Learning to Love Water

| May 2, 2012 | 1 Comment

Submitted by LauraLynn Jansen

(Ed. note: LauraLynn was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and given a 50/50 chance of survival at the age of 20. Now, she faces down her fear of water. You can read more info on her website at www.lljansen.com)

Coolness from the water sends a sensation of refreshment to my body still sticking up in the humid summer air. I slowly move my legs against the watery walls of resistance known as Jenny Weber Lake. Looking down I can see the bottom – sand and rocks beneath my feet. I step carefully so not to stub my toes or step on a sharp edge. Several feet out from the shore, the water becomes murkier. My feet pause balancing on a large stone.

What is out there, really? I’d love to swim out to the floating dock where all the adults go. I wonder what I would see, what creatures beyond fish hide way down in the deep?

Then from no logical place a fear begins to wrap my whole being. Panic piles up and I begin to slowly walk backwards closer to the shore.

Surely whatever it is, it will grab my foot with its mouth… and pull me down below the water’s surface. It will pull me into the deep, dark bottom of this lake. I won’t be unable to see anything. I won’t be able to breathe.


Just a little over four years ago while living in Texas I took adult swim lessons with the desire to start conquering my fear of water. Again and again I have peered over the side of my kayak wishing I would feel safe on/in the water despite it being my birthright element as a crab (Cancer). My pfd (personal flotation device) never gives me enough assurance to not fear the mysteries lying in the deep waters I skim across.

So every week I walked around the pool’s edge to the shallow end. Before even a toe submerged I peered over the watery surface scanning for anything that could…well…anything that could do anything to me once I got into the water. My instructor a petite younger teenager; I silently questioned her capability to rescue me if I should drown at the deep end; and the other students waited patiently for me to complete my ritual scanning and skepticism.

The first two days we focused on putting our faces in the water. I did it quickly my initial attempt but needed to immediately wipe the water off my face. This need is still an unexplainable reflex. Maybe I unconsciously need to be able to see right away just in case some creature materializes in the pool during the brief period my eyes are closed. Goggles help slightly manage that panic now.

As our lessons progressed those of us who could float our whole bodies in the water — my determination got me into this elite group — then attempted to float our whole bodies and with a few different swim strokes. I was able to do a few repetitions of the front crawl in the pool lane before I panicked about not being able to breath, or my legs fell like dead weight pulling my whole body down into the water.

I convinced myself I would never be able to swim laps. It was just too hard. By the last lesson I still couldn’t do a half lap, however, hanging onto the side of the pool at the deep end was an immense accomplishment. One eye wildly scanned the watery world around me, while the other eye focused on the item lying on the blue bottom twelve feet down. I dove to retrieve the items thrown by the instructor, eventually bringing them to the surface for a reward like a loyal dog. After my last class I proudly displayed my swim certificate on the fridge. I smiled wide and proudly when a friend acknowledged my accomplishment, “You have acquired Guppy Status.” I am going to live up to my water baby status, I silently vowed.

The same year I left Texas and lived land-bound and pool-less for three years. During that time I twice visited the Hawaiian Islands where I did a few fairly short snorkels. Neither really required I swim however they kept me facing my fear of the deep. While on Maui I courageously signed up for a kayak tour promising the sighting of turtles. An underwater daydream of mine has me meeting a turtle in her own watery turf, so here was my chance.

After our group got into our kayaks I easily paddled out onto the ocean, trying not to think too much about where I was water-wise. My eyes took in the beauty of the island’s edge and the water rolling out to infinity. I felt confident and strong as I lead the pack to our turtle-home destination. Upon arrival the guide showed us how to hook our kayaks together then simply said, “just roll out of your kayak into the water.” WHAT!?!? Here in the middle of the ocean?!?! I looked around to assess how far out we really were. It most definitely isn’t the middle of the ocean and we’re not even a quarter of the way to the big moon shaped island to our left.

One-by-one folks put on their snorkel masks and rolled off their ocean kayaks in search of whatever the watery world below had in store for them. How are they just doing that? Aren’t they afraid of what might be down there? Why had I not thought about having to actually get in the water to see the turtles? I peered over the edge through the fairly clear water to see if I could just spy a turtle from my safe seat on the kayak. Chicken! I sat back up then leaned again to scope out if anything could grab me. Bawk. Bawk. Bawk. Just as I put on my mask, to demonstrate my seriousness of actually getting in…

“Turtle!” someone shouted.

That’s it I am going in! Without allowing another thought to come into my mind I lowered myself feet first into the water praying the whole time nothing would grab me from below. I’m in… I’m in the ocean, real water! Oh, God… real water! Okay, calm down just start kicking around the kayak you can always crawl back in. Oh there is someone else I’ll stay near them that way we can both be on the lookout for dangerous creatures… I mean turtles.

Just breathe, the mantra grounding my mind as I repeated it over and over. I stayed close to whoever came across my path occasionally switching to another person as I pretended to slyly examine the coral. Then someone tapped me on the shoulder surely creating a yellow stream of fear from me as I turned to see a turtle just above me. The ancient look in its eyes, the quiet motion of if moving effortlessly through its watery home. It was so worth my bravery.

Fast forward one year and I am nearing the end of my time in the dreaded metropolitan area where life is fast and time to continue my watery world relationship is put on hold. I’ve made a monumental decision.

I’m going to do a triathlon.

I push back on my own decision. Really? But you just learned to run and you barely can put yourself into water! You don’t know how to swim, like really swim!! All you know how to do is move your arms a bit; nothing like real laps. You’ve never even done a single lap! My little Go-Girl gremlin (the name of the anti-able anything voice inside my head) knocks me down after encouraging me to make the decision to do the tri, hence her name. She encourages me as I contemplate a new venture then as I am on the verge of starting it she turns on me.

I keep her chatter fairly contained through the bike training and even most of the learning to run, which by the way I shifted to the barefoot-like method (5 finger shoes) after my first couple months of starting to run. Running alone was a tremendous challenge with my lungs still baring the scars of radiation from cancer treatment over 25 years ago.

Three full months before my first triathlon I land in my new Floridian home where water is everywhere I turn. It is invigorating and daunting all in one glance of the beautiful turquoise liquid washing onto the white sandy beaches.

I needed to get swimmin’ pronto!

A month of stalling later — I say I am researching where to swim — my ugly and totally skeptical self holds me in her deepest grips.

My partner corners me one evening after I come back from a run. It is two months until the triathlon.

“You know you have to get into a pool.”

So the next morning I drove over the bridge to Panama City Beach where the pool that “all the triathletes train at” is. I purchase a pass for 20 visits from the young woman behind the plexi-glass barrier. As my credit card is being rung up I look over at the pool and the long lanes laid out for swimmers.

I’m gonna need at least 20 to able conquer this new waterworld.

Twice a week I stand at the end of the 50-meter lane reacquainting myself with the water in front of me. The first few times a silent struggle ensues as I try to immerse myself and then go toward the deep end. The second half of the 50-meter lane seems completely unreachable. Inside I am freaking out thinking about it, but trying not to show anything on my face as I look toward the local swim team and the master swimmers. All the technique I had learned, forgotten. The ability to move my arms and breath all at once, completely clueless to me! How the heck I would ever swim all the way to the deep end of the pool worried me constantly.

One day one of the lifeguards noted my struggle of stopping every time I ran out of air. A few pointers for breathing in the front crawl and words of encouragement gathered a bit of hope in me. Eventually, I made it halfway down the lane without stopping. And that was it for the whole first month, July. The tri was just seven weeks away. One day I flipped out on myself mid-lap as I hung onto the pool’s metal stepladder next to the words ‘7 feet’ painted on the pool’s edge.

You are pitiful. You are never gonna make it 400 meters. You can barely breath through 25. That’s another 375 meters; another 15 laps! You realize that don’t you? You are never gonna be able to do this, just face it. You are never going to be a real athlete.

A swim/walk got me back to the beginning of the lane. Every bone, muscle, tendon and brain cell in me felt completely deflated.

O.K. I will try one more time.

There is this part of me, probably all of us that sometimes just kick in for no reason when I feel completely incapable.

I faced the lane, put my head down, let my legs float up, and began to move my arms trying to not think too much about it all. My breath slowly found a rhythm beyond panic. I made it a quarter of the way down the lane. I felt my body glide through the water – my breath effortless. The halfway mark came and went, the air continued to flow through my lungs. I was silently stunned by the ease. It was magic. I was stroking with my arms; kind-of counting my breath and somehow I just let go. It felt as if I was part of the water’s current. Effortless. The silent stream of motion brought me all the way to the end of the 50-meter lane. The whole watery way lay behind me without stopping, without hanging onto the step-out ladder halfway down the pool, without any disbelief in myself.

“I did it!” a confident mini-shout arose as I turned my body parallel to the side of the pool and held on. One triumphant smash of the water with my fist put a exclamation point on what I read “twelve feet” all in black on the pool’s edge. YES!

Above the swaying sea grass of the Gulf’s outlet I did my first open water, terrifying and disgusting all at once. The warm salty liquid made me want to vomit when I accidentally took some in. I spat and spat again to release the taste from my mouth. Pier to pier I propelled myself staying just close enough to touch the bottom with at least one foot, just in case. After that I waited till I arrived on Tahoe’s shore, where the race would take place before I reentered water uncontained by cement walls.

Several trial runs with my wetsuit made me more and more confident as one of my best friends, still a local to Tahoe, took me out for a swim in the lake everyday. The sandy bottom with some rocks a familiar feeling on my feet. My eight-year-old self was very grateful the clear water allowed me to see to the depths of my path. Little white caps slapping my face forced me to try turning my head the other direction. Each day I progressed a little, but never made the full swim without stopping.

Race Day, Lake Tahoe

“I feel no fear,” registered in my head as I stood looking out at the waters reaching for miles. How am I not cold in these “icy” waters? I was actually warmish, despite the 40 something degree weather. I was later informed the water temperature was in the 60s. My toes’ chill was thawing out after standing in the sand. We were all listening to my story being read to the thousand plus participants on the shore; and then the bestowing of the Award of Inspiration by the Athleta spokesperson. The spoken words an acknowledgment of life. My accomplishments personally with this physical body that has endured beyond the statistics as well as the recognition of my professional dedication to the health and well being of others. I’m honored.

Finally, the start of the moment I agonized over for six months. Actually more like years of misery and mistrust in my self before I even knew I’d be here.

Once in the water I did not stop. I did not grab onto a support boat, paddle board or kayak. I just swam. I couldn’t believe it I passed the safety havens without any fear. I just alternated between my back bug stroke, front crawl, sidestroke and breaststroke. The wetsuit pulling down on my shoulders made my lungs feel even more constricted so I allowed myself to be on my back and side so they could expand more easily. The second corner marked by a buoy had us headed directly into the sun, which was just coming over the mountain’s peak. The brightness blinded my ability to see where I was going. My thought had been to front crawl the last 175 meters, but unable to see I rolled onto my back again. My view brought into sight a wave of purple caps (the 40-44 year olds) rolling toward me. They were released five minutes after our group and were beginning to overtake me. Their bodies created extra turbulence adding to my feeling of disorientation. Still I did not freak out. I just stuck to my original plan.

Though it was a bit slower method I still got in to the shore in 17 minutes. I didn’t panic to find the bottom as I came in. Instead I glided through the water enjoying the last bits of a naiad world I’ve always been destined to claim. As I heard “LauraLynn you do it!” my hands went to my face feeling the goggles where my tears were gathering. I pulled them up onto the top of my head before shielding my face once again. I was slightly embarrassed momentarily to cry into front of hundreds of people watching us emerge from the water.

I had to stop and acknowledge this place the lake, a place of healing for me so many times. These mountains witnessed again my overcoming yet another HUGE fear. The first time looking death in the face, this time the unknown depths of these waters I so love.

The first time I sat on the shores of this lake flashed into my memory. I am popping my last chemo pill under a giant redwood overlooking the lake. At that time and for the last twenty plus years I yearned to climb these mountains or even scarier swim the crystal blue waters fed by the snow melt from high above. The emotion sat with me as I began to unzip my wetsuit.

I am healed, again.

LauraLynn has been an Integrative Health Coach and Speaker for almost two decades. Her karma yoga work is the directing of Catalyst Youth Leadership Project, a non-profit aimed to create real change for youth for generations to come. She is happy to live at the beach despite her tenuous relationship with water.

Her blog is at: www.healthfilled-life.blogspot.com
Her website is at: www.lljansen.moonfruit.com
Her book’s website (a memoir) is at: www.inspired2live.moonfruit.com

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  1. HI just an update on my contact information.
    My newer website is: http://www.lljansen.com. My blog is also directly associated with this website now.

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