It’s Never too Late to Fall in Love With Swimming
This Opinion piece was originally published in the NYTimes on April 15, 2021
At first, being in water made me feel defeated. Now it’s transformed me.
Mr. Balf is an athlete and author who was partially paralyzed in a spine cancer surgery.
I took a selfie in front of the locker room mirror before getting in the pool. I was wearing a snazzy new black and red “shortie” wet suit. “Steve Zissou going to work,” I texted my son, referring to the Bill Murray character in a favorite film of ours, Wes Anderson’s “The Life Aquatic.”
I’m 59. I hadn’t swum since my spinal cord injury seven years earlier. Even though I knew other paraplegics found ways to swim, I kept putting it off. “I’m not sure what my relationship is toward water,” I told my neighbor when I declined his invitation a couple of summers ago to paddle on a local pond.
I grew up in Cape Ann, a New England coastal community renowned for its beaches and spring-fed freshwater quarries. I should’ve had a head start to aquatic competency in such an environment, but I preferred land to sea. In the quarries as a young boy, I was hit on the head playing on a partially submerged log and nearly drowned. And I didn’t like the tumult of body surfing the North Atlantic (and was never good at it).
Before I was paralyzed in a complex spine cancer surgery, my wife and I bought a house less than a mile from a lovely bay-protected beach, but I rarely went for a dip and never for a swim. I seemed to need to be by water — to see and be comforted by a block of blue — but no more. My aversion to immersion was hard to explain, but I understood it to be final.
Now here I was, partially paralyzed and using double forearm crutches and a brace to get around but dreaming of stringing together laps. I had been doing dry-land exercises to prepare, lengthening my torso against a blank bedroom wall, a forearm crutch on one side and the opposite arm sliding upward to grab imaginary handfuls of water. In another YouTube-recommended exercise I lowered myself to my knees and stretched out fully on a blue gym mat, sliding my sock-covered hands back and forward to simulate the crawl. I watched a friend’s training video as he swam in a Massachusetts lake. His stroke seemed effortless — gorgeous, actually. He told me he taught himself to swim after being paralyzed. I ordered Bonnie Tsui’s “Why We Swim.”
Perhaps the sudden desire to swim was pandemic-induced, an instinct to open doors to pastimes shut by the virus; or perhaps it was the appealing idea of not ceding 70 percent of the earth’s surface to my disability. I had stayed active the past six years, walking regularly with my sticks and lately using a hand-powered tricycle. I knew how buoyant I felt a few years ago when I navigated along trace pine trails for the first time to again find pockets of blooming lady slippers.
Still, water was a different sort of path. The few times I’d been in a pool for physical therapy since my accident, I felt I could only flail. I hated the feeling and vowed never again to step into a pool. I felt more than powerless in water; I felt defeated.
Now here I was standing in the shallow end of the pool. Spaulding Rehab had one of the few pools open in December and I had been scheduled for the last lesson of the day. A blazing sunset lit up the deck-to-ceiling windows as I took last instructions from Mollie, my physical therapist.
We both had reason to be unsure of what would happen when I let go of the side, but I lunged my trunk forward anyway and hoped my legs would weightlessly rise. They did.
I began a freestyle stroke, my arms lengthening, my lower torso surprisingly stable beneath me. After the crawl, I tried the backstroke, then the breaststroke. My better right leg couldn’t crack the surface with a propulsive kick as I had hoped, but I felt the two of them, right and left, gently twisting, syncing with the rocking movement of my upper body.
I went the length of the pool and then some. I was overjoyed, happily breathless. Swimming had always felt purely transactional to me, the price you paid for being in a dangerous place. This was different.
My Airtime Floater wet suit wasn’t medical issue, but “universal design” sports gear made for nondisabled and disabled swimmers alike. It was not embarrassing to wear, nor did it signal to others my disability. Somebody might see me in a Y.M.C.A. pool from a lane or two away, I thought, and barely take a second look. I guess that mattered to me. As an athlete who was injured later in life, I have struggled with self-consciousness about my disability. “Transformational” is an overused word. But this was close. I put on a simple garment that changed me.
In the ensuing winter weeks, I swam for distance, and even time. We talked form and technique, the way the thumb arcs backward at the top of the backstroke, or the arms expand outward to drive the breaststroke, then knife forward for glide. “That’s better,” Mollie said, as I rhythmically rose and lowered my upper torso in the water, trying to find the elusive sweet spot of control and power.
I had always assumed you were either born for the water or not. My infant daughter adored the feel of bath water as it flowed over her tiny head. My son, at the same age and in the same tub, screamed bloody hell. But maybe the relationship is less fixed, alterable by episode and circumstance and need.
I had much work to do, but the odd thing was that I was looking forward to what was next. Shortly after Mollie said I could swim on my own, I made a reservation for lap time at the local Y.M.C.A.
My 91-year-old mother grew up on Long Island Sound and loved to swim as a young girl. As a young mother she would show off a bit in front of her sons, reveling in her crisp water entry and a form-perfect overhand stroke. When I told her about my unlikely return to swimming, she joked that well, it had taken me only 59 years. Then she had an idea: Let’s take a swim at the quarry this summer, she said. Could we do that?
Todd Balf is the author of several books, including “Major: A Black Athlete, a White Era, and the Fight to Be the World’s Fastest Human Being” and, most recently, “Complications,” a memoir of his five-year journey adapting to sudden disability.