Opinion | I’m Paralyzed, however I Can Lastly Really feel the Pleasure of Swimming

I started a freestyle shot, my arms got longer, my abdomen surprisingly stable under me. After crawling, I tried the backstroke and then the breaststroke. My better right leg couldn’t crack the surface with a driving kick, as I had hoped, but I felt the two, right and left, turn gently and synchronize with the rocking motion of my upper body.

I walked the length of the pool and then some. I was overjoyed and breathless happily. Swimming had always felt purely transactional to me, the price you paid to be in a dangerous place. That was different.

My Airtime Floater wetsuit was not a medical problem, it was sports equipment with a “universal design” for non-disabled and disabled swimmers. It wasn’t embarrassing to wear, nor did it signal my disability to others. Someone could see me in a YMCA pool an alley or two away, I thought, and barely take a second look. I think that was important to me. As an athlete who was injured later in life, I struggle with confidence about my disability. “Transformational” is an overused word. But that was close. I put on a simple piece of clothing that changed me.

In the winter weeks that followed, I swam for distance and even time. We talked about form and technique, how the thumb is bent back at the top of the back or how the arms extend outward to get the breaststroke, then slide the knife forward. “That’s better,” Mollie said as I rhythmically raised and lowered my torso in the water, trying to find the elusive sweet spot of control and strength.

I always assumed that you were either born for the water or not. My little daughter loved the feel of bath water as it flowed over her tiny head. My son, the same age and in the same tub, fucking screamed. But maybe the relationship is less solid, changeable by episode and circumstances and needs.

I was very busy, but the strange thing was that I was looking forward to what was next. Shortly after Mollie said I could swim alone, I reserved a lap time with the local YMCA

My 91-year-old mother grew up on Long Island Sound and loved swimming as a young girl. As a young mother, she showed herself a little in front of her sons and indulged in her crisp water inlet and a shapely overhand flap. When I told her about my unlikely return to swimming, she joked so well it had only taken me 59 years. Then she had an idea: let’s swim in the quarry this summer, she said. Could we do that?

Todd Balf is the author of several books, including Major: A Black Athlete, A White Era, and the Battle for the World’s Fastest Man. He is working on a memory of his five year journey that adapts to sudden disabilities.

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