Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

A Rock Out of Water

Diana Nyad’s triumphant 110-mile swim from Cuba to Florida is awe-inspiring. It inspires me as a fellow Sixty Something to try new things – except learning to swim.


Nyad, on her fifth and final attempt, weathered the discomforts of jellyfish stings and constant vomiting, not to mention the very real threat of sharks. It reminded me a lot of my swimming lessons.

The first mistake my swim teacher made was to yell, “C’mon in, the water is fine.” Little did she know.

My swimming instructor started by teaching us tadpoles how to float. My teacher said I floated like a rock. I naively thought that was a compliment.

Next came lessons on treading water. I was young and apparently didn’t fully understand the difference between treading and flailing. All I know is that I got a lot more cardiovascular exercise than my classmates by treating this part of the instruction as a survival class.

Finally, we were taught different swimming strokes. I was only good at the plunge-to-the-bottom-of-the-pool-and-hold-your breath-for-life stroke.

Before the class graduated, the swimming instructor suggested to my parents that I drop out. I agreed because I had already dropped too much, too often.

Despite encouragement by my parents, I was too busy for the rest of my childhood to try learning to swim again. I was a happy rock out of water.

Then, as a summer camp counselor, I was told I would be leading my campers on a river rafting trip. Because I wasn’t all that fond of water, I didn’t realize a rafting trip meant careening through Rocky Mountain rapids, with sharp, menacing rocks and  steep descents.

My solution was to wear the largest life preserver I could find. I also bribed my campers to avoid any spills so we weren’t exposed to toxic chemicals from extinct volcanoes. I’ve blocked the entire episode out of my mind, except to recall that I managed to survive this chemical weapon attack.

High school was filled with sports with coaches who forbade me from skiing so I wouldn’t injure my knees. I add swimming so I wouldn’t injure my lungs.

I also was able to dodge any awkward water moments in college in Seattle where everyone thought the water was too cold to jump in. My college had a tradition of tossing soon-to-be-bridgegrooms into Elliot Bay, which served to restrain any impulse I had to propose marriage.

My first job was in Port Angeles, Washington and one of my early newspaper assignments was to ride the MV Coho across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria, British Columbia. The ferry was safe enough and the ride short enough that I shouldn’t have worried. Unfortunately for me, an even earlier assignment was to go up in Coast Guard helicopter on a mission to recover the body of someone who fell off a boat and drowned in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

When it came to my own children, I made sure they learned to swim as soon as they could fall into a pool. I provided parental support from the children’s pool.

Now my wife wants me to go with her on a cruise, in the same shark-infested, hurricane-bedeviled Caribbean that Diana Nyad traversed on  her epic swim. She almost had me convinced how wonderful it would be until I noticed in one of the  brochures there are huge swimming pools on cruise ships. How ironic would it be to drown in a pool on a ship cruising in the Caribbean. I never appreciated irony.

I try not to let my fear of water get the best of me. I stopped years ago wearing a swim mask when taking a shower. Despite having a delightful yellow Ducky, I gave up baths altogether.

The phrase “dead in the water” still sends a chill down my back.

Ms. Nyad’s heroic journey is a reminder that we can do more than we  think. It’s also a reminder not to jump into water deep enough for jellyfish.


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