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"Please. Please. Please, Coach, let us out of the pool, we're freezing," pleaded three purple-lipped eight-year-olds in lane two.
Coach Muritt scowled at my teammates clinging to the swimming pool wall. Usually this was all he had to do to motivate them, and they'd continue swimming. But this day was different. Ominous black clouds were crouched on the horizon, and the wind was gusting from all different directions. Even though it was a mid-July morning in Manchester, New Hampshire, it felt like it would snow.
Cupping his large hands against his red face, and covering the wine-colored birthmark on his left cheek, Coach Muritt bellowed, "Get off the wall! Swim!"
"We're too cold," the boys protested.
Coach Muritt did not like to be challenged by anyone, let alone three eight-year-old boys. Irritated, he shouted again at the swimmers to get moving, and when they didn't respond, he jogged across the deck with his fist clenched, his thick shoulders hunched against the wind and his short-chopped brown hair standing on end. Anger flashed in his icy blue eyes, and I thought, I'd better swim or I'll get in trouble too, but I wanted to see what was going to happen to the boys.
Coach Muritt shook his head and shouted, "Swim and you'll get warm!"
But the boys weren't budging. They were shaking, their teeth chattering.
"Come on, swim. If you swim, you'll warm up," Coach Muritt coaxed them. He looked up at the sky, then checked his watch, as if trying to decide what to do. In other lanes, swimmers were doing the breaststroke underwater, trying to keep their arms warm. More teammates were stopping at the wall and complaining that they were cold. Laddie and Brooks McQuade, brothers who were always getting into trouble, were breaking rank, climbing out of the pool and doing cannonballs from the deck. Other young boys and girls were joining them.
"Hey, stop it! Someone's going to get hurt-get your butts back in the water!" Coach Muritt yelled. He knew he was losing control, that he had pushed the team as far as we could go, so he waved us in. When all seventy-five of us reached the wall, he motioned for us to move toward a central lane and then he shouted, "Okay, listen up. Listen up. I'll make a deal with you. If I let you get out now, you will all change into something warm and we'll meet in the boys' locker room. Then we will do two hours of calisthenics."
Cheering wildly, my teammates leaped out of the pool, scurried across the deck, grabbed towels slung over the chain-link fence surrounding the pool, and squeezed against one another as they tried to be first through the locker room doors.
Getting out of the water was the last thing in the world I wanted to do. I hated doing calisthenics with the team. Usually we did them five days a week for an hour, after our two-hour swimming workout. A typical workout included five hundred sit-ups, two hundred push-ups, five hundred leg extensions, five hundred half sit-ups, two hundred leg lifts on our backs, and two hundred leg lifts on our stomachs. As we did the exercises, Coach Muritt counted and we had to keep pace with him. Between each set of fifty repetitions, he gave us a one-minute break, but if anyone fell off pace or did the exercises incorrectly, he made us start the set all over again. He wanted to make us tough, teach us discipline and team unity. And I didn't mind that. I liked to work hard, and I liked the challenge of staying on pace, but I detested having to start an exercise all over again because someone else was slacking off or fooling around. Brooks and Laddie McQuade were notorious for that. They were always trying to see how much they could get away with before they got caught. For them, it was a big game. Older boys on the team yelled at them and tossed kickboards at them, but they didn't care; they liked the attention they were getting from the team and the coach. I didn't want to play their game, and I didn't want to do two long hours of calisthenics with them, so I shouted, "Coach Muritt, can I stay in the pool and swim?"
He was wiping his eyes and nose with a handkerchief, and asked incredulously, "Jeez, aren't you freezing?"
"If I keep swimming, I'm okay," I said, and smiled, trying my very best to convince him. I was a chubby nine-year-old, and I was a slow swimmer, so I rarely got a chance to stop and take a rest. But because I just kept going, I managed to constantly create body heat, and that way I stayed warm when all the other swimmers were freezing.
"Is there anyone else who wants to stay in the water?"
"We do," said three of his Harvard swimmers in lane one.
During the college season, Muritt coached the Harvard University Swim Team. He was considered to be one of the best coaches in all of New England; at least a dozen of his college swimmers had qualified for the U.S. Nationals. In the summer, most of his college swimmers worked out with our age groupers on the Manchester Swim Team, and they inspired us by their example. Somehow my parents knew from the start that to become your best, you needed to train with the best. And that's why I think they put my older brother, David, me, and my two younger sisters, Laura and Ruth, into Coach Muritt's swimming program.
Coach Muritt studied the sky, and we followed his gaze. "I still don't like the looks of those clouds," he said pensively.
"Coach, we'll get out immediately if it starts to thunder. I promise," I said, and held my breath, hoping he wouldn't make me do calisthenics.
He considered for a moment, but he was distracted by uproarious laughter, high-pitched hoots, and shouts coming from the locker room.
"Please, Coach Muritt, please can we stay in?" I said.
"Okay, but I'll have to take the pace clock or it's going to blow over-you'll have to swim at your own pace for the next couple of hours."
"Thank you, Coach," I said, and clapped my hands; I was doubly thrilled. I had escaped calisthenics and now I was going to be able to swim for three hours straight. I loved swimming and I loved swimming at my own pace, alone in my own lane, with no one kicking water in my face, and no one behind tapping my toes, telling me I had to swim faster. It was a feeling of buoyant freedom. But swimming into a storm was even better; waves were rushing around me, and lifting me, and tossing me from side to side. The wind was howling, slamming against the chain-link fence so strongly that it sounded like the clanging of a warning bell. I felt the vibrations rattle right through my body, and I wondered if the wind would tear the fence from its hinges. Turning on my side to breathe, I checked the sky. It looked like a tornado was approaching, only without the funnel cloud. I wondered for a second if I should climb out of the water. But I pushed that thought away; I didn't want to get out. I was immersed in unbridled energy and supernatural beauty, and I wanted to see what would happen next.
My world was reduced to the blur of my arms stroking as a cold, driving rain began. The raindrops that hit my lips tasted sweet and cold, and I enjoyed the sensations of every new moment. The pool was no longer a flat, boring rectangle of blue; it was now a place of constant change, a place that I had to continually adjust to as I swam or I'd get big gulps of water instead of air. That day, I realized that nature was strong, beautiful, dramatic, and wonderful, and being out in the water during that storm made me feel somehow a part of it, somehow connected to it.
When the hail began, the connection diminished considerably. I scrambled for the gutters while the college swimmers leaped out of the water and ran as fast as they could into the locker room. One looked back at me and shouted, "Aren't you getting out?"
"No, I don't want to," I said, crawling into the gutter by the stairs. The hail came down so fast and hard that all I heard was the rush and pinging of the stones as they hit the deck and pool. Thankful for the white bathing cap and goggles protecting my head and eyes, I covered my cheeks with my hands. Hailstones the size of frozen peas blasted my hands, neck, and shoulders, and I winced and cringed and tried to squeeze into a tighter ball, hoping that it would be over soon.
When the hail finally changed to a heavy rain, I crawled out of the gutter and started swimming again. As I pulled my arms through the water, I felt as if I were swimming through a giant bowl of icy tapioca. The hailstones floated to the water's surface and rolled around my body as I swam through them. I realized that by putting myself in a situation different from everyone else's, I had experienced something different, beautiful, and amazing.
In the parking lot outside, I saw Mrs. Milligan sitting in her car with her headlights aimed at me. Mrs. Milligan was Joyce's mother, and Joyce was the fastest and nicest girl on the team. Joyce had qualified for nationals a couple of times, and I wanted to be just like her. Once I'd asked her why she was so fast. She'd said that she did what Coach Muritt asked of her. It was such a simple statement, but one that was a revelation for me. If I did what Joyce did, then maybe I could also make it to nationals. I wondered how long Mrs. Milligan had been watching me. When I saw my teammates poking their heads out of the locker room, I knew the workout was over, so I climbed out of the pool.
Copyright © 2004 by Lynne Cox
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