More Details Surface On My Swimming Obsession

By Jon Hillenbrand In Photography, Stories

bathroom-0006When I lived in Kankakee, there was nothing to do. I was there for almost a year before someone decided to put in a high end work out facility in the middle of a bunch of cornfields. This place, called the Riverside Health and Fitness Center, was awesome. Climbing wall, booyah, rubberized track, booyah, basketball court, booyah. Of course, I never climbed the wall nor did I play basketball to any extent beyond shooting hoops with myself. You see, business was bad for them. They were suffering with me and the 20 other people who joined the club. But for the 21 of us, it was awesome. This place was just as nice, scratch that, this place was nicer than any other work out club I’ve seen since. And it was $55 a month, which compared to Chicago’s club prices was a steal for what you got.

But despite the endless supply of fresh fluffy towels, the vacant racquetball courts for screaming or volleyball serve practice, the empty boiling whirlpools, the pretty architecture, the unused weights and cardio machines, despite all of that, there was the holy grail. Something I have been unable to find in any Chicago club under $1000 per month. They had a deep pool. And not just a deep pool, they had a warm water therapy pool 5 feet away from the huge unused main pool. And they had a sun deck that you could lay out on after your summertime swim. I tell you, it was the sanity in my lonely existence down there.

I spent two years in the Kank working a great job for almost no pay. Every girl down there who was worthwhile had paired off with a boyfriend right out of high school. So by the time I showed up, I was about 4-6 years too late. And the fact that everything closed at 9 or 10 pm meant that I had 2 years of no social life. I used to drive an hour and a half back into the city to see my friends on a desperate week night only to turn around and head back to the Kank at like 10 pm because I had to work in the morning. I did that trip so often that I could drive 90mph in an Oldsmobile with no shocks laying back with just a few fingers controlling my fate. It was a dangerous time.

So back to this pool. No lifeguard was ever on duty so I could do whatever I wanted. So sometimes I’d hold myself under water to see how long I could hold my breath. I was always careful to never link my arms in the rungs of the ladder because I didn’t want to get weak and not be able to get my arms out and then drown like an idiot. But I would get into the 3:50 range. I think I might have broken 4 minutes once, but it was my early 20’s and I can’t remember now (probably because of brain damage). I remember getting pissed at some newcomer who had entered the pool area when I was in the middle of a particularly long static apnea run. I could see her from the rungs of my usual ladder, the tourist. “Get out!” I wanted to scream from under the water. She started to pace back and forth looking at me from across the pool. So I ended my test and came up just to get her to relax. I thought she might dive in after me.

Those moments when other people would enter my pool were annoying, but for the most part, I was alone. Sometimes I would try to swim like a seal and be one with the water and make really sharp turns and swim without using my arms or just using my hands like diving planes or fins. I’d kick with both feet together like a shark or a dolphin. I’d try to swim upside down carefully so the water wouldn’t rush up my nose (I hate nose plugs). I’d see how long I could blow bubbles and watch them rise and spread across the under surface of the water before I would sink and be out of breath and not be able to get back up to the top. The bubbles would spread across the under surface of the water as if I were pouring air out onto a giant piece of flexible glass, but upside-down so I was pouring the water up out of my mouth. With the sun hitting it, it was almost the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen like drawing with crystal encased light.

I also tried that drown-proofing thing that the Navy SEALs do where I would act like my feet were tied together and my hands were tied behind my back, and I would have to get from one end of the pool to the other by blowing out just enough air to be negatively buoyant, touching the bottom and kicking my way off the bottom and back up to the surface for air, then back down, all the way across the pool. Very difficult to do without cheating. I was never able to do it and I was so dedicated to not cheating that I got in trouble a few times and came close to panicking in the deep end with no air, no strength, and not enough buoyancy to reach the ground or the surface.

Sometimes I would just try to float as still as possible while holding onto the edge of the pool with my fingertips. After a while, a thin layer of water less than an inch thick would warm up around my body like a warm wetsuit that was very comfortable to stay in. If I moved at all, I would disturb the water and the colder water would touch my skin. So sometimes for fun, I’d move my elbow just a little bit to feel the cold water and then I’d try to slip back into the warm water coating. Again, no one else was in the pool, and the water would get really still because there wasn’t any current at all.

I’d sometimes try to see how close I could get my eyes to the surface of the water without touching, Apocalypse Now style, and how long I could stay there with just my eyes and the top of my head above the water. Then I’d make a move and watch the ripples travel out from my eyes to the edges of the huge pool and return to stillness. I’d also stand on the edge of the pool with my back to the water, toss my watch high over my shoulder, and as soon as I heard the splash, I’d turn and dive in trying to catch my watch before it would hit the bottom of the pool.

I think all of this pool play came from my childhood. When I was a kid, my sisters and I would play with this rubber brick at the YMCA. The lifeguard would take us over to the deep end and toss the brick in behind us. We’d bring it back up and the game would continue. Sometimes it was cooperative, but the better game was when we competed to see who could get to the brick first. My sisters and I would race each other down to the bottom, grab the brick, and muscle it back up to the surface. The deal was, whoever reached the brick first had to drag it back up to the surface themselves. So from the lifeguard’s point of view, he or she’d toss the brick, two kids would dive, one would come back up, and the other would take forever to come back up. It must have been freaky for the lifeguard. Once I remember my sister not coming up with it. She told me to go back down and get it and I remember that being against the rules. I think the lifeguard ended the game then and I remembered not understanding why my sister had ruined it. I don’t think I understood anything about getting tired at that point in my life.

I also remember the bottom of that pool being very scary. It was dark and the pressure on your ears was immense. There was a huge disgusting metal grate at the bottom that filtered the water. I never wanted to get near it because I thought I would get sucked against the grate and not be able to free myself from the bottom.

I remember being fascinated by the underwater lights on the walls of the pool when I was a kid. I’d knock against the glass as hard as I could trying to break the glass because I wanted to see if the light would go out. But the glass was bulletproof in my estimation.

Anyway, I’m sure this enthusiasm gave me the false sense of safety which lead to me almost drowning when I was a kid, the subject of an earlier post here. But these were the funnest days of my childhood and the unique set of circumstances in the Kank brought them back to me for a little while. So for that I am eternally grateful.

What do you think?