private Catholic grade school situated across town. While my family isn’t Catholic, it was the only local private school. Since I started school in preschool there, the school wasn’t new to me, but having a full day of school was. Also what was new to me was my height. That summer I seemed to have grown a lot, and stood noticeably taller than my peers and almost as tall as my younger brother who was 18 months older than me. I was in this awkward body that I hadn’t adjusted to the space that was allocated to me.
The new me, or the developing me, was challenged on the first day of school, because I couldn’t quite fit underneath the desk; it just rested on my legs. I had these nervous legs, or restless legs, or something that would make my desk move up and down all day in class. The smacking of the desk on the ground seemed to annoy my teacher so much that I was constantly being sent to the principal’s office.
I sat there in the principal’s office waiting. The kid next to me had feet that didn’t even touch the ground. They swung back and forth, happy as all get out. I yearned for the water in that moment, as I kept making myself smaller and smaller both inside and out just to fit into the chair. Finally, after many visits to Principal Sister Mary Kate’s office over the first month of school, the nuns had had enough. They weren’t sure what they’d had enough of, but it seemed to work to my benefit.
My mother was called to the nuns’ office and informed of the problem; I was disturbing the rest of the class and they needed to do something about it. The details of the conversation are fuzzy to me, but their solution was to have my mother take me swimming every day after school, and I would also need to run around the school every morning at least three times or so until I could sit still in class, whichever came first.
My punishment was to swim every day?! I couldn’t wait to go home and sit on my dad’s lap at dinner and share with him my good fortune: I would get to swim every day after school because I was disturbing the class. Something came alive inside me. The shame of not fitting in, and not being like the other kids seemed to be all okay. I was going to be okay.
Let the games begin. I was off and running, well swimming anyway. The daily swimming quickly became part of my routine. I learned that feeling of doing your best time or winning a race was a high like no other. I learned that if I did my best, my father would cherish me with his love and give me more of his attention than my brothers and sisters.
The transition from summer to school that year was a success, although the sadness of anticipating Labor Day would be a pattern that would continue to have its challenges with me for many years to come.