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amputee swimmer

The Shallow End

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The Shallow End

In the blog post that I wrote last week, I described the sheer fear I felt in those first few moments of swimming again.

Without hands or feet, and without any prosthetics to help me, I didn't know if or how I'd keep my head above water, even in the shallow end. But I faced another, possibly greater fear before I even went near the water.

I'm embarrassed to mention this particular fear. But if I am going to be honest on this blog, I have to say it. And there's no flowery way to put it. No talking around it.

I was simply afraid of unveiling my broken body. I didn't want to undress and remove my prosthetics because I was deathly afraid of allowing anyone to see just how pitiful and helpless I look.

My prosthetics normally hide the "stubs" on the ends of my limbs; and, without them, I am naked and vulnerable.

Before tackling this fear, I could only imagine what I would look like, sitting at the edge of the pool: a little, helpless, "handicapped" girl, that someone had possibly left behind.

Being a (relatively) new amputee, I am often shocked myself when I see my own body.

So it is understandable that strangers give me that second glance...

But I do notice it.

I see the stares.

They are not mean-spirited stares. Yet, they are still unsettling. And I certainly don't want to attract more of them. Facing the world without something covering my wounds invites even more stares!

Kids, in particular, stare at me. Or maybe they are just less practiced at hiding their reactions - Most times, children are truly just curious...Who is that? What is that? Could it hurt me? Could it happen to me? Could it happen to my mom? As they look more closely, they often become fearful. They hide behind their moms. Anyone who knows how much I love kids (and not just my own), would tell you just how devastating this is to me.

Yet, most of my hesitation about swimming is on an embarrassingly superficial and vain level. Seeing my body and its challenges reminds me that achieving my "idea" of physical beauty is now even less of a possibility. I have a physical deformity, after all. I am not even whole! And I have many, many inexplicable scars. (I've never asked the doctors how some of them appeared because I truly don't want to know.)

I could never look beautiful. Or sexy. Or strong.

It certainly gives a new layer to dreading bathing suit season.

To think that I used to worry about how I looked in a bikini, or if I should even wear one...

Before buying a new (always black) bathing suit, I'd look in the mirror with angst. I'd examine the circumference of my thighs. I'd pinch the flab on my tummy. And I'd lament my "runner's chest," flattened with each mile.

I was at the gym nearly every day, trying to mold my body into some unnaturally tight and thin figure, without one ounce of fat or flubber. I did pushups and lifted many weights to build my chest, biceps, and shoulders. And the sit-ups. Oh, the sit-ups.

It all seems so ridiculous now.

So silly.

It does make me realize this: Everybody has something. Everybody has some physical characteristic that causes them shame. Some thing that weighs them down. Too fat. Too thin. Too short. Too long.

I guess my thing now is "too robotic," "too fake." (Although one could argue that more of my body is real than those Sports Illustrated Swimsuit models'...)

Unfortunately, we all hold ourselves to the ridiculous ideals that we see in the media. We spend so much time and energy trying to change ourselves. It is so "self-" centered; imagine if we spent this same time and energy on others - women could save the world! Still, I think we all do it, to some degree.

I used to keep my "arms" on while I was working out at the Y. I would use them to disguise my own arms, even though they'd make me uncomfortably hot. Now I just take them off. I know that some people will stare, regardless of what I do. They can just as well stare at my prosthetics as at my stumps. So I may as well be comfortable while they stare.

For me to wear a bathing suit now is a bold and courageous move. It says, "Yes, I am different. I am an amputee. So, stare all you want. I'll be over here enjoying my life."

Once I slip in to the pool, I realize how strong and amazing my body really is. I can still float. I can still swim, lap after lap. I can still enjoy life.

And that is beautiful.

Being beautiful is so much more important than looking beautiful.

So, what is the one fear that holds you back from doing something you love? That keeps you from enjoying your life? How can you "slip in to the pool" in your life?

For when you do, I think you'll find strong, amazing, beautiful things.

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I Am A Swimmer.

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I Am A Swimmer.

The verdict is in, and I will likely never run again. 

Yes, this ruling feels like a life sentence - I am a runner at heart, and I mourn the loss of that identity. Running has been my life-blood, my therapy, and my stress relief for my whole adult life. After a few hours (ok, months) of pity partying; I am getting up, brushing myself off, and hitting the gym again.

Emotionally, physically, and spiritually, I crave an activity that gets my heart rate up, makes me sweat, releases endorphins, clears my head, builds muscle, and glorifies God. 

According to the authorities (doctors), I am "allowed" to ride the stationary bike or the elliptical. Those machines are fine, and I'm grateful that I'm physically able to use them. As long as I have an iPad and a good TEDtalk to occupy me, I can tolerate them as ways to sweat. I've even taken a few cycle classes.  But frankly, I just need to MOVE more than those machines allow me to do. 

Another obvious option is swimming...

I grew up swimming at the neighborhood pool, even joining the swim team by the time I was six years old. As a teenager, I was a lifeguard, swim instructor, and swim team coach. And as an abled adult runner, I occasionally swam laps for cross training. I even competed in a triathlon or two.

About a year ago, I participated in an event called "First Swim," offered by OPAF,  an organization that travels around the country providing swimming (and other active) experiences for amputees. 

This particular event that I attended was led by a two-time World Champion TriAthlete, Mabio Costa, a below the knee amputee, and assisted by the NCAA Champion Queens University Royals; and I was excited to try it. 

As I headed to Queens University, I was envisioning a sweet college girl holding me like a baby in waist-deep water, helping me float on my back. Sounds easy enough, right?

Well, my "first swim" was nothing like that at all. 

Instead, the leader had me remove all of my prosthetics and sit at the edge of the deep end. Then, he simply told me to "hop in!" As if it were that easy...

Mr. Costa predicted that I would sink; and he said that when I got to the bottom, I should push off and swim to the top as fast as I could. Did I mention that this pool was 12 feet deep?

I gasped, as two college girls treaded water and encouraged me, "Come on! We've got you. On the count of three, just jump in!" 

I don't think I've ever been so scared, before or since. I had a whole new respect for the preschoolers that I taught to swim all those years ago. I truly understood the fear they'd expressed when I'd asked them to "just" jump into my arms! 

"Ok," I thought. "I can do this." Mr. Costa seemed to know what he was talking about. I doubted that he'd go through all of this, just to watch me drown. Plus, I'd been resuscitated more than once already. I didn't see much risk wrapped up in one more time...

"Ok," I whispered to myself. "One, two, three..."

Only I didn't go. 

The coach whispered back, "You can do this."

"One, two, three," I tried again.

And, with a burst, this time I hit the water! 

It happened JUST like he said it would. I sank to the bottom. I pushed off, and I swam as fast as I could to the surface. I lifted my head, and I heard a boisterous cheer.

"You did it!"

There was my husband, and there were my kids. In the bleachers clapping, big smiles on their faces. 

Yes, I did.  I did do it.

"I'm swimming," I thought. Or maybe I shouted; it's hard to say. 

Either way, the answer was clear: I can swim again!

I floated like a cork! Still, I was unbalanced and uneven. Treading water felt very strange, and I teeter-tottered back and forth like one of those old-school toys. I think they were called weeble-wobbles?

But I was doing it! I put my head back and easily floated on my back. Then I flipped over and tried some freestyle. 

It was odd. Oddly easy to stay afloat. But oddly impossible to go anywhere.

Swimming, for me, works like a treadmill! I stroke and kick as fast as my little sticks can go, but I don't go anywhere! 

Without hands, I don't have "oars." So my arms can crawl forward, but it's a bit like rowing a boat with sticks. 

Kicking is even more fruitless. My legs feel like dead weight - it is easier to use a pull buoy so I don't have to kick at all. I'm not sure if that is due to my uneven lower body or to my toe-less foot lacking any resemblance to a webbed one. Are there any swimming experts or physicists out there who want to weigh in? Why is it that amputee swimming is so difficult and slow-going?

Regardless of my speed though, I'm finally swimming again! And I can say with confidence that I am getting a good cardiovascular workout each time. I get breathless, and I tire easily in the pool. My upper body and my entire core work especially hard. 

Swimming is also fulfilling some of my emotional and spiritual needs. The breathing is meditative, and it is incredibly quiet under water. I get into a rhythm that is very similar to that of running.

 I use that rhythm to repeat prayers like a rosary. I swim in honor of people on my prayer list, and there is plenty of time for reflection. At the same time, I can scream in frustration, and no one hears my curses.

These days I'm hitting the pool several times a week. With each workout, swimming gets easier; and I'm swimming faster, longer, and stronger. 

Today I swam a MILE! 72 LENGTHS!

And all without prosthetics! Yup, just me and my little, broken body. 

Yes. I am an amputee. 

But I am also an athlete. 

I am a swimmer.

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