The four swimmers (aged 86, 89, 92 and 93) who are the subjects of the inspiring video below broke a world record in a 200-meter freestyle relay in which they each swam 50 meters. If that isn’t inspiration enough, one of the two women on the team was unable to attend the previous year’s event because she was recovering from a broken neck at the time. Asked what kept her going, she responded: “Swimming!”
If you think this post has nothing to do with dementia, you’d be wrong. Exercise and attitude are important factors in staying healthy as we age, particularly with respect to boosting brain power. Here’s what Canada’s ParticipACTION program says:
“Physical activity is protective against the onset of dementia and slows its progression. The deterioration of the brain’s prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, which play important roles in complex thinking and memory formation, is usually associated with dementia. Luckily, these two areas are very responsive to physical activity, and tend to be bigger in size among people with higher fitness levels. This means that by constantly stimulating your brain through physical activity, you can effectively extend your years of good mental health.”
This is the first of two letters to honour your 86th birthday on September 27, 2014, and to remind us of the important things in our lives. This one is about swimming.
I must have been afraid when you took me for swimming lessons as a toddler. The teacher had one withered leg; he limped around the pool and reached out to me with a long wooden pole. There were no water wings, or floats, or other new-to-water-other-than-in-the-womb swimmers to share the experience. It was just you and me and the crippled teacher.
I also remember childhood picnics in a park that had a shallow round cement pond into which we plunged after the requisite hour-long respite to digest our peanut butter and banana sandwiches. Turns out the wait wasn’t necessary; swimming on a full stomach is safe as houses they now say.
Years after we lived a five-minute walk from Lake Memphremagog and we swam at will during the hot summers. Our piece of lakefront property had a shallow pebbly beach, and Dad put in raft for us to swim out to. There was a sandy spot on the lake bottom on the way out to the raft where I stopped to rest just before it got over my head. I didn’t like to touch bottom where it was muddy and yucky; I still don’t. I remember you standing on that sandy spot and holding me in your arms as the water caressed us. I was at an age where it was okay to be that close to your mother without feeling awkward. Fifty years later I’m at an age like that again, but in a different, deeper way. Torrents have since flowed under the bridge of our lives.
One pre-teen summer I yelled “Help!” from somewhere near the raft, and was punished with three swim-less days for crying wolf. I deserved it. Another summer you introduced me to the pleasure of “skinny dipping,” which we did after dark under starry skies. I adored it.
Although you’ve always loved the water, you’ve never been a strong swimmer. But you encouraged me to be. I earned my Red Cross bronze medallion in my late teens and worked as lifeguard at a local campground one year. When I was at university I swam almost every day; it helped me stay sane and centred. Three decades down the road at peri-menopausal 49, I completed my first sprint triathlon. My training included an hour each day in the pool. Again, it helped me stay sane and centred.
In 2005, while body surfing off Jumeirah Beach in Dubai, I was ground into the seafloor by a wave like a cigarette butt might be crushed into an ashtray. The emerg doc said I was lucky not to have broken my back. He put four stitches in my lip, salved the raw scrapes all over my face and sent me home with my tail between my legs. I never told you.
Your lakefront lot provided a seasonal refuge for forty years when you lived in the big red house on the hill. There was no pebbly beach there, rather a direct slate drop to the water fifteen feet below. You had solid wooden stairs and a dock built. Someone put a ladder into the water in the spring so you could easily get in and out; it was taken out in the fall so the ice wouldn’t break it.
You and I swam from the dock hundreds of times, often naked even in the middle of the day because there was no one around to see or judge us. It was fun and naughty. We laughed and enjoyed the water’s sensuality. We were refreshed and rejuvenated; it was one of life’s simple pleasures. Afterward, we sat and watched the speedboats and sailboats zoom and slice by. In recent times you spotted the same boats over and over and over again.
“Look at that big boat Punkie,” you’d say and point.
“Oh yeah, that’s a big one,” I’d agree. A few minutes later you would repeat: “Look at that big boat Punk,” as you pointed. “Oh yeah, that’s a big one,” I would agree again. And so our softly broken record replayed: you forgetting what you had just said; me practicing patience with mixed success; the lake kissing the dock in little wavelets.
On July 22, 2012, we went down to the lake for a dip. The water was grey velvet and black. You swam alone and heard loons in the distance. You asked if I could hear them too. I filmed you with my iPhone. Last night, I stumbled across the video. Toward the end you are caught in the reflected light of the setting sun. As I watched, my heart filled with love, gratitude and grief. And I cried.