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.

The Gym

“Oh my God, are you Gussie’s daughter??” The teacher looks at me with a pained expression. “Wow. Who would have thought it?”

High school gym class. Ninth grade. Klutzy incompetent me whose spine was just beginning to twist itself into what would be spectacular scoliosis forced to shoot basketball drills with nary a swish through the hoop. Back in the days before self-esteem was a revered educational buzzword. So humiliated I can still remember the incident forty years later.

I just came back from another work-out with Randell. He is a tall, strapping black man who encourages my sixty-year old body (now supported by a spine fused with metal rods and screws) to plank and press and lunge and row. I do it because I am so damned thankful to have a pain-free, somewhat straightened back. I do it because Randell is kind and funny and doesn’t make me feel terrible about my athletic ineptitude. I do it because Randell likes to show me off, pitting my plank-holding prowess against some of the big-gun athletes at the gym. I usually win. Imagine. Me. Having something to show off in a gym.

My mother was a health and physical education teacher. Five foot nine and 120 lbs. A rail. Her movements were lithe and flowing and she could play any game, hit any ball and before she became depressed and alcoholic, was the epitome of the word vivacious. She often substituted at the local high school so all the staff members knew her. Hence the shocking revelation that there appeared to be no genetic connection between her and her clumsy, slightly overweight daughter once the doors of the gym slammed shut.

Five years ago, I screwed up my courage and walked into the big corporate chain gym near my home. I went to the training desk, shoved copies of my x-rays toward the young man behind the counter and said, “This is what my back looks like. I can’t twist, I can’t lift weight lying on my stomach and I can’t run or do anything with hard impact. Other than that, I’m good.  Can you help me?”

He looked at the x-rays and then back up at me and said, “I have to tell you I have never seen anything like this before, but I think there are some things we can do.” His name was Jesse. He was a beautifully muscled soft-spoken physical education major who couldn’t find a teaching job. Jesse wanted to work with elementary children but he got me instead. Not all that different.

We started with the treadmill and planks, the simplest floor exercises. One day upper body, the next day lower body. I learned a new vocabulary—cardio, abs, core muscles. Chest press and shoulder press and pec fly. Jesse helped me maneuver myself onto the machines. Legs awkwardly positioned. Hands flailing at pull cables. He gently suggested I might want to find some new attire after I showed up the first few times wearing those long shiny track-suit type pants. Uh, ok. Oops. Never shopped for clothing with the linked u and a symbols before. Do they make those in my size? They do.

I kept going. Jesse moved away with his girlfriend and I got Trip as my new trainer. Heard he was tough. One of my friends said he had her crying one day. Trip did push harder, but he got me to a stronger place. He used to pull out a deck of cards and assign an exercise to each suit. I would have to do as many reps of the exercise as the number on the card and get through as many cards as possible. Face cards and jokers were wild and exhausting.

Trip introduced me to the “bosu ball,” a torturous half cylinder on which you balance yourself and then do squats and presses and well, whatever you can manage teetering there like a trained seal. No matter how many times Trip showed me how to do it, I could never get off that thing without having to grab onto him, both of us laughing.

My husband and I now work with Randell. Brian has 18 per cent body fat, the metabolism of a twenty-year-old and a nasty history of stroke in his family. His cholesterol numbers continue to improve, he hits a golf ball further and has gained weight from building muscle. Brian plays a gigantic tuba in a drum corps and Randell had him lunge around the gym with it one day to learn the best way to support the instrument without injuring his back. Randell accepts you for who you are and where you are in physical ability and offers a way to live better.

I wish I could say I am one of the “before and after” pictures featured at the training desk as an inspiration for new clients, but my appetite and metabolism continue their long-standing argument and appetite always gets the last word. And to be honest, I am unwilling to punish myself with seven-inch dinner plates and steamed kale just to come down a size or two. I still have chubby arms and too much belly fat but considering my mother was already dead two years at the age I am now, I can live with my middle-aged flab.

Here’s what I’ve learned at the gym. I have learned not to feel intimidated by the spandex queens in their skin-tight tanks and perfectly made-up faces. (Although, really, you’re going to sweat for God’s sake.) I have learned not to make eye contact with the elderly gentleman whose gym shorts are the closest thing to a speedo I have ever seen outside of a swimming pool. I have learned to admire the man in a wheelchair who comes in with his caregiver and works his upper body like an Olympian. He makes me want to fall on my knees and weep with gratitude for what I have.

I’ve learned I need the security and anonymity of working individually with a trainer or on my own. Groups of women Zumba-ing and stepping and spinning scare me right back to high school. Early damage sets in hard, like concrete. I have learned it’s humbling to do things you’re not particularly good at and things you don’t necessarily enjoy and it doesn’t always have to be a big win. Sometimes just chugging along week after week and then hearing a doctor say, “Hmm, your bone density has gotten better,” is enough.

I will always be far happier in a comfy chair with a good book than pedaling away on a machine. I will never be thin and I will most certainly never be an athlete but the last five years have taught me that I too have a place in the gym. I have a favorite locker and I know how to work most of the machines. Some of those clothes I bought with the u and a insignia on them are starting to wear out as are my sneakers. I can structure my own work-out with a balance of cardio and strength training. Occasionally I show someone new how to start the treadmill.

Jesse and Trip and especially Randell have slowly, slowly coaxed that long-ago broken adolescent out of her hiding place and onto the mat and the rower and even the bosu ball. They have convinced her that she is capable and strong. That her body despite its imperfections is powerful and worthy of care.

I am Gussie’s daughter and my current record for holding a plank is four minutes. Wow. Who would have thought it?