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Personal Histories

The Art of Swimming

Three near-drownings elucidate the wisdom of a 17th-century guide to swimming safety and technique.

Credit: Terry Eiler

When I was 18 months old, I fell into a pool. My father, who was supposed to be supervising, was engaged in conversation. I would have drowned had my three-year-old brother not seen me floating (I wasn’t struggling) and yelled.

The Art of Swimming (1696) by Melchisédech Thévenot was one of the first, and most popular, books on swimming. In it, he asserts: “While one reflects on those many and frequent Accidents, which through want of Swimming daily happen amongst us; everyone is ready to complain of the unhappiness of Man in that respect, in comparison of other Animals to whom Nature has indulged that faculty, which [Man] ought to enjoy in a more excellent degree, since it is so necessary to his Preservation.”

Until recently I thought I could remember that moment: the sun’s brightness muted through layers of water, my father’s worry-lined face as he pulled me back into the air. I thought I could remember that moment but when I asked my father about it, he told me I had been facedown in the water. I would have seen nothing but the pool’s cobalt floor.

 

Three years later, I was at a distant relative’s wedding in rural Connecticut, wearing a party dress with puffy sleeves and a white collar.

From Thévenot:

To mention some few Advantages of Swimming.
In Case of Shipwreck;
In case of being pursued by an Enemy, and meeting a River in one’s way;
An open vessel on the main sea in a Storm may be kept from sinking by a good Diver;
Or having lost her Anchors and Cables … may by him be hauled thither, and avoid being dashed against the Rocks…

It was autumn, chilly. I was in the backyard, standing alone at the edge of a man-made pond and prodding its muddy bottom with a large stick.

Before you go into the water, you ought to see … what sort of bottom it has … for one’s feet may be entangled among the weeds, or one may sink into the mud … and be drowned.

Up and down, up and down, up and down—until suddenly the end of the stick broke off.

Those who do not know how to Swim, ought to enter by degrees, and gently, into the water.

With nothing left to support my small body as I leaned over the water, I fell into the murky pond with a cry.

None ought to be ignorant of [swimming], especially since Life itself is concerned in it,
and the Preservation of it, from those Dangers to which those are liable who cannot Swim.

I gasped for air and flailed around, my full skirt first ballooning around me, then deflating and wrapping around my skinny legs as the cotton absorbed the cold, dark water.

A good Swimmer may not only preserve his own Life, several others also.

I gasped and flailed, flailed and gasped, until a cousin-through-marriage, whom I probably called “Uncle,” jumped in, in his suit, and pulled me, sodden and shocked, onto the muddy bank.  

 

One February many years after I had passed multiple swimming tests, I spent the weekend at my parents’ house in Stonington, a Connecticut beach town. There was snow on the ground and a frigid wind chill from the ocean.

There is no Season wherein a man may not have occasion to practice the Art of Swimming; but any season is not proper to learn it in.

Still, I put on spandex leggings, a long-sleeved Under Armor running shirt, gloves, and a hat, and took our goldendoodle, Lily, out for a jog to the dog park. The dog park comprised an acre or so of grass abutting directly on the ocean. Someone might have paid millions to build a house there, were it not perhaps for the pungency of the nearby fishing docks.

It is impossible to be too cautious when you are alone, and have no one in company that knows the place already; or if you have not seen others Swim there in the same circumstances without danger.

We were alone in the park. I threw an old tennis ball across the frozen ground, smiling as Lily bounded back with the ball in her mouth.

With nothing left to support my small body as I leaned over the water, I fell into the murky pond with a cry.

Lily loved to swim. In the summer, I frequently took her out to a small beach where she chased the ball into the water.

At some point she grew tired of fetch and, instead of running back to me, dashed to the park’s perimeter. She stood at its edge, looking down the rock wall at the choppy ocean 10 feet below.

It will sometimes happen that you will be forced to drink down a great deal of water, and put yourself to a great deal of trouble and pains without much advancing in the Art.

“Lily!” I called, not thinking she would actually jump, although she was scrambling left and right as if she were trying to find the right footing to do so. “Lily!” I called louder as I started walking toward her. She jumped. As I ran to the edge, frantic now, yelling, “Lily, Lily!” I saw the buoy she must have mistaken for a ball. She was paddling in the waves around it.

How would I get her out? I had no phone. I was alone in the park. I couldn’t leave her alone; Lily wasn’t used to swimming for long periods of time. I looked around, scanning the park’s periphery for easier access to the water.

If you sweat when you come to the place you have chosen … you ought to strip by degrees.

A chain link fence with an unlocked gate led onto a gangplank down to a floating dock. I ran down it and stood on the dock, calling “Lily!” She swam closer, but not within reach. I began alternating my cries of “Lily” with “Help!” At some point, I started crying.

The coldness of the water is somewhat troublesome and painful at first, but in a little time you will find use will take that off.

And then I knew what I had to do. I took off my sneakers, socks, hat, gloves, and shirt, and jumped into the water in my sports bra and running pants without thinking of how I myself would get back out. The average water temperature of that part of the Atlantic in the month of February is 37 degrees Fahrenheit.

He that learns to Swim, ought to have his Animal Spirits at perfect liberty and command, which cannot be when the more than ordinary coldness of the Water forces one even to Shake and Tremble.

I could barely breathe. The coldness of the water was like a vise around my torso.

I somehow managed to grab Lily and tried to haul her, along with my own shivering body, back onto the dock. I wasn’t strong enough. The dock rested higher in the water than I had anticipated. I let her go and tried to pull myself out. Failed again. I swam around the dock, terrified now—How would I get myself out?—until I found a length of rope cleated to the dock and succeed in dragging myself onto the waterlogged wood.

If men sink to the bottom of the water, it is their own fault, nature has laid no necessity on them of doing so.

“Lily, Lily!” I called again, more desperately this time.

My display must have worried her, for now, finally, she swam within reach. I hauled her from the water and hugged her to me very tightly, crying and shivering and telling her I loved her.

It is from these Considerations, which we have here mentioned, that the Art of Swimming ought to be esteemed, rather than from the Pleasure and Diversion, which is commonly proposed by it.

Lily wagged her tail.

TMN editor Emma Winsor Wood is an essayist and poet, currently earning her MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. More by Emma Winsor Wood