Diving In: My Autistic Perspective on Passing the Second Level of my Swimming Lessons

Freeing myself from fear by sinking beneath the surface.

"From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free." - Jacques Yves Cousteau

I've been writing about my swimming lessons on here for awhile now. So far, I've chronicled the challenges of learning with special needs, opened up about my locker room woes, lamented on the lack of special needs support in city-run recreational programs, and shared the experience of my first leap of faith into the deep end. I've held off on posting any new updates since then, as I wanted to complete the second class before commenting on it. Now that I have, I'm ready to share the experience...

As with the first class, the second was also taught by a teenaged lifeguard employed at the aquatic centre. Thankfully, this instructor was more hands-on than her predecessor, being willing to jump into the pool and demonstrate techniques upon request. She would even gracefully hop alongside her students in the water, like an aquatic ballerina, observing our techniques and offering constructive feedback on how to improve. Unfortunately, due to the class size being much larger this time around, the new instructor had to divide her attention between many more students, which meant less time to ask questions when confused by certain techniques.

An additional challenge of this influx of students was being exposed to even more people in the locker rooms and showers, which was particularly stressful and uncomfortable for me. Still, I did my best to cope with these obstacles, constantly reminding myself of how far I'd come. I continued to persevere each week, tackling new techniques to the best of my ability, and never giving up or allowing myself to feel discouraged. After all, I wasn't going to let the symptoms of my autism prevent me from achieving my goals.

By far, the scariest moment of level 2 for me was preparing to dive into the deep end...without a lifejacket. The instructor advised my fellow classmates and I to crouch as low as possible, at the rim of the pool deck, stick our arms straight out in front of us, like an arrow, tuck our heads into our chests, until facing our belly buttons, and then, lean headfirst into the water. My biggest fear was not knowing how to reach the surface after sinking 10-feet, though the instructor assured me I would automatically float back up. Armed with this knowledge, I pushed through my fear, assumed the diving position, and took the plunge. Thankfully, the instructor wasn't kidding when she said I'd automatically float to the surface. It was such a fun and cool experience, that I dived into the deep end a few more times.

The most difficult technique for many of us in the class was the front crawl. I had no problems maintaining the proper form or movements, but simply couldn't get the rhythm of lifting my head slightly out of the water for breaths. I choked on lots of water and ran out of stamina throughout my many attempts. As always, I kept at it, though, never giving up or allowing myself to feel discouraged. I treated the front crawl like one of the difficult video games I eventually completed. Through perseverance, I was finally able to successfully demonstrate the front crawl to the instructor, for the purposes of passing the course. I still need to work on my breathing and stamina, but I've come a long way.

The only aspect of level 2 I disliked was the gruelling swimming exam required to pass the course. I refer to this exam as "the gauntlet", given its similarity to those annoying endurance levels in video games, in which players are pitted against all the previous bosses in a series of rematches, with no way to heal or save between bouts. The swimming equivalent of the gauntlet involved rolling into the deep end, treading water, and then swimming the entire length of the pool, multiple times in a row, to demonstrate different techniques. It was exhausting, so the gauntlet wasn't a fun experience for me.

Given that I neither enrolled in the navy nor enlisted in the marines, I couldn't understand why I had to perform what felt like a military boot camp drill. I don't see how hurting my muscles, giving myself an asthma attack, and pushing myself to exhaustion is supposed to save me from a potential shipwreck? Wouldn't all that stress on my body give me a heart attack or cause me to drown even faster in such scenario? Also, I have zero interest in competitive swimming, so I have no intention of swimming at the Summer Olympics or becoming the next Johnny Weissmuller. While I ultimately passed level 2, I feel the gauntlet was too much punishment all at once. It could also be especially taxing for those with certain health conditions, weight issues, or various disabilities.

Thankfully, the gauntlet was the only aspect of level 2 I disliked. The rest of the class was an enjoyable experience. The final session was quite fun, as we took turns diving into the deep end to try retrieving a ring from the bottom. Despite my best efforts, I couldn't grab the ring, as the water always carried me to the surface before I could reach it. Still, it was lots of fun trying, and I found myself smiling and laughing with every attempt. I also leapt off the diving board multiple times, which was so much fun. Overall, I had a good time and am looking forward to improving the areas where I still have difficulty in the next session. I'll continue posting updates along the way. Until next time, love, peace, and chicken grease!

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