I swim laps, lots of laps, usually a mile worth of laps, and once or twice, two miles. One mile is 72 laps. I’ve been doing this at least once or twice each week for over 40 years. Okay, there’ve been a few weeks where I skipped it.
Many times I swim at an indoor pool, but often I get to swim outside, and that’s a treat. Unless it’s early spring or late fall, when the air temperature in North Carolina can drop overnight, then it’s a different kind of treat. Then swimming outside can be, let’s just say, refreshing. Like when you jump in the pool at the beginning of the season, scream underwater at the sudden chill, and when you pop up your friend asks, “How’s the water?” Before answering you think to yourself, Why should I tell him?
Like my protagonist in Swimming Without Walls, my coldest ever swim was in Lake Tahoe. No walls, lots of boats bobbing at anchor, and 65 degrees of liquid crystal. Breathtaking, literally.
Then one spring, I read in the local paper a tragic tale of a group of friends out boating off the Outer Banks when their boat overturned. One of the friends was a former high school student of mine. Along with several of his buddies, he died trying to swim to shore. Two of his buddies made it.
Not long after reading the story I was swimming laps early in April at our outdoor YMCA pool. The water was cold, skin and mind-numbingly cold, and I thought of my former student deciding that swimming in icy water was the best chance he had to live to see another birthday. I wondered if the cold he felt in the ocean that day felt anything like the cold I felt swimming laps, but then I had walls to anchor my count, and to climb up to get out of the water when my workout was complete.
I don’t know the details of what happened to my former student and his buddies out in the ocean, but I’ve often wondered how the events and their decisions unfolded. My story grew out of that curiosity. Every time I swim in cold water now I think of my former student. I’m thankful I have the health and opportunity to swim a mile with walls. I regret that he ran into an invisible wall on his last swim, and wish he could have made it out of the water.
I’d like to thank my fellow writers who provided constructive critiques of early versions of the story. You know who you are, and so do I.