Never More than a Shark

I took swimming lessons every year as a child. My mom was quite serious when it came to our extracurriculars, particularly swimming and dance. Each year my sister and I took our respective classes (she was always older and far more advanced than I in everything), progressing to different levels as we mastered the lessons from the year before.

Swimming lessons were at the YMCA indoor pool. They had the typical levels: Tadpole, Minnow, Fish, Flying Fish etc. The highest level was Porpoise. Before you could be a Porpoise, you not only had to master all of the strokes, including freestyle, breast, and butterfly. But as a Fish, you also had to pass the water survival test, which I only remember as treading water for what felt like hours (it was probably only ten minutes of treading water and involving many more activities). And most importantly, as a Shark, you had to pass a test of endurance.

Shark was the level preceding porpoise. I was a Shark for two years. And I never became a Porpoise. And to this day, I resent the failure and maintain the weakness. As if it is a reflex, when I’m asked how far I can walk or run, I say “I don’t have any endurance.” Even though it’s been years and years.

After being promoted from Fish, the status of Shark was a pretty big deal. At least I felt like a big deal, in the upper ranks, hanging with the pros (of the Lansdowne YMCA). Each class we would swim laps and laps the length of the pool, changing strokes every 2 or 3 laps. I usually would allow my head to get the best of me on the very first one, worrying about conserving energy to last me the whole class. Lap one: “okay, that wasn’t too bad. I can do 9 more. one at a time.” Lap 4: “there’s no way I can take much more of this. just go slower and take one lap at a time.” I would reach the wall between laps and not want to let go. Taking off each time into the incredibly long distance of the pool I was weaker and weaker, and embarrassingly slow. Without the wall or anything else to hold me up, I was forced to rely on wobbly limbs, a racing heart, and a self-doubting mind. And trust me, you wouldn’t want to be lost at sea with those qualities. By the time I was setting out for my last lap, I’m sure most of the students were finished and moving on to other tasks. I, on the other hand, typically required a teacher’s assistance on the way back the final time, gasping for air, abandoning all stroke technique, and sometimes crying (and yes, I’m slightly ashamed to admit all of this). I remember vividly how far away that wall would seem. Almost unreachable, as if I was actually moving backwards. Each time I finished the laps, I felt physically weak and a bit more traumatized than I was in the previous swim class.

This scene played out many times. The more times I failed, the more I knew I couldn’t do it. After I was unable to pass out of shark the second time, I asked my mom just to allow me not to be a porpoise. Our conversation probably went something like, “Mom, could you love me even if I’m never more than a shark?” She accepted me as I was: her no-endurance-having child.

Fast forward to the present day. I’m beginning to think this issue with endurance has been rearing its ugly head in more creative ways in my adult life (probably because I tend to avoid activities requiring physical endurance). As I was walking to work this morning, I was feeling really slow and weighed down. I was conscious of every step I took, as each one felt like a chore. I didn’t want to go to work today. But that isn’t the real issue. The issue is that my eventual last day of work should be close, maybe six months from now (if all goes according to plan). And now that I have a sense of how many more laps I have to do, I have begun to shut down and feel incapable of making it through these final laps/days/months. And sadly, this has happened before. A great job turns to mush and I revert to counting down to when it will be over – no longer enjoying the experience or practicing my strokes, instead reverting back to mere survival, self-doubt, and yeah, some tears too.

So I had a revelation today. Turns out I may be lacking both physical and professional endurance. Only in the professional world, I don’t have a teacher to help me make it back to that wall safely. I’m flailing out here on my own -and it is scary as hell!

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3 thoughts on “Never More than a Shark

  1. OMG, I think you’re being too hard on yourself!! I think whenever we’re making a transition in life, the time before the transition really tries our patience. It’s like you can see the finish line, but every step towards it seems really long. I know any job I’ve ever had, when I was moving to the next one, the last 2 weeks seemed like the longest weeks EVER. I think it’s human nature and not an indication of your endurance – just indication that you’re ready for the next step!

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  2. What you seem to forget…..you made it to SHARK at a young age! That was a notable accomplishment. How many of your friends did that? If that doesn’t show endurance….I don’t know what does. Half empty….or half full? You decide.

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