They flew in a private coach for me; a guy from Potsdam, New York, to help turn my aquatic flailing into something more streamlined so that in an hour’s time I could complete the three laps I’ve been obligated to swim under supervision for four years now, more commonly known as the Cornell University Swim Test Requirement.
I don’t know why I never did it. I’ve been receiving an E-mail every week or so from an individual named Kelli Rae Bucci for the past two years that usually reads:
According to our records you haven’t satisfied the swim test requirement needed to complete your graduate requirements. This is a reminder that they have make-up swim tests scheduled the next three Fridays from 1:30-2:30PM in the Teagle Hall pool. Bring suit, towel and student ID card. There is a $30 late swim test fee. If you cannot make that time, please contact Fred DeBruyn at 255-2629 or FWD1@cornell.edu to schedule a private swim test.
Needless to say, I have missed “the next three Fridays” about five times, and the last Friday just whizzed past relatively unnoticed. The last option, my only option, was to schedule a private swim test. And due to a series of devastatingly bureaucratic and unfortunate events, bizarrely, there was no person within a 200 mile radius of Ithaca, New York that was qualified to evaluate my swimming ability.
Into the cavernous realms of Teagle Hall one fateful Friday I went. The dank, tepid air assailed my cheeks and felt foreign. Amidst the swaying genitals of tenured professors and the clumps of disrobed attire dotting the slick, tiled floor, I searched for a towel. There were none in sight that weren’t being used to floss the crotches of wet men, so I went to the front desk to ask for help.
An older woman with grey caterpillars for eyebrows pumped them and looked in my direction.
“Hi. I don’t usually come here and I most likely never will again but I have to take my swim test so that I can graduate and I just realized that I don’t have a towel and I’d really prefer not to air dry…”
She had the upper hand.
“Well. These towels here—“ (there was a large fluffy stack of unfolded towels to her right that I hadn’t immediately noticed that her paw was now on top of, laid flat)—“are for those who have a towel card, which costs $40 dollars a year.”
“Yes, that makes sense. The thing is I really have no use for a towel card seeing as this is my first time in this building and I am only coming because I need to take my swim test and you literally will never see me again in your entire life. Could you, possibly, potentially, be just a smidge merciful and lend me one length of towel so that I can just complete my test and get it back to you in fifteen minutes?”
She stood now with arms akimbo and eyed me from across the desk.
“What do you got for me?”
“As collateral. What do you got on you?”
“Well, I have my shorts and my shirt and my shoes…”
“Take off the shirt.”
I felt just slightly violated as I walked bare-chested back to the locker room and out to the pool in search of my private coach.
“MCKENNA!” he bellowed.
I looked out at the bleachers and saw a man in suit and tie with clipboard in hand.
“Hi, yes, I’m McKenna.” I waved.
“Can you swim, Mr. McKenna?”
“Yes, sir, I think. I haven’t… swum in a few years. But I think I can.”
He descended from the top and approached.
“You think you can, eh? Well, by the end of our session you’ll know you can, alright bud?”
We shook hands.
“You can call me coach,” he said. “I’m head coach of the Potsdam Prairie Dogs, the best semi-professional swim team in Northern New York.”
“Get in that water.”
I dropped my towel and hopped into the deep end, feeling mildly myocardially spasmodic from the shock of cold, but it passed and the water became warm.
“Do you know what treading water is?”
“Yes coach I believe so.”
“Tread that water then, McKenna.”
I treaded that water.
“When I was in the Marines, McKenna, I treaded the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego, rifle in hand, for five hours straight.”
“Now, I’m not gonna make you tread for five hours straight but let me just tell you it was one of the foremost formative experiences of my a-dult life, McKenna.” He stared down at me.
“I’m sure it was.”
“How long can you hold your breath for, McKenna?”
“Well coach, I’m not really sure.”
He pulled a stopwatch out of his pocket.
“Get under that water, McKenna!” He screamed.
I submerged my head beneath the surface of the swimming pool. Within seconds I was struggling. A little more. Couldn’t do it. Literally couldn't do it. Up.
“17 seconds? That the best you got? Do you know how long I can do it for?”
“Seven minutes. Get under that water, McKenna!”
I had no breath when I went under and couldn’t imagine outdoing my last performance. I didn’t know what to do. I contemplated staying under until I passed out just to please him but couldn’t. I went back up.
“21 Seconds. Pitiful. My asthmatic mother-in-law can go for three minutes. What are ya a pot smoker? Cigarettes?”
“No—pant—not really coach. I just don’t exercise much.”
“That’s a shame. Well, this swim test Cornell’s got me administering you is three laps of the pool. Do you think you can do it?”
“Yes coach I think so.”
“Well I know you can do it cause it’s simple. If I had it my way I’d make this thing a whole day-long test for all students—prepare them for the wild and unruly world of water out there. You’re gonna put these ankle weights on you for your laps. Make you feel really good about yourself after finishing. Make you feel like you did something. Got it?”
“Is that really necessary coach?”
“Of course it’s necessary, McKenna. Get out of that water and put on these weights.”
I strapped them on to my ankle and languorously trudged over to the diving boards to begin.
“McKenna? I’ve got a vest for you too.”
Coach walked over to me and handed me a really-off-white, damp looking vest that slightly resembled a sandbag that had sat out in the sun for years. I put it on.
“Three laps, McKenna. 1 lap breaststroke, 1 on your back, and 1 freestyle. Got it?”
“Got it.” I hopped in and almost sank. I began my attempt at a breaststroke. I was pushed down by the vest and the ankle weights and tried that breathing technique I learned in middle school or somewhere. Take a couple of strokes, breathe to the right. Take a couple of strokes, breathe to the left. I choked. I couldn’t get a steady swim going and was gasping every second. I heard a whistle blow and saw the coach crouched down and following my progress down the pool from the side.
“Breathe, McKenna! Steady breathing is key for good swimming! Breathe!”
I tried to even out the breathing but couldn’t. I realized I was more than halfway through this first lap and I could breathe on my back if I just struggled through quickly. I got to the end but I had gulped some water and was thinking I was dying and—
“Backstroke, McKenna! No stopping! Backstroke!”
I started to backstroke. I was able to breathe a bit better, but water began infiltrating my nostrils this time and the whole thing felt torturous. I watched the tiles on the ceiling way up above drift by slowly as the shrill whistle of the coach rattled my senses over and over again. His voice became slightly garbled and indecipherable whenever my ears would bob underneath the water, drowning his shouts in obscurity. But when I could hear him it was:
“McKenna! That’s your backstroke? Come on buddy, you look like you’re swatting flies above your head on a hot summer day! More precise! More purposeful!”
I reached the other end of the pool finally. Freestyle. I decided to doggie paddle because then I could breathe and take it easy.
“Doggie paddle? Challenge yourself, McKenna. Mix it up! Reach for the apple. Go ahead, reach for it! Side stroke!”
I reached for the apple. I wanted to get it over with so I dove underwater and frantically swam while holding my breath. I re-emerged to grab for more air.
“Oh, doing the submarine? Go harder, McKenna! Go! Go! Go!”
I was just about done with the last lap and looked over and saw the coach jumping up and down and stabbing the air and shouting and his tie was flailing all about and I just finished with a breaststroke and hit the end of the pool. I hung my head and panted harder than ever, hoisted my body out of the pool and laid down on the slick tile floor. Coach eclipsed the fluorescent bulbs above with his massive bulk and looked down at me and grinned. He extended his hand to help me up but I just shook it.
“Now you can graduate.”