The swim test
BY JOE O’CONNELL
I’ve never been sadder to close the door on summer.
As the father of a 5-year-old boy, summer is a time of play, growth, adventure and lots and lots of trips to the swimming pool. Nicholas and I sank to the bottom of the public pool in Taylor and pretended to be watching Spongebob Squarepants episodes. I tossed him in the air and watched as he sank out of sight then sprang out of the water with a grin.
When summer started, Nicholas hadn’t even gotten up the nerve to jump in the water from the pool’s edge. He’s worn glasses since the age of 2, and his vision has led to some timidity about physical challenges, so he stayed shyly on the pool’s edge. Instead he watched other kids do cannonballs until one day he wandered down the pool a ways and quickly leaped in. Then he did it over and over again.
Soon swim lessons began. My wife Tiffany and I watched Nicholas cling to his swim teacher Jaci’s neck in the deep water of the adult lap pool. It was a continuation of last year when he did the same thing. But Jaci made it into a game, and soon he was playing and learning.
During the lesson, Nicholas eyed an inflatable obstacle course that filled two pool lanes. That afternoon we returned and tried to pay the $2 for him to try it out. “Has he passed the swim test?” we were asked. The test, he learned, involved swimming all the way down an adult pool lap lane without touching anything but water.
“I’ll do that before summer is over,” Nicholas said.
We nodded, but expected little.
Jaci worked with Nicholas and one other boy for two weeks. They pretended to be hunting sharks and floated with her across the pool. He began to actually swim, but always his hands reached out for Jaci after a short distance.
We returned as often as possible to the kid’s pool in the late afternoons. The water was shallow enough for Nicholas to stand. He began to realize he could swim, but he liked to hang onto a giant green noodle as his hands made ice cream scoops and his feet turned into frog legs.
One day we met a fish-like boy in the pool. He was going to try to swim across the adult pool and pass the swim test. We went along and watched as he alternatively clung to the side and swam toward his mother. He made it at least halfway by himself.
It took a trip to Nicholas’ 6-year-old cousin Fen’s house in Dallas to make Nicholas a true swimmer. Fen’s parents had sprung for a backyard pool, which was mostly too deep for Nicholas to stand. He, Fen and Fen’s little brother Bennett enjoyed stripping out of their bathing suits and dive-bombing naked into the water. Later in the day, Nicholas swam across the pool to me. I saw the “click” in his eyes. He could swim now.
Summer days were running dry. We made one of those last trips to the Taylor city pool, but rain was threatening. We arrived with a sack of burgers and found the pool closed temporarily for the weather. If no thunder sounded, it would open in 30 minutes. We ate in the car and waited. Finally, 45 minutes later the pool welcomed us.
The water in the kid pool was cool and refreshing—many public pools these days are equipped with mushroom-shaped chillers—and worth the wait. Suddenly Nicholas told us, “I’m ready.” Ready for what? “To swim across the pool.”
My wife and I looked at each other and shrugged. We followed him to the big pool. He and Tiffany went down the lane, Nicholas stopping frequently to grab the side of the pool.
“Again,” he said.
This time he swam most of the way by himself, part underwater and part above. About halfway, he grabbed his mother for a moment. The teenage lifeguard was watching and said Nicholas would have to do it all by himself to pass.
“Want to make it official?” he asked.
“Yes,” my son said.
I followed in front of Nicholas in the water, expecting his hand to reach out for the pool’s edge or my grasp at any moment. It never did. The progress was slow, but the lifeguard and two awed parents watched as his slowly but surely reached the other side.
I thought parents were supposed to teach lessons to their children. I never expected my son to teach one to me about perseverance and believing in the possibilities inside us all. Soon his arms sported two wrist bands. The orange one was for passing the swim test. The red one was his ticket to the obstacle course.