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It was the end of September, and the usually mellow Bay Area California weather finally lashed out with a late-summer heat wave. I thought about going to train in 90-degree heat, boxed in the un-air-conditioned dojo, and quite unconventionally decided to play hooky by going to the swimming pool instead. I raced the sun through traffic on the way home, hoping for some light to be left, but it was fueled by the adrenaline from the swiftly-approaching autumn and sank below the horizon for an early rest. By the time I made it to the pool, the evening glowed in soft moonlight, accentuated by pinpricks of stars.
I dangled my legs calf-deep in water, always too cold at first, watching kids throw neoprene balls at each other and listening to the joyful, careless sounds of their playing. Finally, I plunged in, engulfed in chlorine, shocked by cold, allowing my body to go through the familiar motions of finding the surface and then staying on top of it. The first time back in a swimming pool after over a year away, it always seemed daunting. The length of the pool stretched out before me, and I was afraid of the point where I knew the bottom to dip down too deep. It was my "tiring point," made more acutely so by my awareness of its existence, by my acceptance that if I got winded or got a cramp, I couldn't simply dip my toes down vertically and feel for solid ground.
I took a few easy laps across the pool's width and thought how strange it was that swimming was one of those skills that you wouldn't forget once you'd learned, like riding a bike. No matter how long it had been since the last time you had done it, you intuitively reacquainted yourself with the balance and familiarity to perform the same actions again.
I got to thinking about my high school teacher who taught me how to swim. I remembered her face, how it loomed above me as she carefully watched me treading water for the first time, expectant and hopeful, but also alert as soon as I sank, ready to shove the long, metal rod into the pool to fish me back up. Then I remembered her name, her voice, and her mannerisms. How interesting that we never forget our best teachers, those who had taught us an invaluable skill. Those tutors and instructors and mentors. Those professors and Sensei and Sempai, there to pace alongside us paths that are new to us, worn and familiar to them, always onwardly supportive and encouraging.
Before I knew it, I was clumsily stroking my way up and down the pool's length. I wasn't taking in oxygen rhythmically, gulping for air when my lungs felt deflated, slapping the water with my limbs.
"Keep your back and knees straight as you kick," my swimming teacher said, and I did.
"Don't forget to breathe," Sensei said, and I didn't.
"Relax," Sempai said, and I allowed myself to.
I no longer fought the water but let myself blend with it. I stopped struggling to bring my head above the surface for air but turned it from side to side, laying my ear on the water as if it were a pillow. I stroked my arms in its soft, velvety coolness, let it flow around me as I passed through. I released the pressure in my jaws, unconsciously clamped tight to resist the water's intrusion, let my cheeks deflate from the useless breath that I kept there to bloat up my face. I relaxed, and I swam. Who knew that even though I went to the pool that day, I ended up doing aikido after all.