Back then I never thought it’d be a long time ago

When I was younger, I used to swim competitively. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. I was on a competitive swim team, and people would yell at me in races to swim faster, and I sometimes obliged. My parents always had to drag me to practice, though, and I was never particularly interested in improving my skills outside of my mandatory practices. I much preferred reading and playing video games.

I discovered breakdance the summer after my freshman year of high school, when I was 13. That changed my life. That wasn’t just the first athletic activity I loved. That was the first skill I really loved. School was easy for me, and, as my mom would say, I never really “caught fire” about any of the subjects. I would just do the bare minimum to get an A. Even videogames, which I enjoyed, were never really something I wanted to get better at. I shied away from difficult videogames and was ok being mediocre at multiplayer.

But breakdance was different. Breakdance fascinated me. I wanted so much to be better and to do better. I loved watching myself and I loved learning new moves. I could spend hours thinking about it and learning about it. I’d practice late at night and wake my parents up with my stomping feet and pounding music. I had so many opinions about which breakdancer was good and not good, and how popular culture had reduced this rich, complex artform to either “doing the robot” or “spinning on your head”.

In the heat of this love affair with breakdance, my arranged marriage with swimming was left far behind and it wasn’t missed. My clearest memories of it now are coming out of practice in the pitch dark at 8 or 9 at night in the winter, hair smelling of chlorine, the tight dryness of chemical-infused skin, and the way the cold air would whip around my still moist face and ears and numb them. The actual hours of laps are just a distant, mostly unpleasant memory. I don’t think about them often.

Except for today, I did think about them. I’m on vacation in Iceland right now, and I decided to visit the local swimming pool, and those distant memories of long, hard practices just…came to me. You know, it’s funny. So much about the swimming culture in Iceland is foreign to me in a very literal way: the way they make you take your shoes off before you enter the locker room; the signs that mandate a nude shower before entering the pool; the five different hot tubs (one lukewarm, one warm, one hot, one very hot, and one hot but indoor); the cold tub; the steam room; the sauna. This is such a different culture than the bareboned practical YMCAs I grew up swimming in, with their dilapidated locker rooms, grimy shower rooms, over chlorinated lap pools, and antique vending machines.

But, despite everything else being so different, this Icelandic swimming pool had a lap pool which looked about regulation length (25 m) and diving blocks, just like the YMCAs of my childhood. That was all I needed. I climbed up to the diving block, and, from some ancient recess of memory, brought back the memory of the swim meet officials from long ago, “On your mark, get ready, go!”

My body remembered how to competitively swim before my mind did. As I dove, I made the little shimmy in the air to prepare a smooth entry into the water, did a few strong butterfly kicks underwater, then broke the surface and raced to the other side (with a quick pause in the middle to stop my swim trunks from falling down). Stroke, stroke, breathe. Stroke, stroke, breathe. Then, at the other end, a flip turn, a strong push off the wall, and a race back to the other end. Then the breastroke, butterfly, and backstroke on subsequent laps, until I could feel my body burning with exhaustion and I was forced to stop for air.

By the time I stopped, people were looking at me. I wasn’t sure if it was with interest or disapproval. I don’t know if Icelandic people are much into competitive swimming, although those diving blocks have to be up there for someone. I found it hard to care, though. All I could think was that, back then, when I swam competitively, it never occurred to me that literal years, maybe even a decade or more, could pass in between launches off of a diving block.

It’s a weird feeling, looking back over the span of time like that. It’s not nostalgia, exactly, even though that’s certainly a vice I’m prone to. I remember too well how much I disliked being forced to go to swim practice. It struck me as pointless then, and as an adult, it strikes me as even more pointless. Sure, knowing how to swim is an important life skill, but was it really so important that we be so good at it?

But it was still a formative time of my life. My body still remembers the movements. They come naturally to me in a way that movements I learned later cannot. I know on a deep level what it feels like to have the feeling of a rough diving block under my feet or smooth tile just at my fingertips. Swimming is a part of me in a way that I can’t excise, even if I only come back to it rarely.

Parents, for the most part, can’t appreciate the way that their choices impact their children. Sure, there are the big decisions, like whether to spank your children, but there’s no way my parents thought 25 years ago about how enrolling their son in a YMCA-affiliated swim league would make him feel two decades and a continent later. I expect the same will be true of me as well when I have children. I will make choices for my children that seem inconsequential then, those choices will come back to impact my children decades later, and I’ll be none the wiser.

A few years ago, I was hanging out with my dad at my parents’ retirement home in Florida. We were eating dark chocolate after dinner, as is my dad’s custom, and I mentioned to him that every time I eat chocolate, I remember a scene from my childhood, when I had refused to eat dinner because I was full. I asked my mom for permission to get some chocolate. She said yes, unbeknownst to my dad. I had just put the chocolate in my mouth when my dad whirled around and yelled, “No dinner, no dessert!”  I was so upset that I started crying, and the taste of the chocolate mixed with my tears was so disgusting that I had to spit it out in the trash can. And now, every time I eat dark chocolate, some part of my mind remembers that bitter, salty, revolting taste of chocolate mixed with tears.

As I finished the story, my dad’s face fell, and I realized I had misjudged the story. He gave me a hug and said, “I never would have yelled if I had known you’d still remember that so many years later.” I reassured him that it was ok, and that I hadn’t told him that story to rebuke him for a minor misunderstanding from 20 years prior, and that, to be honest, I never would have told him that story if I had thought he would have been so remorseful about it.

I had just wanted to share with him a memory that, in some sense, formed me, to try to explain the complex story of who I am with a simpler story of who I was. I thought maybe it’d be helpful for him as well. I don’t know. What do you think?