I was taught to swim crawl in 6/8 time. Your legs were to be ramrod straight, working up and down like a pair of metronomes. ONE two three FOUR five six. On one your right arm hit the water; on two and three it pulled you forward until suddenly on four your left arm hit, and all the while your legs were beating away, one two three, four five six, one two three, four five six. Your arms came up in a particular way, too: elbow first out of the water, and then hand arching forward. You turned just your head to breathe, not your shoulders or any of the rest of your body. And your legs kept going in time, one two three, four five six, one two three, four five six.
I have a hard time referring to crawl as freestyle.
After age twelve, I stopped taking swimming classes at camp and just swam laps on my own. For several years, I stopped swimming crawl at all. It was all breaststroke all the time for me, with occasional lapses into sidestroke or my very favorite swimming guilty pleasure, elementary backstroke. (That had instructions, too: monkey! airplane! soldier! monkey! airplane! soldier! But you got to lie on your back when you did it, and the instructions were fun.)
Somehow, though, I got tempted back into crawl. Tempted might be the wrong word. I felt I should swim it. I was ashamed of not being able to do it. There I was, down at the docks every day, logging in ten or even twenty miles in a summer, and I wasn’t swimming crawl? It seemed terrible. So I started thinking about it again.
Then I tried to do it.
It was horrible. I was out of breath and just yards from the dock (we swam between two docks that were far enough apart that it took three laps to cover a quarter mile. It was wonderful, except of course when you were running out of breath). I must have given up for awhile.
Then I tried again but decided to maybe ditch the whole 6/8 kicking thing. No one was watching me, and I wasn’t in class. Maybe they wouldn’t notice if I didn’t kick in time, or if I kicked less. Then one day I wondered what would happen if I didn’t kick at all. That was the day I discovered what is now my very favorite nonexistent stroke: crawl arms. You just do the arms for crawl, and you don’t kick. I swam that way for years. I still swim that way a lot of the time. A lap of crawl arms, a lap of breaststroke: that’s my pool routine these days. I’m a grownup now, and really nobody cares how I swim.
I was thinking about all of this as I was swimming this morning, trying, as I occasionally do, a little of the old 6/8 time crawl and scoffing silently to myself at the people who bend their knees when doing flutter kick. (Of course they’re all faster than I am — everyone is — but I have to do something to maintain my sense of swimming prowess.) I love crawl arms, and it’s how I mostly swim, but I know in my heart of hearts it isn’t really enough for me. Back when I was a teenager, I gradually worked my way up from crawl arms to something more like real crawl. My goal was to do a quarter mile of real crawl, which was one of the requirements for the next swimming and canoeing honor, the one I wasn’t going for because it involved diving, which I knew I couldn’t do, and canoeing with a single partner all summer, and I didn’t have any friends. But I wanted to see if I could do this part.
I did, finally, one summer. One quarter mile of crawl. Not in 6/8 time, but kicking all the way. I wanted some notice or some recognition, but I’m not sure I even ever told anyone. I’d never done it before, and I’ve never done it since. I’ve slacked off, instead. There were years when I didn’t swim at all.
Now I’m a regular — well, as regular as I am about anything. One or two or three days a week I’m at the pool, doing my half mile. Crawl arms, breaststroke, crawl arms, breaststroke, and once in a great while a foray into actual crawl. This morning, after my 6/8 time experiment, I decided to do a breathing-on-the-other-side experiment, because I also do yoga, and you’re always supposed to do everything on each side there. It was a disaster. I stopped before they’d think I was drowning. I simply cannot breathe turning my head to the left. Somehow, though I can easily look over my left should here on dry land, I cannot do it in the water.
I am not heavily into challenging myself. I live again in the place I grew up in part because, when thinking about moving back to the Midwest, I thought that at least then I could go back to using the same tire place and the same coop and going to the same DMV that I’m used to, and I wouldn’t have to find all those things all over again in yet another new town. I’ve never been one to push on to bag a peak when hiking, and I almost undoubtedly ride the clutch too much when driving stick shift. (I want to be one of those people who prefers driving stick, but I think really I’m just not.)
I’ve been swimming again regularly now for a few years, and once in awhile I get the idea that I ought to try to accomplish something: swim a certain distance, learn butterfly, get back up to a quarter mile of crawl. But I don’t. But I do keep swimming, getting back in the pool, pulling myself back and forth through the water with my own arms and legs, never getting really much faster or much slower, just going back and back and back again, like Camus’s happy version of Sisyphus, who always has something to do, in a place where no one can ask me to do anything else.