Thursday, December 15, 2005

Swim Genius

Swim Genius
Jaala Spiro

This summer, my daughter has turned into a Swim Genius.

When we went to visit Mike’s family in July, we stayed in a little place on a little lake, and swam in its placid waters several times a day. One day we took the kids to his Uncle Paul’s house where they had set up one of those big pools, three feet deep and several yards from side to side. All of the kids, mostly preschoolers, splashed in exuberantly, and that was the first time I noticed Corrina start to swim. She put her three-year-old face right into the water and did a version of the breast stroke across the pool, steamrolling any cousin, big or small, who got in her way.

We adults stood around the sunny driveway, talking among ourselves as we refereed the goings-on in the pool. Paul’s wife Lori told us the story again of how her little boy, barely three, decided to ride a pint-sized dirt bike.

“Paul said, here’s a bike, honey, but you can’t ride it yet, I have to put the training wheels on,” she said. “Zane says, no, Dad, I can do it. Paul said, okay, you can try, and handed him the bike. He took it out of the garage, got on it and started riding. And that was about it.”

We had heard the story when we came out in May and witnessed the tiny, red-headed boy seamlessly maneuvering around the driveway and carport on his scrap of a bicycle. Even as he waited to get in the pool, he entertained two other kids by doing skids and wheelies that most eight-year-olds would envy.

I couldn’t hear the story often enough; I wanted Lori to say it again and again, as if the telling would reveal the mystery of how that talent grew.

“Lori, he’s a Bike Genius!” I told her. “He’s going to be in the Olympics or something.”

The next afternoon, Corrina started to swim in toward the shore from her shoulder depth in the lake, again the breast stroke, diving under the water and coming up when she ran out of air. She did it over and over again, a holy joy spreading over her face when she surfaced, her blue eyes blinking. The following day, Corrina learned to jump out of an inflatable raft into water over her head when a 10-year old played with us; she repeated this feat, too, over my anxiety. Every day that week, I left the shore early with Aden the Shivering Noodle while she swam resolutely on, Mike standing knee-deep in the water to catch her.

When we came back from our weeklong vacation, she definitely was doing something very close to real swimming. We began taking the kids to the city beaches almost every afternoon. Her M.O. would be to stand in water as deep as we would tolerate, imperiously gesturing us to go away, then to swim back, only touching bottom briefly when she came up for air.

One day, my parents took her to the Spring Green pool and my dad reported that she swam, with breathing, about 12 feet in water over her head. And, true to her nature, did it over and over again until it was time to go.

I had to see it for myself, and lo and behold, she stood on the side of the pool, ordered me away, jumped a mighty belly flop, and swam to my arms, taking several breaths on the way. Each time she paused to lift her little mouth into the air, my heart stopped along with her, but I managed to keep from lunging over to grab her.

The next pool visit she decided to jump in backwards and practiced moving toward us with a simultaneous twist from front to back.

A week later her grandpa came to see us and Corrina worked up to swimming across the short side of the hotel pool all by herself. She paused each time standing on the pool lip, breathing hard, rocking back and forth and laughing nervously, but when she decided, it was all business. Woe betide the nervous mom who tried to inch her way closer, too, because she noticed. She wanted to swim every inch of the pool, and she wasn’t about to take a break in the middle.

I watched her do it, I knew she could do it, and I felt as if some soft laser melted through me, opening my ribcage the way I remembered feeling when Mike and I first fell in love. I felt a light pouring into me and I couldn’t see anything but the light.

I started feeling weak in the knees when sitting at the breakfast table eating cereal. She has talent. Everything in my system seemed to give way around this new idea. My friend Dana put her finger on it when she said, "It's like the story of an Olympic tennis player whose parents own a gas station and never played tennis, but then they do everything to get their kid through all of the training."

I am not sporty and never swam that well. In Girl Scout camp when I was twelve, I got stuck in Intermediate Swim with all the eight-year-olds. So I don't know the culture.

I began sounding out my friends and acquaintances. Our babysitter was a water baby since before she could remember. "I was on the swim team all the way through high school, and then I became a lifeguard," she told us. And this is a woman who speaks French and is getting an advanced degree in Art History with a focus on contemporary African artists. This is good, very good.

I told myself that swimming is a healthy hobby, without all that crazy body-image baggage that dancers and gymnasts carry. The swim team girls in my high school were mostly popular, strong and college-bound. Negotiating my own relationship to "normal," I recoil from the idea of my child as popular, but secretly enjoy the thought that this sport could make it easier to find an identity and some friends.

But what about the competition? I picture my sensitive daughter throwing up in the middle school bathroom before swim meets. Could I somehow switch the talent to yoga, or something impossible to compete in? What sort of responsibility do we have to this emerging thing, can we wait until later to see what happens, or do we owe it to our child to help her along now?

The point is this. All these years I have loved these kids. I have bounced them in my arms past utter exhaustion in the middle of the night. I have nursed, and buckled the car seats, and wiped up the puke, and cleaned up the poop, and cooked the squash, the quesadillas, the oatmeal, the pizza. I have stroked the cheeks, gazed into the eyes, had my ears nearly shut from the screaming. I have held their hands as they took those first steps, helped them learn to put on a shirt, been happy when they first said ‘cat,’ but underneath it all, I did not believe that they would ever be real human beings. It seemed too farfetched. Now my child has a talent. It feels like the first thing she has created on her own, as if she came up from some internal depth with a pirate cache of gold. She is standing apart from me, and I feel terrified, urgent as though I must respond to some call. We sign her up for swim lessons, we buy her some goggles.

I tell myself the story again, but it doesn’t answer my own question—the genesis of this ability. I feel like I watched her these four years, wound tight to keep her from outlets, biting kids, chokable objects, watching her develop her talking and coordination and her own opinions on fashion. I watched so closely all this time, and didn’t know she had a secret uncurling in there. When I look at her and see her shining and separate from me, I shiver with pride and fear and see that she has never really been within my grasp. Even when she was, a part of her must have been independent, bright gold inside the group of expanding cells, watching me, loving me. And laughing.

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