The Swimmer

The man was there again today. He comes in the mid-morning when the gym and the pool are quiet. He’s gaunt, balding, and confined to a wheelchair. He may be my age or a few years older–it’s hard to tell. I’ve never heard him speak. He arrives with a young male caregiver who knows exactly what to do without any prompting from his client.

The man wears a vest that hugs his upper body, and the caregiver assists him with pulling protective sleeves onto his forearms and working his hands into webbed gloves. He uses a walker to ease himself from the wheelchair into the lift beside the pool which lowers him down into the water. He closes his eyes for a few minutes as his body adjusts to a pool warmed enough to keep the water aerobics crowd happy. His caregiver gets into the pool with him, and the man begins to swim.

Up and down the lane he goes, flat on his back. He lifts both arms high up into the air at the same time, spreads them the width of the lane and propels himself through the water, with, I suspect, little use of his legs. The young caregiver walks along on each lap but doesn’t appear to be assisting him. He’s just there as a sort of spotter. The man occasionally stops and rests at the ladder at the far end of the pool, but for the most part, swims continuously.

It is beautiful to watch. The man’s powerful arms move at the exact rhythm on each lap. Swimming in the adjacent lane, I find myself slowing down my own pace. Raucous splashing and kicking to hurry and finish my laps seems almost impolite. This man commands as much respect in the pool as the most talented of the young athletes who practice here in the late afternoon. He moves quietly and almost effortlessly through the water, although I cannot fathom the upper body strength it must require to swim that way. I’m not sure I could swim the stroke that he uses even with having the ability to kick. For a sixty-something, I am a strong swimmer, and the man often keeps up with me, using only his arms.

Today, another swimmer got into the pool and was about to swim in the same lane as the man and his caregiver. I leaned over and asked this person to share with me because I didn’t want anything to disturb or interrupt them. That lane was a sacred space that needed to be protected.

As I was leaving, I glanced over at the pool and the man was still swimming. His arms cut through the water like the wings of a giant raptor soaring through the sky, savoring the freedom of movement.

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