The first actual full-sized deep-water swimming pool I encountered was the Russells’ (not their real name) pool next door to my best friend Daralyn’s house, when I was about eight.   (This is not counting the ten-inch-deep wading pool complete with metal seats in the corners, that Daralyn’s aunt had in her driveway for us kids, where we made up water ballets and splashed about.)

Related memory: Later, I would befriend the Russells’ granddaughter in middle school, who developed long before any of the rest of us and was a very sweet girl, though aware of her assets.  I remember this primarily because we both were attracted to the same boys, and wore at different times one or another of their rings on chains around our necks.  I knew I wasn’t in her league physically, and felt honored that some of the same boys liked me, with my then-inconsequential chest and skinny mostly-paralyzed leg. But I digress.

Swimming is a pretty safe sport.  (Assuming you do not bonk your head too hard on the side of the pool, know how to breathe and hold your breath appropriately, and do not dive into shallow water.)  My great-great-great grandfather Allen was a strong swimmer but drowned in the Kissimmee River in Florida, so, risk is relative.  Some people are understandably terrorized by being in water, too, especially some handicapped folks who don’t feel stable on ground, let alone surrounded by a constantly moving medium.

When I swim, I experience not only the support and coolness of water, but that it is also like a liquid gel, particularly when contained in a pool, and that swimming is similar to being supported by air.  I feel free as a bird in a warm pool.  Sometimes at our home in Marin County, California, the birds fly over me and we watch each other.  Crows, buzzards, red-tail hawks, occasional seagulls, pelicans, and ducks and the attendant smaller cousins: robins, wrens, jays, mockingbirds, sparrows and chickadees.  They flit and sail around up there.  I feel like we’re doing a similar thing in different elements. (And no, in sixteen years I have not seen any bird poop in the pool, although once some ducks did land in it. Recently, two other ducks jealously watched from our rooftop while I did my pool workout.)

Audacious and incongruous comparison—here are five things I have in common with Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimming champ:

1. We have the same arm span to height ratio.  Our outstretched arms measured to our middle finger tips are more than our height, though his difference is about six inches and mine is less, naturally. This “monkey arm” ratio is unusual, and useful for powerful swimming.  In my case, the reason this probably happened is that I was meant to be two inches taller, if my right leg had not been stunted by polio.
2. Our favorite stroke is the butterfly (cuz, long arms).  I love to watch his signature propulsion dolphin kick, which I can’t quite do but sometimes modify my kick to imitate.
3. We count strokes, which is useful when your goggles get water in them or whenever you cannot see the end of the pool; you can also use counting to keep from hitting your head when on your back.  Counting is almost imperative if you want to be competitive, which I don’t.
4. When we’re not swimming as a practice, we don’t enjoy going in oceans, rivers, lakes, or other pools “for fun,” because we already spend so much time in water; working out (and being wet for a couple of hours a day) is fun enough.
5. We have both smoked pot (me in the past, him, maybe not just the past).

That’s it, but it’s a lot, given you’d think we’d have little in common at all.

You will find me in a pool most days unless rain is pouring or the air or water’s too cold (for me, water needs to be 87F and air temp at least 60F).  My pool therapy includes walking, stretches, arm exercises and core strengthening and stabilizing, kicks while standing and while floating on a “noodle,” and swimming laps.  Although water creates resistance and is harder for most people to walk in than on land, it is much easier for me to walk in waist or midriff deep water, since the water helps hold me up. This is the only way I can get the benefits of walking; otherwise, walking is a detriment to me, because of the stress on my arthritic vertebrae from the two-inch difference in my leg lengths, and because walking also fatigues the overused motor neurons and muscles in both of my legs. All this also helps me keep my weight down, to some extent.

“If I didn’t swim my best, I’d think about it at school, at dinner, with my friends.  It would drive me crazy.” – Michael Phelps

I can relate.