MY TEACHER I NEVER KNEW

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I know that smell. It’s tied to memories of struggling for breath, a burning in my chest and shouting. I didn’t really know what I was doing at the time, but none the less, things went well. Maybe I was a natural. No, that wasn’t it. I was just having fun. I enjoyed being a part of the swim team and I still love swimming. That chlorine smell associated with pools is permanently etched in the olfactory lobe of my brain,  just rostral to the “riding a bike” lobe.

If you like gliding through the water with your ears pleasantly occluded from the noise of the world, your body suspended in a liquid space giving you the sensation of flying, with your only concern being getting a clean breath of air, then you would like the Sand Hollow Aquatic Center (SHAC) in Saint George. Unlike other places I’ve swum laps, at the SHAC I have always had a private lane and the kids have their own pool so you don’t have to worry about them jumping on top of you or swimming into your lane. It’s open six days a week and on weekdays you can start swimming as early as 5:30 AM.  On Sunday it’s closed – it’s Utah.

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A strong swimmer with an excellent stroke can slice through the water with an amazing amount of grace and speed. It’s like watching a dolphin or seal torpedo through the water. My senior year in high school I worked as a life guard at the Y for “adult lap swim”. As you can imagine it was an easy job. It involved pacing around the pool wearing a red jacket with a white cross and watching middle aged men escape for an hour from the stresses of their daily lives. At the end of the hour they would ask me to log their distance on the “50 Mile Chart”. Each block of the chart equaled a quarter mile and when they completed 50 miles I would give them a card and a patch to sew on their trunks. Most were not particularly fit and their stroke mechanics ranged from bizarre to average but they enjoyed their pool time.

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The exception was a short, powerfully built swimmer that rumor had it swam in the Olympics for an Eastern Block Country. He was in his thirties and had enough back hair to knit a babushka but it didn’t slow him down. We never spoke and I never learned his name. He didn’t ask to have his distance recorded, he just swam and quietly left. Unlike most swimmers he didn’t swim with arms spinning and feet splashing, he just motored along with strong powerful strokes, a gentle rolling of his body and a strong, nearly splash free kick. He had beautiful form and because he was so efficient he could complete a lap using half as many strokes as the other swimmers. I’m sure he was unaware of it but he was my teacher.

At 10 pm I would close the pool, put the kick boards up and drop the pool cleaning machine into the water. Then I would jump in to do a few laps. As I swam I tried to emulate my teacher’s stroke. A smooth hand entry, strong arm sweep and a gentle rolling of my body. As hard as I tried I never came close to swimming a lap as smoothly or in as few strokes as he did.
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Today I’ll go to the SHAC again. To observers I’ll be just one of the old guys lumbering along in the lap pool. But in my mind I’m a young life guard, trying one more time to reproduce my teacher’s perfect stroke. It’s going to be fun.
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