On Thursday evening, March 12, 2020, I sat in a cold hockey arena watching my son’s speed-skating practice while working on the final chapter (which was actually the first chapter) of my book, My Coworkers Think I’m A Pro, when I had the feeling we were being attacked by a swarm of killer crickets. It seems every parent in the stands received the same message on their phone as I did: Due to the novel Corona Virus, the entire province of Quebec was shutting down. Earlier that day, I did a 4000-metre swim workout at my local pool.
I vaguely remember a time when I was young enough not to be judgemental. I was curious, sure, even inquisitive, but with no pre-conceived socio-cultural proclivities or prejudices to cloud the way I perceived the world, and the people in it. Unlike most folks, I actually remember the exact day that I lost that pure, table rasa innocence, and became the judgemental prick I struggle not to be to this day. What makes this memory all the more unique is that the very moment the change took place I wished, instantly, that I could coax that evil genie back into the bottle and see the world through kinder eyes.
It was the beginning of summer between the fifth and sixth grades, and I was with my friends Kennie, PJ, Inge and three or four other guys, sitting on the very top of the Helen Park monkey-bar structure, devouring a feast of junk food we had purchased with paper route, allowance, and lawn mowing money. It was one of those warm, sunny, Stand By Me days whereby we rallied between chatting about nothing in particular and sitting in complete unawkward silence. The school year had recently come to a joyous end and we were aglow in the eternal bliss that was brought on by our new-found freedom. Somehow (and this is what is so wonderful about being a kid…the spontaneity and lack of any particular agenda), the conversation morphed into what you would change your name to if given the chance. I went first, seizing the opportunity to claim my choice before anybody else thought of it: “Steve Austin”, I proudly announced. Steve Austin…six-million-dollar man…barely alive…we can rebuild him. That Steve Austin. Of course, Steve Austin. As soon as I said it, I looked around at the others and I could see they were kicking themselves for having not thought of it first. Next up was Inge who stated that he would prefer to be called Jackrabbit, which really wasn’t much of a stretch because we had a local cross-country skiing legend living in our town named Jackrabbit Johannsen who lived to be 111. Also, Inge’s last name was already Johannsen (no relation). We teased him a bit for his lack of creativity and told him to keep thinking. PJ wanted Borje Salming which, to the rest of us, bordered on heresy. The only thing that kept some of the boys from pushing PJ off the monkey-bars for idolizing a Toronto Maple Leafs player, was their knowledge that PJ had only recently moved to the area from Toronto and hadn’t been adequately naturalized yet. Just as another boy was about to voice his pick, Kennie bolted to a standing position, reached into his mouth to remove the golf-ball-sized Jawbreaker candy, which had, unfortunately, made its sloppy way to the blue layer, that he had been slurping like a bulldog eating a jar of indigo mayonnaise, and shouted, “TRANS AM!”. The rest of us instantly stopped what we were doing and began canvassing the surrounding streets in hopes of catching a glimpse of the car. Like a pack of dogs responding to the person at the local dog-run who invariably shouts, “SQUIRREL!”, our eyes made their way up and down the roads at the perimeter of the park, but we found no sports car at all. That was a shame because, at that time, a Trans Am sighting would have been both rare and inextricably cool. The only vehicle any of us actually sighted was a beige Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme station-wagon with fake wood paneling along the sides. At this point, confused, PJ turned to Kennie and asked, “Where?”. With the Jawbreaker back in his mouth and from his seat at the highest point of the structure, Kennie replied. “Where what?”. Taken aback too much to continue the conversation, PJ sat back down and allowed me to take over. “The Trans Am”, I said. Kennie seemed to be in a little bit of pain trying to understand what PJ and I were on about and asked, “What Trans Am?”.
“The one you just saw”, I said, pointing to Eleanor Street, “out there somewhere”.
“I didn’t see any Trans Am”, Kennie replied with the innocence of one who can legitimately claim to not possess the foggiest clue what was going on around him, causing PJ and Inge to leap back into the conversation. “Then why did you just shout, ‘Trans Am’?”. Finally figuring out the puzzle that was confounding us, Kennie gently rolled his eyes, pulled the candy from his mouth again, sucking back on the juices that were trying to escape, and matter-of-factly enlightened us: “The name thing. Trans Am. I wanna be called TRANS FUCKIN’ AM!”.
And that was the moment that I embarked upon the judgemental journey that I, unfortunately, continue to travel to this day. I told him he was an idiot. So did PJ and pretty much everyone else. Kennie didn’t care, however. He liked Trans Am and no one was going to convince him it wasn’t cool. Why should he care? No one had a gun to his head.
Looking back to that day, and to many others just like it, the thing that makes me hate myself even more than having looked down my nose at Kennie, is that, had the tables been turned, he never would have said a thing. He possessed the extremely rare gift of being capable of accepting people at face-value. He never felt the need to go looking for a reason not to accept anyone.
This past week I decided it was finally time to make my way back to the pool after ten months of exclusively doing dry-land training. Up until this point I didn’t see the urgency because I knew I wasn’t going to be racing until June 2021. Swimming is far and away my least favourite triathlon discipline and, if I’m honest, pools being closed for the better part of five months was one of the very few perks to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not only did I not have to swim, I wasn’t even allowed to swim. The extra bonus was that neither was anybody else. But all good things must come to an end and when the pools opened in September, I put off getting back to it by telling myself that it would be a waste to start so early, and hey, I needed to build my running and cycling base anyway. Knowing that my first race was no longer in a different calendar year, and that it will be a full Ironman (Ironman Couer d’Alene), I figured that it was high-time I got wet to mitigate the likelihood of drowning in Idaho.
The moment I made the decision to get back in the pool, my body and mind began to exhibit many tell-tale signs of anxiety. In fact, if you make a checklist of the top ten symptoms, I was able to fill every box: Excessive Worrying…check, Feeling Agitated…check, Restlessness…check, Difficulty Concentrating…check, Irritability…super check, Irrational Fear…double check, Tense Muscles…check, Trouble Falling or Staying Asleep, Panic Attacks, Avoiding Social Situations…check, check, fucking check!
Ten months ago, though it wasn’t my favourite activity, I looked forward to going to the pool. It was a simple, even enjoyable-in-a-meditative-way, part of my weekly routine. Now, everything swim or pool-related had me panicking and made me incapable of concentrating on anything other than fear. I feared and questioned all of it. Will I still remember how to swim? Will I be able to last the entire session? These two questions led to another sign of anxiety which is an unrealistic (though way too real at the time) view of problems which, in my case, manifested itself in a sweaty, nauseated, hyper-ventilating, head-achy worry about how I would be perceived by the other swimmers when, and if, I finally made it to the pool. What if I am the slowest person there? Will I be the asshole who belongs in a slower lane, but, due to COVID restrictions, won’t be allowed to change? Will I be the knob holding everyone else up because I am sinking a little bit on every stroke? I hate that guy; he always ruins everyone else’s workout.
Three days out from the morning I had chosen to start, I was feeling very anxious, but I did some research to figure out the COVID protocol and membership renewal procedures which mitigated some of my distress. Two days out, the tension rose back to panic-attack levels whenever I thought about going to the pool. The day before, I made my girlfriend do the online reservation for me because I knew that if I left it to myself, I would have been way too terrified to go through with it. I did not sleep at all that night. Thankfully, my reservation was for 7:15 AM, which gave me significantly less time to think thoughts of pool-related doom and gloom, and I have no memory of packing my bag or driving to the pool whatsoever. Everything has been totally blacked out up to the point when I found myself in my speed-o standing on the pool deck looking around at all the other people who appeared to be so comfortable and happy to be there. Though it took all of my energy to appear to blend in and suppress the desire to run home in my budgie-smuggler and goggles, there was a small piece of me that was slightly upset that I was going through all of this life-shortening stress for a swim session that was only permitted to last 45 minutes or less. I wondered whether it was all worth it and whether or not I should just pack up, get dressed, and go for a run instead. At this point my head began to spin and it felt as though I was literally going to throw up as I tried to remember what I used to do before my long hiatus, so I fiddled with my watch to find the ‘SWIM’ setting (by the way, I ended up hitting the ‘INDOOR ACTIVITY’ setting by mistake, so my first swim appeared to be done in a gym with a Bosu ball and a set of stretchy bands…hardly worth the stress), adjusted my goggles, and jumped in. In the split-second that I was actually airborne, just before my toe breached the surface of the water, the anxiety roared like a freight train in my head and I suffered thinking that all 25 other swimmers in the pool area, including the lifeguards and maintenance dude, were staring and laughing at the new idiot (me) wearing the IRONMAN 70.3 MUNCIE cap, thinking, “What a dork. Like, oh sure, this nugget did an Ironman…right”.
Then, in a second, I was completely under water and my instincts and muscle-memory took over. All the anxiety about how others perceived me was washed away by the chlorine as my feet knowingly searched for the wall and I pushed off, arms extended under water, staring at the black line moving swiftly beneath me. It felt so good, so natural, and I wondered why I had been so worried, because this was awesome. I was gliding just as I had done on March 12, with ease and confidence. I came to the surface and began to perform the smoothest freestyle stroke I could muster, and that too felt pure and frictionless. Five strokes turned into ten without taking a breath. My limbs appeared to be loaded with energy-giving oxygen as I flowed through the halfway point of my first length. Once I reached the opposite wall, turned and pushed off to head back to my starting point, I could feel my confidence reaching new heights. Then I took my first stroke, and, just as I turned my head to breathe, I had the sensation of an anchor falling from my swim trunks and swiftly attaching itself to the tiles at the bottom of the pool. The energy I had enjoyed three seconds earlier was now entirely squeezed from every one of my cells and the smoothness had escaped altogether. No longer did I resemble Michael Phelps. I was now a human anvil being kept afloat by the frantically thrashing limbs of a Cabbage Patch Kid. No longer was I upset that my session was only going to be 45 minutes. Now, it seemed, 45 minutes may well have been six and a half hours, for I could see no way of filling either period of time with anything resembling continuous swimming. And just like that, the anxiety was back with a vengeance because now, in addition to feeling like I looked foolish, not only was I certain of it, but I was also teetering on the verge of requiring lifeguard assistance to make it to the closest ladder. I managed to hyperventilate my panicked body to the wall where I paused briefly, trying to figure out whether it would look worse to leave after 50 metres or keep going, pretending I knew how to swim. Staring at the pool deck, I found my salvation in the form of my blue pull buoy. That small piece of curved foam was going to get me through this. The mere act of placing it between my legs filled me with the determination and grit I needed to continue. This thing was the ultimate hack/cheat. This was Tom Brady’s deflated balls. It was Sammy Sosa’s corked bat, Lance’s syringe. It was a rigged election. With it, I knew I could soldier on, and that is exactly what I did.
With my trusty pull buoy, I was able to complete the 45-minute workout. Every single stroke was painful, forcing me to recruit muscles and ligaments that had been dormant for the better part of a year, and believe me, it wasn’t pretty, but I kept going. Somewhere around the 1500 metre mark, I felt the last of my anxiety vanish, and though I was a mere fraction of the swimmer I used to be, I was filled with hope and gratitude. I was truly thankful for the opportunity to start from scratch.
As the session came to a close and I haggardly pulled myself from the water to stand on the pool deck, I turned back to face the lane I had just occupied. I lowered myself to my hands and knees so I could get my face close to the surface of the water, and whispered to my reflection: “CALL ME TRANS FUCKIN’ AM”. I no longer cared what anyone else thought because I had become, once again, a swimmer, even if I was the only one there who actually believed it.
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