The Swimming Lesson

by Sarah Bedford

Two years before I got married, I decided to take swimming lessons. It was something I'd always wanted to do as a child, but times were tough in the early 1950's and I was always too sick. Every year we'd go off to visit Aunt Peg at her cottage on Georgian Bay, and each summer I'd sit on the dock and wish I could be out there splashing about just like all the other children. Aunt Peg swam like a fish, but couldn't take me in the water because scarlet fever had left me with juvenile nephritis - no chance of swimming, riding a bike or running around until I was about sixteen. It just seemed so far away. I faithfully watched Esther Williams movies and thought it would be fantastic to be able to do all the moves and turns just like Esther. Esther was great, but I would have been happy to just jump off the dock and get my pigtails wet and feel the lovely cold, fresh water on my face. The closest I came to water sports was in 'The Toby' my Dad's motor boat. Actually, motor boat is kind of stretching it - this thing was more like a rowboat with a motor attached, but it was close to the water and could go pretty fast. It wasn't until he and my brother Ben completed 'The Marpet' that we were able to make real waves and feel the wind.

So, now that I was living on my own, had long since outgrown the nephritis, I wanted to make a splash. I signed up for adult swimming classes at Westridge Community Centre and fortunately for me and the two instructors, I was their only student. It didn't take long for all of us to discover I seriously lacked Esther-potential. I was terrible. At twenty-eight I was afraid to get my hair wet. It was torture holding my breath and diving down to get the puck on the bottom of the pool. Children - no toddlers could do this, why couldn't I? Week after week these poor young instructors tried to get me to the point where I could successfully do something - anything at all that might get me to let go of the side of the pool, but nothing happened, until the last class. I don't know why, maybe it was the fear of being a complete water failure, but somehow I gathered the courage to try a back float. I got into position, let go of the side of the pool, and let my body rest on the water. It was easy! It was so easy! The instructors were delighted, and started clapping and shouting - finally, after so many lessons some success. I tried the 'star float' - nailed it! This was remarkable! I could do it all! Face down float - no problem. Everything was going so well; today floats tomorrow Lake Erie, move over Marilyn Bell. There is something to be said for knowing when to quit. All these years I was so sure I didn't have an ego, and yet there I was merrily showing off all my newly acquired floats. I was so proud, right up to the time I said "Hey watch this ..." and sank like a stone. This time I wasn't gliding on top of the water, I was smack dab in that water, taking more and more of it into my lungs with each gasp. It took both instructors to haul me out of the water, and it wasn't because of my size back then, those were my 118 pound days. No, it was because I was flailing about like a baby bird in mid air. Needless to say it dashed my hopes of swimming glory.

That Summer, Carlo and I were invited to spend a weekend at his department head's cottage near Parry Sound. The cottage was in a very remote area. We arrived late afternoon and over dinner the conversation moved to stories about swimming lessons. Lovely! While one of their daughters had all the makings of a competitive swimmer, their son Cody was struggling. Understanding his frustration, I foolishly shared my pool experience. Okay, maybe not ALL of my swimming adventures. Not wanting to scare the little guy or admit to my own foolishness, I left my near-death experience in the shallow end of the pool. Well, he was delighted that I too was taking lessons. The next couple of hours were filled with pleas to show him how to float! Knowing somewhere deep inside of me that what I was about to do was a mistake, I agreed to show Cody just what I'd learned in class. So, bright and early the next day, there we were - Cody and his sister Annie in a row boat, their Mom with the oars and me, clutching on to a rope. Why did I ever agree to this? I discovered that floating, or attempting to float in a lake is much, much different from a pool. For starters there was no shallow end. No matter, the plan was that Mary would row a little way from shore, I would hang on to the rope, do my float while Cody and Annie watched safely from the boat. That was the plan.

Mary rowed a little way from shore, the children were watching from the boat - but! my body began to float under the boat. With no hard surface of a pool to prepare for my float, I seemed to have no control over where I went. As I floated toward the row boat, I started to go under the row boat. Cody thought I was floating and was impressed, Amy knew I wasn't and prepared to jump in after me, and Margaret fortunately grabbed one of my arms as I began to go down and hauled me into the rowboat with two now screaming children.

It was months before I garnered the courage to go back to the pool. Partly because I was nervous about drowning but mostly because I was sure, somewhere in the halls and change rooms of Westridge Community Pool, there was a picture of me with the caption 'Dangerous, don't let her near the pool area.' But, I really, really wanted to try one more time. I just had to venture into those climate-controlled waters. Someone told me that acquasize classes would be perfect for me because they combined water with aerobics. In those days I attended workout classes each and every lunch hour at Brock, so this new twist sounded exciting. I was still on my own and not seeing Carlo all that much because he was teaching in the day as well as two nights a week. I had plenty of free evenings.

So off I went to sign up for this new adventure. My friend who told me about the classes was quite sure knowing how to swim wasn't a prerequisite. Feeling really good I went to registration night, got into my suit, filled out my form and lined up to pay for ten-weeks of classes. As I waited in line, I listened to the questions. "Name, address, age, do you swim?"

"Do you swim?" "Do you swim?" I listened carefully to the responses - nobody in front of me said 'no'! I was going to be the only one. Great! Twenty- five women in front of me no one said "no." It was my turn. The instructor was a short, stern looking woman, probably just a few years past middle aged, who had obviously spent a good deal of her life in the Sun. Her skin was brown and leathery, her hair bleached blonde but not whitish blond, or platinum blonde more like a Doris Day blonde. Yes, this woman was like a slightly shorter, chubbier, older version of Doris Day. While her face and body gave a hint of her age, she still had the legs of a swimmer. There she was, clipboard in hand, whistle around her neck, routinely running through the questions, taking payment and never looking up from her forms, that is until my "No."

"Do you swim?" she said.

"No, not really."

She stopped writing, turned her head to look at me and bellowed "Well why the hell not!?" I didn't want to go through my long story of hope, dreams and failures, so instead of saying something sensible like "I just don't" or "I've always wanted to but almost drowned myself and two swim instructors in this very pool ..."

I said "Well, I do, but not very well." I lied. This was a mistake. 'Martha' more or less clued in to my real ability after the warm-up exercises. It was something about her command "Sit-ups" that did it. Not only did I not know how to get my legs up high enough to rest them on the edge of the pool, I had no idea how to do a water sit-up without putting my head in the water. Martha paced along the edge of the pool, blowing her whistle, and shouting commands. She was up for no nonsense. This all made perfect sense because as the hour progressed, it was revealed that Martha had spent a good portion of her life in the Canadian Armed Forces. Before her career in the military she had been an award-winning swimmer, and upon her retirement coached competitive swimmers. But now Martha had me. I wasn't sure why, but for some reason she liked me. I was terrified of her, but she seemed to find me amusing. Maybe it was because I desperately wanted to succeed and master the routines.

Two or three times each class Martha would blow her whistle and belt out 'WALL!' We all knew what that meant after the first class. It was an exercise where everyone would line up hand-to-hand, cling to the edge of the pool and then hand over hand move along the side of the pool. The first time around I couldn't bring myself to venture to the deep end, the second time I did a bit better. This continued until eventually I too managed to navigate around the entire pool.

I buddied-up with two other women for some exercises and knowing I was a little nervous, they very kindly helped whenever I was uncertain. Martha's command "LAPS!" was always followed by "Bedford, you run in place." All in all it wasn't too bad, I was surviving Martha, and she had kindly decided not to kill me!

We were into about the fifth week of classes when a new member joined us. Everyone was already in the pool when Anna came tippy-toeing to the pool. Our new classmate certainly made an impression. She was a rather large woman, probably weighing close to 300 pounds, whose swimming attire was a salmon-pink, full, fitted swimsuit with a little ruffle around her hips. The outfit was topped off with a rubber bathing cap, covered in little rubber white and yellow daisies. Anna looked quite a bit like Mrs. Hogget in the movie 'Babe.' She had scrubbed, rosy cheeks, a big face with curly ash blonde hair peeking out from under the rubber daisies. In her bathing cap and suit Anna reminded me of those Esther Williams movies I watched as a kid, just a much, much larger version of Esther. Try to imagine Esther on a 30-year diet of super-sized burgers, shakes and fries, topped off by banana-splits. Anna, I pieced together was originally from Poland. Her English was limited to "Ya, uh huh," but we had one very important thing in common - neither one of us could swim.

Anna's arrival meant I would have regular partner for some of the exercises. Just before the end of class, Martha made us do a partner exercise in reps of five. It involved standing in front of your partner, holding one of their feet and one hand while they did the same to you and then together you were to gently jump up and down. Now, I had done this exercise with two women about my size and everything was fine. I had definitely mastered this one. It was now my turn to teach my new partner Anna. By pointing to everyone else and extending my hand she knew what to do and this excited her no end. So there we were in position, Anna holding my right foot and hand while I held her left foot and hand - we gently bounced up and down. Her enthusiasm bubbled-up and Anna chose to do this one with gusto. We bounced a little higher and came down a little farther into the water, up and down, way up and way down. She was displacing a lot of water. By this time Anna was giggling with glee, so much so she didn't notice that I was going deeper and deeper under the water.

My sputtering drew Martha's attention and on the way up I heard Martha's whistle and the words "Somebody stop that woman, she's gonna drown Bedford!"

It was then I knew Martha really did like me because that was the last of my pairing with Anna. I choked a little got my breathing back and was ready to participate in the final group exercise of the evening. We ended each class by making two rows, holding hands and rolling our connected arms ever so slightly just to make gentle waves. As we did this each pair would take turn riding the controlled waves. Anna had been asked to stand to one side and to watch carefully. I think the request must have lost something in the translation because as the final pair took their turn, Anna splashed over and jumped on the conveyor belt of arms. There she was pink suit and daisies, riding the waves and giggling with shouts of "Yah! Yah! Weee ..," as her stunned classmates worked harder and harder to get her to the end of the line.

Before I left that night Martha called me aside. My first thought was "Oh, oh, I'm outta here." But I was wrong, she wanted me to try and swim in our next class and she would help me. So for the next several classes Martha would blow her whistle, shout "LAPS!" and then walk over to the shallow end of the pool and say "Come on Bedford we're gonna swim." I was thrilled and really started to show improvement. My desperate struggle to swim brought me a new friend. I think Martha realized just how badly I wanted to succeed and Martha being a teacher at heart, she was with me on each stroke, each breath - and really wanted me to succeed.

After our last class everyone, including Anna, went to Plant One for pizza and beer. Martha sat beside me and told me she hoped I'd be back. I did too, but it was 1983 and I had a wedding to prepare for in June and I never did see Martha again. But I think of her, and her whistle and most of all her passion to teach.

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