Going Under

going under    (artwork by Hannah Grace)

It doesn’t happen often, but swimmers in distress DO happen and coaches are required to be certified in lifesaving or coaches’ safety, first aid and CPR for this very reason. We need to know what to do and how to do it even though the vast majority of our swimmers are very adept in the water.

She had come to my high school team, like most of the other kids, to get better at swimming. She told me she knew how to swim, but there was something in her tense body language and ill-fitting swimsuit that raised a red flag for me. I put her in the lane next to the wall, and stayed close. Sure enough, as soon as she realized she couldn’t feel the bottom anymore, she went rigid, flailing, body vertical, eyes bugging out. She was drowning. I could see the panic in her eyes as I reached for her hand, panic that did not fade quickly even as I pulled her to the side.  I was ready for it, I knew it was coming, so was able to reach her, get her to hear me, have her grab my arm and let me pull her in.

The panic finally left, and in its place was embarrassment. The teenager, self-conscious in her lack of skill in front of her peers, had tried to bluff her way through and gotten caught. Too proud to admit her weakness and ask for the help she needed, she floundered. She needed help. There is no harm in that, no stigma, other than what we put on ourselves. She needed help, yet by not admitting it up front, she ended up risking real harm.

We all do this, although not usually in such dramatic ways. We act cool in a group, feign knowledge in a meeting, keep a stiff upper lip when our marriages are falling apart….why? We hold it together and try to bluff our way through, only letting on that we are in over our heads when it’s too late, when panic has us going under…why?

I have no answer for this, I only know it’s true. I see my friends do it, and I do it myself. Like that teenager, we seem to think we need to have all the knowledge, all the answers, all the strength, or we are weak, or we are failures. In our pride, we risk a greater fall. In our self-conscious unwillingness to admit we need help, we create a larger problem.

The great tragedy of that day is not that she floundered and almost drowned; it is that, overcome by embarrassment, she did not stay. She left, never to return. She left, stuck in her fear, her pride, and her self-consciousness, never having learned that in asking for help to begin with, she could have learned to save herself.

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