When the frigid waters of the aptly named Frio River greeted me like a slap to the face I should have known I’d made a mistake. I sucked in my breath and squinted at the dock that was about 50 yards ahead.
“You can totally do this,” I assured myself through chattering teeth. Late May temperatures and rainfall the night before made me feel like I’d just dunked myself in a glass of icy sweet tea.
My heart was beating so fast I didn’t hear the whistle blow for us to start our swim. It was the first exercise of lifeguard training, and I gripped the shore like algae on the pier.
I watched as the other swimmers’ legs kicked them away from me; water splashed my face until they were far enough away that they became a school of fish leaving me behind, a fatally wounded comrade who would die alone at the bottom of the sea.
I couldn’t be a lifeguard but I didn’t know how to get out of it. Hell, I didn’t know how to get out of the water.
The plan was set before I left college for my summer job as a camp counselor: I would teach step aerobics and swimming. I’d already taken CPR and this “water test” was the final step before campers would arrive and entrust their lives to me during “open swim” time.
It was a solid plan until I got into the water.
All my theoretical fears and resistance became inescapably real as I shivered in the water watching the other lifeguard trainees receiving instruction on the other side of the river. Our instructor had a whistle that he enjoyed blowing with gusto, and he apparently hadn’t yet noticed that one of us was still clinging to the shore as if it was the last oxygen tank on the moon.
What was I thinking? I had no business trying to become a lifeguard. I was terrified of water, and watching people swim made me swoon with terror.
I treaded water to warm myself up, wondering if it would always be this scary. My body grew warmer as my arms and legs swirled in jerky motions under the murky waters to keep me afloat.
I fucking hate water.
When I admitted defeat and hoisted myself out of the water, my pruned hands reached for a towel to wrap my shivering body. I was shaking in that way you shake when you’ve faced a fear and the fear won. The shake of having not even put up a fight. The shake of a terror so deep that when you step into the ring you don’t even put your dukes up– you simply ring that little bell and watch your opponent raise his hands in victory.
Water had won. Again. Against me, it always would.