Whenever I think of swimming, I always think of Bryn Mawr, beer, and Ethel Merman.
From the time I arrived on the Bryn Mawr campus as a freshman in 1968, I already knew from the college handbook that passing the college swim test was a requirement for graduation. But I assumed the swim test was one test I'd be able to get out of. Once the powers that be learned that I had grown up in a land-locked part of upstate New York and managed to make it through 18 years without learning how to swim a single stroke, they would be sympathetic and let me off the hook. After all, I was afraid of the water, and that had to count for something.
As I settled into my new home in Denbigh Hall, I polled other freshmen to find out if anyone else had a problem with taking the swim test. Everyone I talked to was a swimmer, and for them the upcoming test was a non-issue.
Next, I polled some of the upperclassmen who were on campus to help out during Freshman Week. Just how serious were the college authorities about the swim test?
I learned that those in charge considered it their duty to ensure that Bryn Mawr graduates know how to swim. Apparently the belief was that if a young graduate happened to fall off the deck of the Queen Mary on her way to Europe, the ability to swim would keep the victim afloat long enough to attract the attention of an alert sailor who would toss her a flotation device and then jump in to rescue her. Assuming, of course, that the sharks hadn't yet begun to circle. In that case, any sailor worth his salt would whistle his way on down to the bowels of the ship so he wouldn't miss lunch - and then our young graduate was strictly on her own, life jacket or no.
Despite what I was hearing from the Bryn Mawr upperclassmen, I still assumed I could somehow sidestep the swimming requirement. Some might say I was living in denial. I preferred to think I was looking on the bright side.
That is until the day finally arrived for the swim test. We freshmen trooped to the gym to get ready. We each donned one of the college's ugly bathing suits, which came in two fashion colors - shapeless red and shapeless blue. Some of us donned bathing caps as well. I decided to keep my glasses on because (1) without them I couldn't see anything more than six inches from my face, and (2) I never expected to set so much as a toe in the water that day. Silly me.
The teachers in charge of the event told us to line up alongside the entire length of the pool, deep end down to shallow. It finally occurred to me that before the morning was over I might actually have to get in the pool after all. So I changed my plan. I raced for a position down at the shallow end, where I knew that once that whistle blew and the test began I could step into the pool, stand up with my head well out of the water, and pretend to splash around with all the other students at that end. I was counting on being lost in a crowd of real swimmers - and on the scorekeeper's assuming that I was one of them.
But what I wasn't counting on is how the swim test actually worked. One by one, each freshman had to jump into the deep end of the pool, tread water for a few minutes, and demonstrate two different swimming strokes up and down the length of the pool. A long pole lay on the floor nearby in case one of the teachers had to fish out a flounderer.
As I moved up the line toward the deep end of the pool, I began to sweat. There was no way I could even pretend to swim in water that was well over my head. I watched every girl ahead of me jump in to demonstrate what she could do. Some students were worse swimmers than others, but nobody sank without eventually reappearing, and nobody had to be rescued as I knew I would have to be if I jumped into the deep end of that (or any) pool.
I soon reached the head of the line, and it was my turn to jump in. Feeling like a novice sky diver who has arrived at the open door of the plane before realizing she simply can't take that first step out into thin air, I knew it was time to speak up. It was now or maybe never.
"I can't swim," I said to the phys ed teacher who was holding the clipboard. Never even looking up from her paperwork, the teacher told me to jump in and show her what I could do. I said that I couldn't do anything - that I didn't know how to swim at all. As she continued to scribble, she said, "Well, you must be able to tread water. Everybody can. Go ahead and jump in and show me how long you can tread water."
Tread water? It wasn't a question of how long I could tread water. I couldn't tread water at all. In fact, until that very morning I had never even seen anyone tread water.
But I finally began to worry that I might be treading on thin ice. Apparently this woman had long since bought into the idea that I needed to prepare for my post-graduation trip on the Queen Mary, and she was paying no attention to a word I said. So I finally shouted, "I don't know how to tread water, and I can't swim! If I jump in, you're gonna have to fish me out with that damn pole over there!" Upon hearing the expletive, she finally looked up, realized I wasn't kidding, turned back to her clipboard, and said in that disdainful voice that gym teachers reserve for people who are reluctant to try something new and dangerous, "I'm registering you for Beginning Swimming." I had already failed the first round of the swim test.
Nobody signed up for Beginning Swimming if she didn't have to. As far as I could tell, Beginning Swimming existed solely for the purpose of getting deficient swimmers through the swim test. Once you passed the test you were permitted to quit Beginning Swimming and move on to one of the more popular gym classes, preferably one involving neither water nor chlorine. Gym classes like Dance Orientation, where you stretched and emoted and got to do jazzy dance steps. Or better yet, gym classes like Relaxation, where you could lie on the floor and grab a few winks on Monday morning after pulling an all-nighter to write your weekly freshman comp paper.
Once you passed the swim test, you had numerous phys ed options open to you. But until then, you were in Beginning Swimming for the duration. Failing the test got you into the class, and passing the test was your only ticket out.
And I still needed to get my ticket punched. For me, Beginning Swimming was torture. Once I removed my glasses to don my bathing cap and get into the water, I couldn't see anything clearly. Not the other students, or the path back to my glasses at the side of the pool, or even the big old metal lion's head poised on the wall at the pool's shallow end, where I spent all my hapless swim time. (I was so nearsighted that for awhile I thought the lion was a rabbit.) What had once been a mild fear of the water kicked into high gear.
I wasn't the only Beginning Swimming student who was afraid of the water. There were quite a few of us that year, including a few sophomores who had been in Beginning Swimming since they were freshmen. Our swimming teacher, Mrs. Fisher, was wonderfully patient with us, and everyone made gradual progress toward the goal.
But I was one of the very few in the class who had never swum a stroke before. In fact, it was three weeks before I could get my face in the water without panicking. And despite the fact that I was particularly buoyant, it took me a long time to trust that I wouldn't sink like a stone once I lifted both feet off the pool's bottom. It was almost Thanksgiving before I managed to lift both feet up at the same time, stretch out onto the surface of the water, let go of my trusty kickboard, and kick my way face-down across the shallow end of the pool.
Fresh from my hard-won victory, I arrived back home in New York for the holiday. One night, my friends and I met at a local bar called Lum's. Most of us were newly 18, the legal age for drinking in New York then, and so the pitchers of beer kept coming. Our long table was soon aslosh with warm beer and soggy onion rings.
We all talked about how college was treating us. So I told everyone about Bryn Mawr's pesky little swimming requirement, and how only the week before I'd managed to get across the shallow end of the pool unaided. My athletic friend Nicki, who was quite a swimmer and even had the difficult butterfly stroke in her repertoire, took another swig of beer and said, "That's great, Beck! You're becoming a regular Ethel Merman!"
It was a sympathetic crowd, and many nodded in supportive agreement. But by that point in the evening it was also a bleary-eyed crowd that had too much of a buzz on to remember that Ethel Merman wasn't known to us for her swimming, but for belting out Broadway songs on TV variety shows.
I wasn't drinking that night because even then I didn't like beer. So I was the first one to question the connection between Ethel Merman and swimming. "Ethel Merman??" I said. "Nicki, do you mean Esther Williams?"
"Oh, yeah, Esther Williams!" Nicki laughed. We all followed suit, and quickly developed some nifty little imitations of the matronly Miss Merman doing the front crawl and singing There's No Business Like Show Business between breaths.
Nicki's name mixup struck me as so funny that for years, whenever the subject of swimming or Ethel Merman came up, I recounted the story of my friend's confusing the famous singer with the famous swimmer. I repeated the story so many times that I suspect it might actually have made it to the ears of a sitcom writer out in LA. Because one night last year I was watching a Drew Carey Show episode in which Drew is trying to impress his date, a competitive swimmer, with his own ability to swim (he couldn't). The next thing I knew, one of the characters referred to Ethel Merman instead of Esther Williams. The character's verbal misstep was so similar to the 1968 Lum's incident that I could almost smell the beer.
And me? Well, I never did learn to tread water, although I did manage to learn a serviceable (and some have even said graceful) front crawl. However, I was always too fearful of the water to get into the deep end of the pool. Because the swim test began with jumping into the deep end, I couldn't even get off the proverbial starting line.
And so it was that I spent eight long semesters - four long, pruny-skinned years - in Beginning Swimming. I don't believe I learned anything new about swimming after my sophomore year, but I continued to plod to swim class after that, on through junior year and then senior year.
The college authorities held firm on the swimming requirement until just before graduation, when I was finally permitted to take an abbreviated version of the swim test in the shallow end of the college pool. I passed the "test", climbed out of the water, put on my glasses, peeled off the shapeless bathing suit one last time, got dressed, and stepped out of the gloomy gym and into the glorious spring afternoon sunshine - thereby ending my career as probably the longest-lived Beginning Swimming student that Bryn Mawr had ever seen. As the heavy gym door creaked shut behind me, I pictured the test administrator back in the pool area, tidying up for the day and saying a little prayer that I would never step foot on either the Queen Mary or any other ocean-going vessel so she wouldn't have to feel responsible if I slid off the deck and into the drink.
When I return to campus for reunions, occasionally I go into the building that housed the old college pool. The building is not a gym any more. It's a student center now, and both the pool and the old lion's head are long gone. But whenever I step into the building, I swear I can still smell the chlorine.
Nowadays I don't have to swim if I don't want to, and I don't have to pretend to like beer. As a famous swimmer once said, everything's coming up roses!
I can smell those roses from here. I'm on a sun-drenched deck of the Queen Mary 2, eating chocolate and fantasizing about what my life at Bryn Mawr could have been like if only the college swimming requirement had been abolished before I got there.
And the first gym class I would have signed up for? That's simple. Relaxation. In fact, in some alternate gym universe I'm asleep on a mat on the gym floor. If you happen by, please don't disturb me. I'm dreaming about swimming the Channel.
Copyright 2003 by Becky Caracappa '72
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