Since I started taking regular exercise about sixteen years ago, I have heard a number of inspiring stories from people who were, how shall I put this, too old. Too old to ride a horse, too old to write a book, too old to roller skate, too old to learn how to dance, too old to marry. I was one of them. “You’re too old,” they said. “Nobody will take the time to train you.”
Well, nobody is a big word. And “too old” is fighting words.
Today I’ll tell you about Rochelle, who swims at my health club.
I value the ladies at my health club: they’re all between twenty and forty years older than I am, and smarter, and very generous with their time. They taught me how to swim.
This story is about how Rochelle learned how to swim.
When Rochelle was six, her family took her to Touhy Avenue Beach in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago. Her cousin threw her off his shoulders into deep water, telling her to swim. She doesn’t remember what happened next because she blacked out. Ever since, she has been terrified of deep water.
Seventy-five years later, Rochelle’s husband of fifty-six years passed away after a long illness. She had done everything she should: had the babies, canned the crab apples, made wine, worked when she had to, stayed home and raised children when she didn’t have to work, gloried in the grandkids, nursed her husband through his slow, painful passing, kept her house spotless. At eighty-one and alone, Rochelle had done all that. She was ready for something different.
Rochelle decided that she was going to say Yes to every offer anyone made her.
She went to Hawaii with her kids. She went to roller derby bouts. She went to the movies and concerts, she went to Lake Geneva with family, she took Senior Learning classes. She got her knees replaced, joined my health club, and walked in the shallow end of the pool. And one day, she saw one pool member giving another swimming lessons. She left him a note. After a long conversation, he offered to teach her to swim. She was seventy-nine. She said Yes.
It took a lot of patience and an incredible amount of guts. Every time her teacher coaxed her out into the five-foot zone—Rochelle is barely five feet tall herself—the water closed over her head the way it did seventy-five years ago, and the terror came back. And she thrashed her way to the poolside, panting, red-faced, panicking, heart hammering, apologizing, her head shaking, her hands shaking. But she kept trying.
Her teacher was patient. Little by little, she let go. Her progress was slow at first. Then she started to gain confidence.
Eventually she did it. After two years of lessons, at eight-one, Rochelle can now swim fifty feet, from the shallow end to the nine-foot-deep end, doing a proper crawl, with her face in the water and the pool bottom miles away, years away, decades of terror away.
Rochelle was afraid for seventy-five years. But she isn’t any more.
She got around to it.
This is a re-post from the BVC blog in 2011.
Of all the members at my swim club, I think I learned the most from Rochelle. She taught by example. She was sunny, and she never quit.
Rochelle passed away a few days ago. Shout out to her granddaughter and all her family, and to all who get around to it.