My “watershed” moment

Bondi Beach, Sydney, Australia, December 1980.

As a 25-year-old on an extended trip Down Under, I loved visiting the beautiful beaches there as much as the next guy. Shortly after arriving in Sydney, I met some fellow travellers interested in visiting legendary Bondi Beach at the southern reaches of this lovely city. Unbeknownst to them, I had a secret that I had rarely shared with anyone that would confront me that day: I did not know how to swim.

At Bondi, it was a clear, warm summer day, and the water seemed so calm and inviting, lapping gently onto more than a kilometer stretch of white sand. I was captivated by the setting, and thought, what could be the harm in wading into 4-5 feet of water — I could just refresh myself with a quick dunk in shallow water before walking back out.

At least that was the plan. Initially, the gentle wave action seemed innocent enough, although once chest-deep, I noticed it would momentarily lift my feet off the sand. But as the water quickly became deeper, I felt my feet and legs being pulled out from under me almost with every attempted toehold I took; it seemed that the harder I tried to walk back out of the water, the worse my situation became. And then … I realized my feet no longer touched the sand at all. I was already 150 meters from shore, moving out to sea, and probably already barely visible from the beach — and likely out of earshot of the lifesaving clubs on the beach. Panic quickly engulfed me.

No one had told me that there was a dangerous rip current at the beach, or where it was, or what it does to swimmers–or what to do about it. In a flash, my leisurely afternoon transformed into an increasingly anxious resistance to being pulled out to sea — and all without anyone noticing. The seemingly reliable strategy of trying to put my feet down firmly on the sand and walking out not only wasn’t working, it was increasingly likely the cause of my predicament. And now I was in deep water. I needed to do something different—and right away–and yet learning how to swim within the next few minutes didn’t seem possible.

Despite feeling overwhelmed, with a flurry of uncontrolled emotions and blurred reasoning, I now desperately needed to be rational, and sort out my very limited options. I decided that I needed to consider a new strategy that I had never trusted before. I had noticed that both surfers and body surfers were having no trouble making headway toward the beach, and seemed to have no trouble floating in the salty water, so I opted to change my vertical posture to a horizontal one, and tried to paddle myself toward shore with every small wave that rolled under me.

It seemed to work. With great relief, I noticed that, in small increments, I was starting to move forward toward the beach! And with each wave, I got closer, although my progress seemed to take forever. It became apparent that the top of the water had a different current than the bottom of the water — my first experience with a rip current that I would hear about only afterwards. I committed to staying horizontal–like the body surfers–until I had been carried past some waders who were standing easily in shallower water. With great relief, I was finally able to stand and walk easily in three feet of water, and decided I had had enough of the open water for one day.

This experience shook me to my core — my lack of swimming skills could have killed me, as could my lack of awareness of open water risks such as rip currents. I felt embarrassed and lucky to be alive, but, of course, I told no one of what had happened, which would have exposed both my ignorance of local conditions and my vulnerability as a non-swimmer.

In the following years, I decided I would redouble my avoidance patterns to open water exposure and play lots of tennis instead! But my lack of swimming ability would continue to weigh heavily on my mind for the next two decades. I missed out on the enjoyment of many opportunities such as going boating, attending pool parties, or enjoying other beaches. It would only be after my kids became good swimmers (courtesy of my wife’s strong swimming background) early in their lives that it dawned on me that their dear old dad was the weak link in the family — at least in the swimming competence department.

I challenged myself with a few questions at the time: was I too stupid to learn how to swim? Somehow too old? Was I too unfit to learn how to swim? Was there something physically wrong with me that prevented me from learning how to swim? Was there something that my kids had that I didn’t have that allowed them to swim, but not me? I could not answer any of these questions affirmatively. Humbly, just short of my 50th birthday, I felt it was finally time to get the swimming lessons I never had as a child. My long-held fear of deep water was finally yielding to a determination to change — I really needed to learn how to swim.

 

Mark Fromberg

60-something open water swimmer, trail runner, gym rat, retired MD, writer, consumed with optimal health in retirement

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