This story starts in a grade school gym class—it’s about an athlete, after all. It’s the suburbs of Toronto and my seventh grade teacher—there is no designated Phys. Ed. teacher—yells the following after I don’t get out of a dodge ball’s way.
“Don’t just stand there like a POLE!”
I swear I thought she said Pole, not pole. I was born in Poland and she was Filipino. A few weeks earlier, she’d handed me a bejewelled Kleenex box cover, the kind of accessory I imagined gangsters placed on the dashboards of their Cadillacs. I’d seen these boxes at the dollar store, in the home décor aisle, next to the plastic plants. “For your parents,” she said—conspiratorially, to make it clear no one else’s parents would be receiving a bejewelled Kleenex box.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Because we Flips and Poles have a special connection,” she added, braiding her index finger and middle finger, and lifting them up to make her point—the people of the Philippines and Poland, united.
This is why I thought she meant Pole when she probably, looking at the context of it all, meant pole.
I consciously stayed away from sports for the next 20 years. In high school, maybe because it was a Catholic high school, the designated Phys. Ed. teacher took pity on us outcasts—the people who wore all black and the girls with eight-month-long periods. We sat on the bleachers and read books or did homework. From time to time, we looked up to watch our classmates chase after balls like happy dogs.
I really didn’t exercise for a single minute between ages 18 and 29. I inherited my grandmother’s smallish frame so I never felt the need to jog or join a gym like some people did. My family doctor had a questionnaire at her office that I filled out each year in preparation for my physical.
Do you exercise? How often ______
The form left no option for saying, “No, I do not exercise,” so I always wrote “No” as an answer to “How often?” That cracked my doctor up each time. “No,” she’d say as if I just finished telling her a joke. “No?” she’d repeat, rhetorically, the way you repeat a punchline. She found my definitive rejection of exercise cute, and her office questionnaire was never corrected.
It would be useful for the purposes of this story to remember what happened exactly, but I can’t pinpoint it. I remember watching an Icelandic movie about a capsized fishing boat. Around that time, I also took a trip to Tofino, British Columbia—an isolated part of Vancouver Island with nothing but Winnebagos and surfers, always in full bodysuits because hypothermia is a risk year-round.
Looking for something to do one day, I decided to take a class with an all-woman surfing school that had high ratings on Yelp. There were six other students in the beginners’ class. A patient, toned instructor from Australia taught me how to climb onto a surfboard.
I climbed onto a surfboard.
A wave came. It flipped the surfboard and me over. The board tried to flee but the leash was there to make sure it didn’t go far.
Then a new wave came.
I was closer to the shore than my board was. The surf gave the board a push and the thing took off in the direction of my gut with the velocity of a racing hydrofoil.
I almost threw up in the ocean.
For the remainder of the class, I sat on the beach and watched the others generally look like they were in Beach Boys videos. Women who’d just been introduced to their boards were in control, grabbing them by the sides, doing turtle rolls under the waves.
Sitting there, I felt weirdly conquered, by nature, by that slab of polystyrene foam, by the other students.
More than anything, I felt ridiculously weak.
While I was at school, at the University of Toronto, there was a mandatory charge added to tuition for students’ use of the athletic center. I remember seeing the charge on my invoice year after year and feeling insulted. I think it was only $5 of $10 but I found it discriminatory. A jock levy.
Sometime after my trip to Tofino, I passed by the university’s athletic center, seeing it—no, noticing it—for the first time. It’s a large building on a major street corner. Its outside walls are covered in murals of people swinging racquets and diving after balls.
I went in. I grabbed a catalogue. I bought an alumnus membership. I was interested in swimming though my motivation was muddy at best. If I had to explain it to the athletic center staff, I’d say I fell off a surfboard three seconds after getting on and then it wacked me super hard in the stomach. I didn’t want that to happen again, but you could substitute “surfboard” for anything: a mugger, an appliance, a murderer. I had the movie about the capsized Icelandic boat on my mind and the image of its crew, thrashing in the water and ultimately sinking. If only they were a little stronger, if only they exercised more, that probably wouldn’t have happened.
There were five levels of swimming classes. The first three were instructional. The fourth was “Stroke Mechanics,” where you refined your style. The fifth was “Swim Training,” for people that really knew what they were doing in the pool.
I’d never taken a swimming lesson before but I felt very strongly that it was beneath me to enrol in levels one, two, or three.
On the first day of Level 4, Stroke Mechanics, Ada, our swim teacher told us to jump in the water and show her what he had. She was Russian, with a Master’s degree in kinesiology. She had a blond ponytail that went down to her waist and had moved to Toronto from Moscow.
I jumped in and did what, in retrospect, I can only classify as some inferior version of the doggie paddle—an ungainly stroke swum by dogs whose mothers never taught them how to swim. My head stayed above water. I kicked my legs in asymmetrical froggish spasms. My arms drew circles. I inched forward negligibly.
“Your stroke is breaststroke!” Ada said sounding like I’d passed a test, but after class she pulled me to the side and in her thick accent asked: “Have you considered taking Level 1: Absolute Beginner?”
I hated how she said the name of the class when she could’ve just stopped at “Level 1.”
Then came the kicker. I couldn’t believe I was hearing this.
“Is there anything below absolute beginner?” she asked, earnestly.
I told her I’d check, but it was a lie. Next week I was back in Level 4, pretending I belonged there.
“Okay, we’ll work on you on the side,” she said and seemed genuinely happy to see me.
There was a small wading pool next to the Olympic sized pool where Level 4 met. It was for children. The cartoon sea animals painted on the adjacent wall—crabs, a dancing octopus, a shark—underscored the designation. The water barely reached my calves. I spent a few weeks in there while the rest of Level 4 splashed in the big-boy pool. Then I made the jump. I started swimming with everyone else.
“I was wrong about your stroke,” Ada said. “Your stroke is backstroke.”
Her stroke was backstroke. It’s what she competed in. Our bond tightened.
I raced with the rest of the class, them front crawl, me back, and didn’t win.
“They may be faster, but your form is better than theirs,” Ada said to me after the others left, and I believed her.
Over the next year and a half I took every class Ada taught. The classes paid shit so she taught a lot of them. I took Level 4 again, at least twice. I took a special butterfly class. I stacked the classes, sometimes going to the pool multiple times per day, leaving my suit in the locker and putting it on again before it had time to dry.
One day, I ended up in Level 1, “Absolute Beginner—Women Only Small Group.” I took it because she was teaching it. It didn’t matter that I no longer belonged there.
There were five of us, the other women unwilling or unable to swim in mixed gender pools. Ada drew black curtains wherever there was a window. She locked the doors from the inside so no men could come in. It felt like a sixth grade slumber party but with water. Since the other women were true absolute beginners, I was asked to show off a lot.
“Now demonstrate front crawl,” Ada would yell, her voice echoing in the large, empty space. “Show us a dive!”
I swam front crawl, I dove. I obliged in a happy, doggy way while the other women floated around me like lily pads, watching in quiet amazement.
Level 5, Swim Training, was a special person club. One woman had been swimming in it for 17 years, the same class, Monday and Wednesday nights, three kilometers per class. The Queen of Level 5.
I was slower than the rest.
I took long breaks at the wall, pretending my goggles needed defogging every 50 or 100 meters while the others just kept going.
I took the class three times.
I saw the Queen of Level 5 while walking through campus one day.
She gave me a shy smile, a fellow swimmer salute. The next day we talked on the pool bench.
There were only so many times I could take the same classes, with the same woman. By now, Ada knew to tell me in advance which sessions she’d be teaching so that I could sign up for them as early as possible and make sure to secure a spot. I was pinballing between levels, learning things I’d already learned. It’s weird she didn’t think it was weird, but anyone else would have.
It was time to move on.
I went back to the catalogue. I thought the best way to improve my swimming would be to strengthen my arms. I started taking tennis lessons. A barrel-shaped man taught those. I made it past Level 1: “Beginner.” Beginner is followed by 2: “Intermediate” and intermediate is followed by 3: “Advanced.”
I figured I could also use better endurance in the pool. I took up jogging. The athletic center had an indoor track that felt great under the feet, like running on pencil erasers or pavement that had melted just slightly in the sun.
After running, I’d go down to the basement for a swim.
From time to time I saw Ada, bounding to classes in the athletic center’s hallways. She was still convinced I was a backstroker even though my front crawl wasn’t looking bad.
One day she stopped me in the hallways and said, “I think you should sign up for the world masters’ championships in Mexico.” She sounded absolutely serious.
In the following weeks, every time I bumped into her, she would nod and softly chant, “Guadalajara,” as if casting a spell. (Mexico recently withdrew. The 2017 FINA World Masters Championships are now happening in Budapest.)
I googled the event. The competitors were mainly athletes who’d been swimming and winning medals since they were toddlers. I informed Ada of this the next time I saw her but she waved me off and said, “Guadalajara,” as if she’d lost the ability to say any other word.
“Guadalajara,” she whispered, walking past me at Starbucks a week later.
She pronounced the word differently each time, her Russian accent doing strange things to the “j,” but the message was always clear.
“Guadalajara,” she said in the women’s locker room a few weeks later. And seeing by my look that I wasn’t entirely sure I belonged in Mexico, she added, “There’s a woman that goes each year. She’s 93 years old and they have to lower her into the pool in her wheelchair.”
“Yeah, but what about the others?” I challenged.
Ada knew she knew who I was referring to. The Michael Phelps types. The stars. The people who left these events with bushels of medals. The ones who swam like dolphins in the fast lane of our own pool and would leave me in their wakes within two seconds of the start line.
Ada gave me a long, blank look and I’ve since wondered if she practiced it in front of a mirror. Utterly befuddled. Like I’d spoken to her in a foreign language. “What others?” she said. “You’re as good as anyone there.”
“Okay.” I gave in. It was like talking to a kid bent on taking an imaginary game to ridiculous lengths, not tiring even when it becomes obvious and annoying.
And I got it.
Somewhere along her own journey of backstroke success, my teacher had learned the fine art of encouragement, part lie, part truth, all well intentioned. An athlete’s truth, let’s call it—a variant of the baker’s dozen.
“Guadalajara!” she said to me a couple more times in that locker room, with the showers thundering in the background and naked women slapping their suits down on wet benches. “Guadalajara.”