"Do you swim?"
The neurologist's question caught me off guard. Unexplained back pain plus a strange tingling sensation in my right foot, brought me to our family doctor, then alarmingly, to this specialist.
"Well, no. I mean, I can swim, but it has been years."
"It really is the best thing for your back."
Stalling, I opted for on-land physical therapy sessions, which of course did little to alleviate the numbness in my toes. Who knew that a herniated back disc could affect the feet?
"You really should try swimming," the therapist reiterates.
"It can do wonders for injuries like yours."
* * *
Flip-flops squeaking against the wet tile floor, towel in one arm, goggles perched upon my head, I scan the pool deck for a free lap lane.
Looking down at my faded Lands' End suit, the one with the little white elastic pieces sticking out of the inseam, I feel everyone's eyes upon me.
A thirty-something mom, my exercise regime involves breathless morning sprints to the bus stop. But competition-style lap swimming? I think not.
Sure, I know how to swim, but splashing around with my kids on a sultry summer afternoon is just not the same as this -- a 9am plunge into freezing water on a sub-zero February morning.
So here I stand poolside, a deer in the headlights, wanting to flee, yet paralyzed by the imagined stares of the other "real" swimmers.
Again I am a shy grade schooler, always picked last for the kickball team. Her report card is excellent as always, but there is just one unsatisfactory mark -- physical education. Again, I am an awkward teenager, hitting the volleyball into, rather than over, the net. Again, I am an aspiring teenaged figure skater, full of grace, but lacking the technique needed for any real success.
Just Do It! The cliched Nike slogan pops into my foggy brain, pushed there perhaps by some gentle prodding from a fellow swimmer, stopping mid-workout to smile my way.
"You are welcome to share this lane with me. The pool is awfully crowded this time of day."
Just like that, I find myself muttering thanks and sliding into the surprisingly warm water. I am off, pushing forward into a modified breaststroke (adapted by me, so I don't actually have to put my eyes under water.)
Red, blue, yellow and green triangles hang from a banner high overhead, signaling my arrival at the three-fourths lane mark. My fingertips hit cold concrete -- a tangible reward for completing an entire lap.
Out of breath, yet exhilarated, I continue this back-and-forth path. I shock myself by completing ten laps, on this, my first day as a swimmer. Tired, yet invigorated, I am bursting with accomplishment.
"I am going to do twenty laps on Thursday!" I boast to my husband over lunch later that day. "I think I will try a few strokes of front crawl, too."
What started as therapy for my back quickly turned into a workout that I actually enjoyed. Tuesday and Thursday mornings become my time. With my youngest daughter in preschool, I find myself looking forward to peaceful morning swims.
Gradually, I begin to complete greater distances. Ten laps become twenty, and remarkably, even thirty. Splashing forward, I am surprised to feel so free. My spirit soars with each stroke. Who cares if my form isn't the model of Olympian perfection? In the water I am powerful and strong.
Adjusting my goggles, I dive beneath the surface. Insecurities are washed away as I set and reach new goals, like actually swimming under water!
Refreshed after each swim, I spend my afternoons enthusiastically rolling out sticky pink play dough and playing countless games of Candyland with my girls. Bubble wand in one hand, sidewalk chalk in the other, I laugh more and worry less. I lost a few unwanted pounds and feel healthier and happier both inside and out.
Long after my back pain subsided, swimming continues to be the balm that heals both my body and soul. In the water, I am a confident athlete, a woman of strength.
And someday, someday very soon, I will master that impossible flip turn.