I’m Going to Flip
Lynne had the following prompts to choose from:
Amy- A thin wisp of gray smoke rising from a cave in a black lagoon
Erika- Rosemary is for remembrance
Jen- I don’t want to wait
She chose (a slightly modified version of) Cameron’s.
I swam through the cool blue water, kicking and paddling to reach the far wall, the triangular blue and white flags strewn on lines over the pool flapping in the breeze. It was a day like many other days I’ve spent swimming in the pool on the college campus where I work. Weekdays, I leave my desk at noon and walk over through a grove of sycamore trees. In the locker room I undress and hoist the straps of my $80, black chlorine-resistant one piece suit over my flabby white tummy, snap my silver Speedo cap onto my head and make for the pool’s edge, stopping at the supply cabinet for a kick board and pull buoy. I fasten on my goggles rimmed in hot pink latex and slip into the water.
In the lanes around me are athletic young people, some of them members of the swim team, who reach the far wall, do sleek, elegant flip turns and head back before I can swim half a length. There are also older men and women with cellulite-dotted thighs and bobbing bellies doing their daily laps as slowly and steadily as turtles crossing a beach. I’m somewhere in between. A solid, consistent swimmer, on this day I am making my way from side to side as I always do, stopping at the wall to catch my breath, having a quick look around at whatever is happening on deck before setting out again in the other direction. Partway across the lane an impulse hits me: I’m going to do a flip turn. Just that thought sends a shiver through me, a little electric zip of current along my circuitry, a feeling I haven’t felt in a long, long time. As I get closer to the wall, I think it more intensely, I’m going to flip. I’m going to flip.
I’ve been swimming since my oldest daughter’s first day of kindergarten 14 years ago. That late August day in 1999 we climbed the stairs of her new school, where the early morning sun cast our shadows onto the white wall of the building, mine so round and thick it entirely obscured the shadow of my daughter. I cringed to see it. I’d been meaning to lose my post-baby weight for more than two years, since I’d given birth to another daughter, but between raising two kids and working, I hadn’t found the time or energy for a weight-loss program. But right then on my way into the classroom I panicked at the thought that my daughter was going to become known as the one with the fat mom. That day during my lunch break, I went to the pool and had my first noon swim. Over the next eight months I lost 40 pounds and I’ve been swimming ever since.
While my anxiety over how I would be judged as a mother brought me to swimming, I’ve stayed with it because it feels good. I do it to hear the sound of my own breath as it bubbles around my face, to spend some time each day letting the water do the job of holding me up. I do it for my health—to get my heart pounding and my muscles working and because it is a way to exercise without getting sweaty. And it has really helped me cope over the years with the stress of work and motherhood. There were times when my swim routine was interrupted by helping in classrooms or driving on field trips, but it was such a key aspect of my mental health, I fought to keep it in place.
My children have grown older and more self-sufficient and I now mostly swim as a way to meditate. Whenever I’ve tried traditional meditation, I’ve settled onto my mat and promptly fallen asleep. But swimming is the perfect “moving meditation”—just enough body movement to keep me alert, but routine enough that I don’t need to think about what I’m doing. Thoughts come in, and I let them go, just as I take in air and let out bubbles. My oldest left for college last fall, and my youngest will be out of high school next year. I’ve already claimed my older daughter’s bedroom as a writing room and sometimes now I find myself daydreaming in the pool about what I’ll do with my other daughter’s bedroom once she’s away. It’s hard to pull myself out of these fantasies to focus on the bubbles—it’s exhilarating to reconnect with a part of myself that was set aside to shoulder the duties of motherhood. I’m getting back in touch with the person who rode her bicycle from San Francisco to San Diego over eleven days one October, who used to take writing classes and had dreams of living a writing life, and who now knew, before she reached the other side of the lane, that she was going to do a flip turn.
Flip turns are a defining maneuver in the pool. Whether you do breast stroke or swim freestyle; whether you use a kick board or a pull buoy; whether you breathe consistently on one side or switch back and forth between sides; these things don’t really say much about you as a swimmer. But if you flip at the wall you are legitimate in a way no other single move in the pool displays. A flip turn says you’re a serious swimmer and you’re not afraid to show it.
Executing a flip turn though involves certain risk: you could crash into the wall, or clock the swimmer sharing your lane, or, perhaps worst of all, not make it completely over and instead do a kind of jelly roll sideways thing. Barreling headlong toward a cement wall and upturning your entire body at the right moment involves skill and judgment and a willingness to have your ass exposed to the lifeguards, the other swimmers, and the people in the lounge chairs dotting the pool deck. That’s why I’ve never tried it. I’ve defined myself as a certain kind of swimmer, I’m not competitive, I swim to calm down, and I don’t do flip turns. At least not until now.
From late April to November, the pool is busy enough that swimmers share lanes, but on this early spring day I have the off-season luxury of a lane to myself. It seems like an omen that my timing is right. I have no idea about the proper approach to a flip turn, so as the wall looms and the phrase I’m going to flip repeats in my mind, I begin a great whooshing of wind milling arms, gulp a deep breath and plunge my head under, roll into a ball, and kick wildly to push myself over. For this minute, in mid-turn, I let go and everything goes topsy-turvy and I have a new perspective on things I have only seen from the surface: the bellies of the swimmers in the neighboring lanes, and up through the water, cotton ball clouds dotting the pale blue sky. Having thoroughly flushed my sinuses with pool water, I kick against the wall and shove off in the other direction. Sputtering and gulping as I come up for a breath, I laugh out loud as I fight for air, too thrilled with my accomplishment to worry about what the swimmers in the other lanes are thinking.
With each lap, I do it again, letting my world spin for a minute as in mid-roll it is an underwater free-for-all, the most spontaneous thing I can remember doing in a long time. When my swim is over and I walk back to my office, I can’t shake the dizzying experience of letting go and tumbling through the water, momentarily feeling like a five-year old again, somersaulting over and over only in water instead of on grass. But it wasn’t enough for me to have done it, now I wanted to do it well.
When I get back to my computer I google flip turns and watch instructional videos about how to do them. I obsess about flip turns and find myself thinking about them in line at the grocery store, and while driving home, almost missing my exit from the freeway. In my mind I saw more than 800 of them in the first 24 hours.
The next day is “community swim” where the lifeguards offer free lessons and advice. On my way in through the gate, my swim bag hanging from my shoulder, I rehearse my line. I sign in and then approach Emily, the young energetic pool supervisor, standing near the lifeguard chair.
“I wonder if you could give me a few tips on doing a flip turn?” I ask, hoping to hear a pointer or two on timing and breathing.
From behind her dark sunglasses with her blond ponytail bobbing, she says, “Get changed. I’ll meet you at the shallow end.”
I hesitate. “Oh. You mean now?”
“Sure,” she says, “I’ll show you.”
“Oh, ok,” I say, hugging my pool bag to my chest as I head for the locker room.
“And bring two kick boards back with you!” she hollers after me. I nod and wave to let her know I heard.
I walk toward the shallow end in my swimsuit trying not to think about my jiggling thighs, two kick boards tucked under my arm.
“Hop in,” she says, pointing at the water and I do. It is brisk on the lower half of my body, but the chill doesn’t even register I am so worried about what is going to come next. At least there is no one else in the shallow end to witness this at close range.
Emily has me hold a kick board in each hand. I’m supposed to swim toward the wall with my arms trailing behind me. “It’ll feel awkward, but stay with it and as you approach the wall, when you pass the top of the “T” striped on the bottom, bend hard at the middle. Engage those abs!” She smiles when she says this and I wince for a moment, thinking about the perpetually unengaged state of my abs, the flab hanging out in my midsection, but I can’t obsess long. “Then tuck into a ball. When you kick off the wall and your body unfurls, your arms will already be pointing in the direction you want to go. In essence, your body flips but your arms stay still.” I nod, imagining the moves she described. “Try it!” she says.
A palm on each board, I take giant steps out in the armpit high water until I am about ten feet from the wall. I turn toward Emily, put my face in the water and start kicking, a kick board in each hand trailing behind me. Without having my arms out in front of me for protection, it takes all I have to force myself to keep kicking toward the cement wall. But just after I pass the top of the “T,” I inhale a big breath, squeeze my stomach muscles for all I am worth, tuck into a ball while instinctively blowing out hard, and Voila! I flip. And just like Emily said, my arms are already stretched out in the direction I want to swim, so I kick off the wall and glide out into the water. I come up smiling. Emily is smiling too. “See?” she says, “You did it! Good job!”
I am delighted with the streamlined approach. Not surprisingly, I see that I had been making it harder than it was. I just had to let go of protecting my head and leave my arms to trail behind so they’d be where I need them when I’ve flipped around and am ready to go the other way.
Now on my noontime swims every turn is a flip turn and I look forward to that moment when everything goes upside down and I get a different view of the world. Since I’m not lifting my face out of the water like I used to each time I reach the wall, my meditation is continuous, an unbroken hour of bubbles. Of course, I still fantasize about turning my daughter’s bedroom into an office where I can hold writer’s group meetings. But then I catch myself thinking this thought that I can save to think about on dry land. I let go and focus on the bubbles.
–Lynne Jerome lives, writes and swims in Oakland, CA.