Swimming, My Adult Extracurricular Activity
Learning how to move underwater around tiny swimmers taught me that it’s okay to give a new thing a try
I was never the most athletic person. Rewind that VHS tape to the ’90s, and you’d find a shy kid who was really into books and listening to my heroes, Mariah Carey and Janet Jackson. I’d pray for a stomach ache to keep me out of gym class — if the idea of playing an organized sport didn’t give me one before the bell rang. In high school, I even found a way to keep physical activity from affecting my nearly-perfect grade point average: extra credit papers. Instead of sinking three-pointers myself, I’d write about WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes dominating the court, earning my 99’s in gym class just like my varsity classmates.
So instead, my parents made a popular choice for young girls in Queens: dance class. Although I had Aaliyah’s “Are You That Somebody?” choreography down in the privacy of my room, dancing with a group made me nervous, but I gave it a try.
It did not go well.
In a St. Albans church space that was cleared out on weekends, I did my best. But my long legs remained stiff, my potbelly stuck out, and I just wanted to fade into the walls. Out of all the classes I tried (jazz, tap, ballet, and African), I started to ease into the idea of ballet. But my teacher’s wooden stick banging to keep the rhythm and her screams when we fell out of step left me frazzled. I felt the same stomach ache I’d get in gym class every time Saturday mornings rolled around; no extra credit assignment could fix it.
I didn’t want to let anyone down, so I kept trying. I tried to make friends, but the other girls weren’t interested. With my shyness and the fact that I was no breakout star by any means, I was the kid who always got picked last. And when my dad and I did our father-daughter dance at the school’s annual red and white ball, it ended in my tears. When we walked off the floor — I felt beautiful and grown-up in a red-and-white dress sewn just for me — a group of my dance mates stared at me blankly.
One of the girls asked flatly, “Is your Dad White?” And I told her no. But she shook her head at me in disgust. So, simply by having my dad, I seemed to have made another mistake. And there was no dance move I could practice to fix it.
I told my mom that I didn’t want to dance anymore without telling her how miserable I’d become or the comments I heard. I may not have been Misty Copeland in that empty church, but I did try. I was done.
Swimming always remained something I wanted to do. But by the time I reached high school, the only program available was junior varsity swimming, and no opportunity to learn from scratch. So I locked swimming in the box where I keep other dreams, like learning to speak Spanish as perfectly as my dad. (Although I pulled perfect 100’s in Spanish class.) My extracurriculars in high school had everything to do with volunteering, which is still a massive passion. I hosted parties for children with learning disabilities, visited the elderly at nursing homes, and kept toddlers company as they waited in the pediatric emergency room at the hospital. In giving back, I felt happy and purposeful. And it helped shape me well after my teens.
Fast forward a million (ok, maybe 20) years, and I’ve become the quintessential adult athlete. I ran my first 5K in 2010; running became a place of peace for me. Since that first race, I’ve run three half-marathons. I don’t have an interest in running a full marathon — my uncles have run them for years and have needed multiple surgeries — but doing a triathlon has always been my white whale dream. And I’m not one to have a goal and not plan out how to make it happen. Eventually, I’d have to learn how to swim.
In the water, I got to be terrible at a thing and not admonished for it. I remember sticking my head in the water to blow bubbles for the first time and feeling like I may not make it back up. But this time, there was no yelling, judging, or wooden sticks.
So in 2020, I started my swimming journey. In our neighborhood’s community center, I dipped my foot into the water for private lessons with an instructor. Babies and toddlers — and the stray adult — paddled in lanes all around me. Although it took time for me to get the basics with the months-long break due to Covid lockdowns, I knew I wanted to keep coming back. A lot of that had to do with it being the complete opposite experience I had in dance.
In the water, I got to be terrible at a thing and not admonished for it. I remember sticking my head in the water to blow bubbles for the first time and feeling like I may not make it back up. But this time, there was no yelling, judging, or wooden sticks. Instead, my kind instructor assured me that everyone has to start somewhere — he said he even did some of the things I did when he first started swimming. He senses when I’m nervous or in my head, and he figures out ways to help me get the moves in my way. Swimming has been such an affirming adventure because it’s the first place where I feel encouraged and supported in not knocking it out of the park on the first try. Instead of my instructor yelling and me recoiling in failure and guilt, we laugh when I get water up my nose or trip in the water. And it makes me realize that all I needed as a child — and now as an adult — was the ability to learn something new in a nurturing environment.
Although most of my lessons happen in the water, I also learn from the children on the deck. For starters, I now understand that a child will let you know when they aren’t happy. I’ve heard a three-year-old who looks a lot like Bam Bam scream, “No!” at the top of his lungs when he was asked if he was having a good time. My favorite little one takes the steps like a superhero in her Wonder Woman bathing suit. I’ve seen the manager sit with a five-year-old at the pool’s edge, their toes in the pool, taking some time to breathe. “You don’t have to be perfect; you just have to try,” he told the little one, who was afraid to put any more than his toes into the water.
That simple interaction showed me what I deserved from dance when I was that nervous tween — someone to acknowledge my worries about not being good enough. I still may not have been the greatest principal dancer, but I’d feel like I could learn, grow, and have fun. Swimming has given me that and so much more.
Maybe I didn’t make the JV swim team, but I certainly have my eyes set on that triathlon. And the next time I swim with dolphins, I’ll be able to freestyle while getting those delicious dolphin kisses.