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OPINION | PHILIP MARTIN: The life aquatic

by Philip Martin | October 26, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.

One of my first memories is of my family on an Adirondack lake, and my father, not yet 30, swimming out to a distant floating dock and back on a bet.

How far it was, I cannot say. I was small and the basement of our tiny house seemed vast. And time was slower then; it might have taken him a week to Australian crawl back to shore. I clearly remember the pang of anxiety I felt, and my relief upon his safe return.

Not long after that, he would teach me, dragging me by my fingertips until he was neck deep in the water. Then he let go and I would thrash, panicked but game, as he reminded me to kick and keep my fingers together. I cupped my hands and scissored my legs and he caught me.

Later I took lessons at an Air Force base pool. The sun and chlorine stung, and I made it to the second-highest level, disappointing my instructor by not trying to go further. I was sure I could not pass the final test, and fear of failure overcame my shame. I clung to the side of the pool in the deep end while she clapped her hands and shouted vague encouragement. But I would never be a lifeguard.

I never enjoyed it all that much. We splashed about in backyard pools and water skied on fishing lakes and I was just as good as I needed to be. I could tread water, pull myself in one direction or the other, and even do a crude version of a flip turn.

Then when I was 19, I took a trip to Brazil. We spent a lot of time on the crowded beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana, but hardly went in the water at all. Once my friend Steve Cherry and I took a car and two girls to Prainha Beach, some 30 minutes west of Rio De Janeiro's South Zone. Prainha was known for its surfers, waves and relative seclusion.

We had the beach to ourselves that day; it was gray and a little cool. We sat on the sand, drank Brahma Chopp, and waded into the Atlantic. It was a little boring. At some point Steve and I plunged into the water, diving through the breaking waves and bodysurfing back.

I don't know what possessed me, but there were two islands a little ways off shore. I understood they were too far to reach, but I was interested in them. I started heading toward them. Slipping over the tops of the waves. Out past the breakers, the water felt smoother. Almost calm.

It took me a few minutes before I realized I was drifting perceptibly out to sea. I was no closer to the islands, but further from the shore. I remember watching Steve climb out of the water and walk back to the blanket where the girls sat. They might have been 200 yards away now. I tried to swim directly in, but made no progress. I might have lost a few inches.

I was embarrassed more than anything; I understood I was in trouble but was more concerned with the disruption my disappearance was likely to cause than actually drowning. It felt like I was stuck in some dumb limbo. I felt I could keep my head above water for as long as I needed to, but I didn't have any good way of signaling to my friends. I tried shouting--almost politely, like I'd accidently lost a ball over the fence into their backyard--but they didn't seem to hear me. Not when I shouted as loudly as I could, either.

I knew nothing about ocean swimming. My naive thought was that if the waves were coming in they'd naturally push me back in too. And eventually they probably would have, though at the moment I was being pushed eastward, parallel to the beach, by the current. And a mile or so east of our blankets, the beach curved out into the ocean, ending in a rocky point.

While swimming directly in was pointless, I thought I might swim in the direction I was being carried, trying to angle back to the beach. I didn't think I'd be pushed out past the promontory, but really didn't have any idea.

I never thought about dying. I thought about how tired I was, how my arms and chest ached. I thought about how stupid I'd been. I thought about how cold I was getting. I thought about how beautiful the iron day was. I thought about the futility of self-pity.

It was simply impossible to stop. Resting even for a moment would cost me yards I'd have to make up. So I struggled on for about 40 minutes before a wave finally pushed me into shallower water. Then I could stand and stumble up onto the beach.

My friends were waiting for me; they had noticed my struggle and nervously followed my path. Apparently they'd been calling out to me. They wrapped me in a towel. I tried to pass it off as no big deal, as a miscalculation. They giggled nervously, talked about how stupid I had been. I was trembling. It took us almost an hour to hike back to where we'd parked the car.

I have done many stupid things in my life, and for the most part they haven't cost me much. I've been lucky. We are all lucky, until we aren't.

We returned to a gym a few weeks ago; we're vaccinated and it's time. I can't do free weights right now; my arm still hasn't completely healed from when I fell on the ice in February. (I don't think I'll ever pitch again.) And then I woke up one morning with a sprained foot that made walking/running painful for a couple of weeks.

So Karen suggested I swim; like she does, five or six times a week, sidestroking slow but steady for an hour or so at a stretch. It sounded like a good idea, though I can't remember the last time I swam. We tried snorkling in Mexico in the '90s; that was probably it.

So I lowered myself into an empty pool, ducked under and started to crawl toward the opposite end. My feet remained below the surface when I kicked, my legs seemed to sink, my arms flailed more than crawled. I made it about halfway down the lane before putting my feet on the bottom. I tried again, and almost made it to the wall. I had a little bit better luck backstroking.

My second attempt was a little better. My foot is healed now, but I intend on trying again. Swimming is hard but not impossible.

My father made it all the way to the floating dock and back.

Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at

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