Now I call him Ted but the day I met him I knew him only as the stranger who was willing to share his swim lane with me. That morning I was more excited than not to be at the pool. Enthusiasm carried me through through the locker room, the therapy pool and into the competitive pool arena. It stayed with me until I saw a woman with the kind of body I will never inhabit reaching for a towel. Initially I had been a few steps ahead of her but I could tell just by looking at her that she was a regular and would still be in the pool by the time I was showered, dressed and on my way home.
Since all the lanes were full I started watching the water aerobics class. Although most of the women taking it are at least twice my age I've learned the hard way that things aren't always what they seem; typically those women aren't even breathing hard after an hour of aquatic exercise. After a drink from the fountain next to me I pulled my towel tighter and went back to watching the lap swimmers. Anything done exceptionally well is beautiful to me, that morning it seemed like everyone was harmoniously swimming under water while the women above the water did their stretches and lunges.
Pretty soon I was so engrossed in the rhythmic progression of moving arms and legs that I kind of forgot that I had come to the pool to swim.
At my age learning new things isn't as easy. It's embarrassing to walk into a giant room full of expert swimmers knowing you'll be there for ten or fifteen minutes and your workout won't be intense to anyone apart from you. I stood there nonchalantly until the lifeguard gave me a sympathetic look. The woman who had been ahead of me in the locker room told me I could swim with her and I was trying to think of a polite way to refuse when Ted who had been in the far lane told me he was finished.
Near the swim ladder was Ted's wheelchair. Naturally I wondered what had taken his lower limbs from him but of course I didn't want to ask.
That morning Ted exchanged a few words with me before climbing out of the pool. People who are in good shape have a certain type of musculature. From the waist up Ted was long, lean and lithe from all the time he spent in the pool. Going back and forth without the use of your legs builds muscles, from a conversation I overheard I gathered that Ted was a regular who always swam in the far left lane.
Like most new things, swimming gets easier with practice. You gain confidence and while you know you'll never be in the same class someone like Ted you find yourself getting excited about the progress you are making. The woman whose body intimidated me earlier still swims for three times as long as I do however now I know she has three kids and works part time at a bank near my end of town.
Talking with her and Ted has become a habit of mine. From his face you can tell that moving on land isn't easy for Ted. In the water he had a more challenging time than the rest of us but that never stopped him from showing up at the pool first thing every morning.
One day there was a man I had never met talking to Ted. Politely I waited for them to finish their conversation. From the clock I knew that Ted would still have most of his workout left. Silently Ted motioned me into the water. That day the air was thick and humid. The lifeguard asked if I was okay after I did three laps and climbed out of the pool. When I passed Ted he asked how I was doing.
By that time his friend had left so I spent a moment telling Ted that the air was too thick for my lungs and I was calling it quits even though I had just gotten there.
Talking to Ted is nice because he takes stock of a situation, nods and you get the feeling that his attention is devoted to you instead of wandering around thinking about other more important things. That was the day I found out that Ted used to be a runner. Getting back into shape has taken me a while, I was discussing this with Ted and I felt kind of bad talking to him about how I had given up on a particular pair of shoes that I wanted. My first argument with Ted came after I told him that I had started swimming because running hurt my feet to the point where I felt like I could run, or stand for eight hours on a sales floor, but I couldn't do both.
Ted's older sister is a super nice woman named Nancy. She's a licensed occupational therapist who brings Ted to the pool on days when she has patients to work with. We have a really nice therapy pool and I'm glad that people have Nancy to help them deal with whatever problems she's working them through. Ted doesn't need her help to get in and out of his chair but it makes me feel better when Nancy is there because I always worry about him slipping when he gets out of the pool. During a talk with Nancy she mentioned that periodically it worried her how few people Ted had in his life.
I'm not sure how we got on the subject of Ted's missing legs but Nancy told me that Ted had been a promising young track star before he was hit by a car going more than seventy miles an hour. Ted should have been killed instantly however after months of recuperating he was able to return home.
Nancy told me that back then Ted had been suicidal. Alcohol hadn't been involved in the accident although it was something he turned to after he found out that a young kid driving his father's Cadillac Eldorado had cost Ted two legs and future scholarship money.
One of the people that Ted refused to see after the accident was his former track coach. That had upset Nancy and her husband but they realized that Ted would need some time to adjust to the fact that he was a normal healthy kid who was never going to walk much less feel tape breaking across his chest at the end of a race.
The more I talked to Ted and the more I swam the more I respected his complete dedication to a sport that he shouldn't have been good at. No matter what the weather was like or how much pain he was in Ted was at the pool.
One evening I was talking with Ted and a guy with Spina bifida. Both of his legs are still attached to his body but because of his condition they don't work the way they should. Ted introduced me as the girl who kept him in company in the pool. He also mentioned that I worked at a shoe store and I wasn't going to stop running just because my feet hurt. Ted told his friend that he wanted me to run because he knew how good it could make a person feel. Ted told both of us that he ran to win and then he told me something else I didn't expect to hear.
Ted told me that long ago he used to believe in God. Whenever he was running he'd say a prayer asking for God's help to make him faster. On bad days Ted prayed harder and it seemed to Ted that the harder he prayed and the more he trained the easier it was to turn in good times when he was racing. Being one of the best runners on the team made Ted a target for other people's jealousy. It made Ted someone others want to beat. Ted mentioned that while some of the guys he ran with believed in old fashioned ways of winning other people he ran with were into performance enhancing drugs.
The day before his car accident Ted had been called into the locker room by the track coach. Ted refused to tell his coach who was doing what and the coach hadn't been happy with Ted.
Eventually he told him that he would pull Ted from the next meet if Ted wouldn't give him the information he was looking for. While we were talking Ted told me that his last track meet had been his best. Before the meet the coach had told everyone that they'd be undergoing random drug testing and if anyone had a problem with that they could choose to leave the track team.
Ted went home that night with more medals than he had won previously. He was on his way home when a guy he was on the track team with stopped to talk to him. After the car accident Ted didn't remember that conversation had taken place until he saw that guy again.
Ted knew there was something important about the conversation only he couldn't prove that the guy was going to tell the track coach that Ted had been on drugs which is why he had won so many medals.
When Ted told me that he had never done drugs I believed him. He's not as old as you might think, pain has aged him and I'm sure some of the mental anguish he suffers has taken its toll on him. Ted is a survivor, he likes to talk but he doesn't talk to everyone, only the people that he thinks need his advice. It was kind of funny hearing Ted talk because when I run I get into spots where I want to quit and that's when I start trying to make deals with God. Ted told me I shouldn't do this, whenever I start praying for things I want I should try thanking God for the feet and legs I have.
So far Ted's advice has been solid. I've learned a lot from him and it wasn't what I expected to learn but it has been valuable advice I'm not sure I would have gotten from anyone else. Ted told me that God is good and people are smart but they're not as smart as God is which is why you should avoid trying to make deals with him. Whenever I see him Ted asks questions that let me know he can tell if I've skimped on a run. He told me I should take some swimming lessons and eventually I'd be one of the people who were oblivious of how others envied my commitment to the pool.
Thinking about people comparing me to Ted made me shake my head. I told him I'd never be as good as he is because swimming with two legs is hard and swimming with no legs is difficult to the point of almost being beyond my comprehension. I don't think Ted remembered that I was standing next to him when he looked beyond the pool to the track that runs past the building. I think part of him was reliving the days when he could run and people were jealous of him and his ability to lose himself in a sport he loved. When his eyes came back to me Ted told me that I could learn to swim the way he could. He said he recognized a quality that I had although he wouldn't tell me what it was when I asked.
Sensing that Ted wanted to be alone I told him I'd talk to him later.
While Ted was nodding at me he told me I should go running as soon as I got home. The next time I saw Ted neither of us brought up our previous conversation. You might think that I think about Ted whenever I run however his parting words run through my mind on days when I feel like I can't drag myself to the pool. Frequently Ted tells me that anything worth having is worth fighting for. He also reminds me of how he used to try and make deals with God. I think Ted's smile was a self-satisfied one when he told me that after God took away his legs, Ted learned how to swim.