Guest post by AJ Earley
Some of my earliest memories are of the municipal pool in Meridian, Idaho. Sometimes my grandparents would babysit us during the summer, and my grandfather would take me to the pool with him when he taught the Red Cross lifeguard class.
I was always pretty savvy in the water, and I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love swimming. As an older child I spent almost every day of summer vacation at the pool, even when it was raining. I was preoccupied with drumming and running as a teenager, but I still loved diving into a lake or river during a hot summer day.
The transition from teenager to young adult was rough for me, and a series of very unfortunate events led to an incident that caused nerve damage all over the right side of my body. I was 21 years old when this happened. Most of my right leg was paralyzed, and while I could still use the muscles in my arm and hand, I didn’t have a lot of feeling there, leaving me with the handwriting of a child and the inability to feed myself without getting food all over the place.
I transitioned from wheelchair to walker to severe unaided limp in a matter of months, out of pure stubbornness. I couldn’t run, jump, drive a car… so many of the things I’d taken for granted before were gone and I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I sank into a pretty bad depression and gained a lot of weight.
Exercise and physical activity were almost completely out of the question for me, but I desperately needed the endorphins a good workout creates. Aside from a few physical therapy tasks and the dreaded thought of “going for a walk,” which basically meant limping around in public where everyone could see me, I didn’t have any good options. I didn’t have the stability in my toes, foot, or ankle for most yoga poses, pilates proved to be impossible with a mostly dead leg, even a stationary bicycle presented a hazard as my foot often flew off the pedals and got stuck, and aerobics of any kind were out of the question.
This went on for a few years, until a friend mentioned something called “water aerobics” to me. She explained that it was low impact, and that the water provided both support and resistance. All of a sudden, everything came rushing back to me: summers spent swimming laps and jumping off the high dive, freestyle stroking as far out into the lake as I could before getting scared and having to turn back, floating the Boise River with no tube at all. I had always absolutely loved being in the water, and I couldn’t believe it didn’t occur to me before that. I had shut myself indoors for years, only coming out when friends and family took the time to coax me.
One of the first things I did was learn to drive with my left foot. It didn’t take long, and it was probably illegal, but once I was mobile, I went and got a gym membership. At the time I didn’t have goggles or a swim cap, let alone a suit fit for laps, so I started with the water aerobics class my friend recommended.
I cried during my first class. I was running, jumping, kickboxing through the pool: things I hadn’t been able to do in years. Movements my muscles wouldn’t be able to support on dry land were completely possible underwater. Everyone was wet so no one noticed the tears streaming down my face, but they all noticed my gigantic smile, and a few commented on how happy I looked to be there. It was difficult to explain my situation, so I didn’t, I just kept coming back and slowly getting stronger.
It took me a little while to scrape up the money for a decent suit and a pair of goggles, but I was so excited the day I did. Once in, I quickly realized that I’d grown rather rusty, and one single lap left me out of breath. But I felt amazing! Up until that point, I could lift weights with my arms, I could do targeted leg exercises, a little here and there, but I hadn’t had a total-body workout, or that much endorphins flowing through me, for a very long time. Words simply can’t describe how good swimming one single lap made me feel.
Ten laps a day morphed into fifty, sometimes even eighty. I asked for a waterproof mp3 player for my birthday that year and my family all pitched in and got me a handy little model that strapped to my goggles and lasted eight hours fully charged.
The music really helped. While 50-80 laps a day was definitely more realistic, some days I’d get in the pool and I wouldn’t get out until the gym closed. On several occasions, I swam over 200 (sometimes almost 300) laps in a day. I always got especially determined when swimming to metal… according to a good friend of mine, everything you do is more epic when you do it to metal.
So I admit, I went a little crazy. I overcompensated. Keeping up with those numbers was not realistic, but at the time, it’s what I needed. I was losing weight, feeling better overall, and most importantly, I felt in control of my body and my abilities, despite my disability. When I was in the pool, my physical limitations disintegrated and I could do anything I wanted.
So many people are unaware of how healthy swimming is: not only is it a full-body workout that engages a large amount of muscles all at once, it’s a great form of cardio that is low-impact and ideal for many individuals with physical challenges or disabilities. Studies have even shown that hopping in the pool regularly can lower blood pressure and can even help fight cancer.
My body has healed a lot in the past ten years. I can still barely jump, and I can run (if I have to.) I’m no longer swimming hundreds of laps a day, but I still swim regularly, even though I’m now capable of higher impact activities and sports. Feeling my body rock left to right while I watch the blue line on the bottom of the pool float by is one of the best ways I have to relieve stress and anxiety after a long day.
And above all that, I will never forget what swimming did for me. It made my disability practically irrelevant, and it gave me my control, my confidence, and my hope back. Gone are the days where I sat around at home, afraid to hovel out into the world unless I absolutely had to. Gone are the days of me being sad and angry and feeling sorry about myself. Besides oxygen, water is one of the most important element that keeps us, as living beings, alive. For me, it not only keeps me alive, it gave me my life back.
By AJ Earley