“You will go to the Dagobah system. There you will learn from Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructed me.” Obi-Wan Kenobi
The word “master” connotes excellence, skill, dominance. You don’t play at Augusta because you’re wearing golf shoes and you look cute in collared shirts. You earn an advanced degree after clocking hours in a library and borrowing oodles from Sallie Mae. You need to take a few turns with a lightsaber before dancing with the Dark Side. So why did I just show up at a “Masters” Swim practice at 8 a.m. last Saturday?
Because when I asked Kerryann via email if it was too hard-core, she responded, OMG and LOL.
As I advance in age, I find that I am less concerned about other people’s perceptions of me. I wasn’t worried that I would embarrass myself. I was worried that I would die. Perhaps “Masters,” just means a bunch of old people, I thought to myself, as I drove into the swim center parking lot at 7:45 am.
The building was not yet open. Three men I could safely assume to be older than I stood talking and waiting by the door. “When you go under, you go under,” I heard one of the men say. I cringed, imagining myself drowning in three feet of water, but soon pieced together the gist of their conversation. He was explaining the effect of anesthesia during a colonoscopy: how one minute he was awake, and the next he woke in a completely different room, to the sound of nurses talking about breastfeeding. The three men laughed and one said with authority, “When the kid can bite, that’s when you stop that stuff.”
One of the men leaned towards me. “You here for lifeguard training?” he asked.
“I’m going to try out the Masters Swim,” I said with my own rendition of authority.
“Oh!” The men cheered. The one with the white beard stepped away from the smiling duo to give me a big handshake. “I’m Rand. The coach.” He was Santa in street clothes.
As I stood on the pool deck, I observed that the Masters Swimmers came in all ages and sizes. As I treaded water waiting for instruction, I observed that what most Masters Swimmers had in common was the distinct ability to swim. Rand told me to go up and back so he could check out my stroke. When I returned, he chuckled, “You were obviously uncomfortable doing that!” It was not obvious to me at all; I thought I’d done pretty well, but I told him I was a little self-conscious and he told me to relax, my least favorite of all imperatives—I tighten up into a big ball of electrical wires when someone tells me to relax.
The warm-up was more of a complete workout for me. I shared a lane with my friend Carrie, who, like Kerryann, had been confident that I would have no trouble, but today, Rand was also sharing our lane. Santa became drill sergeant, pointing at the clock, screaming “Go! Go! Go!”
“Oh, we finished,” we informed him.
“You finished 1 set of 300’s. He pointed a thick finger towards the sopping sheet stuck to the kickboard: “This says 3 X 300.”
I was told to keep my head down while using the kickboard so I wouldn’t hurt my back but was fairly certain that my back, among most other parts of my body, would inevitably be hurting. Rand’s not a small man, but he schooled me during the 6 X 25 sprints. His delivery was unsubtle: “Your backstroke looks okay from up here, but underwater you’re walking!” The friendly face of one of the other older men I had met earlier in the morning popped into view—“You look so awkward!” he grinned.
At the end of the longest hour and ½ of my life, I asked Rand about my stroke. He looked at me: “You’re doing a little of what we call” and here he stretched his neck around to glance at the neighboring lane, “the Esther Williams.” It was a near whisper, so I was wondering who else he would possibly be offending. I immediately pictured myself in the center of an aquamusical, women in flowery powder blue bathing caps synchronizing around me. Divers splashing like fountains. “But,” resuming normal voice,” the more tired you got, the better you got. Your body eventually figures out the smoothest way to move,” he said. “You’ll get there.”
I’ve heard a person say she couldn’t see straight, but not that she couldn’t see the first letter of every word as she read “I’m a Truck Driver” to her kids. After Masters Swim on Saturday, after a shower and lunch, I was sitting in the public library with the girls, and I couldn’t understand why I was having trouble making out complete words. “Caroline, does the lighting look different in here?”
She looked at me with a dull stare and tapped the book several times. “Read, Mommy.”
After cumbersome attempts at “teamroller,” “ire ruck,” “nowplow,” and “ombine” operating, I began to panic. “Honeys, we’ve got to get outside.” I’d invented a disease by the time we’d arrived home, but sensed, really since getting out of the pool that morning, that I was dehydrated. I sidled up to the kitchen sink and was ready to strap on a Camelback for the rest of the day. I’d hiked the Grand Canyon and run a marathon, but had never been as thirsty as spending over an hour immersed in pool water. I’d be better prepared for the next trip to the library…and for my next Masters Swim.
Yes, I did return. I brought a water bottle. To be a “master” in anything, if you’re invited, you have to show up. Esther Williams was the “Million Dollar Mermaid,” a 1966 International Swimming Hall of Fame inductee, a successful film star and retro swimwear designer. Maybe Rand wasn’t criticizing—maybe he had seen my potential. And, even if he hadn’t, he did encourage me in an endearing “better not pout” sort of manner.
Time spent healthily and a healthy splash of humility—who wouldn’t go back for more?