I didn’t expect the silver-haired man in the hardware store in Lujan de Cuyo to ask me why I needed twenty meters of rope. If I had been prepared for the question, I would have answered with a believable lie: To lasso a bull. To play a game of tug-of-war. To hang a tire swing. Instead, I spoke the peculiar truth: “Para nadar,” I said. “For swimming.”
The man’s tanned face collapsed into doubt. “Perdón?” he said.
I explained as best I could (I hadn’t spoken Spanish regularly in ten years), but the more I spoke, the more perplexed the man seemed. When I finished, there was a long silence. At last, he nodded. When he handed me the rope, he said, “For swimming,” and winked as if he understood my true intention, which involved a lover or international espionage or a high-risk variation on auto-gratification.
My wife, our two daughters, and I had moved to Lujan for my four-month sabbatical from my university teaching job. My wife’s cousin Patsy and her husband, Zev, owned Argentine steak-house restaurants in the United Kingdom and had bought a small vineyard in Lujan in order to make a house wine. The vineyard came with a two-bedroom bungalow, which Patsy and Zev had invited us to use. In addition to the vineyard and bungalow, their property included a small, outdoor swimming pool. The pool was ten meters long and five wide—too small to swim laps in. But I had a plan.
My name is Mark, and I am an aquaholic.
On one occasion, I was so desperate to swim that I risked my life to do so. In the early 1990s, I worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala. Seven kilometers from the small town where I was living was a dairy farm with a small lake. One afternoon, craving a swim, I rode my bike to the lake, changed into my swimsuit in the wooden shack on the hill above the shore, and raced in. I could see storm clouds looming to the north. I even saw them light up on occasion. I didn’t know how fast they were coming, but I was determined to swim a mile before they arrived.
I completed my swim as a bolt of lightning struck pine trees at the far end of the lake. I raced into the shack, where I waited out the storm, listening to lightning crackle around me. Relief filled me—I’d done my swim! Oh, yes, and I’d escaped electrocution.
If I’ve risked my life to swim, I’ve done it, I suspect, because swimming has saved my life. I have suffered from life-long depression, and my most reliable, mood-lifting treatment has been a good, long swim. When in the fall of 2003, when I was thirty-seven-years old, my lethargy, despair, and anxiety prevented me from swimming more than a few laps, I knew my depression had conquered me. I required a stay in the hospital. The day I came home, I went swimming, the final piece to my recovery.
As a boy, Mark Spitz, who won seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics and, with Michael Phelps, is considered the greatest swimmer of all-time, would go to the beach with his family. As soon as his toes touched sand, he would sprint toward the ocean. “You should have seen that little boy,” his father told Time magazine. “It was like he was trying to commit suicide.”
I suspect it was the opposite: He was fleeing whatever demons were after him.
In the pool in Lujan, I tied one end of the rope around the base of a patio table. It was two in the afternoon, and my daughters—Annabel, who was nine, and Rebecca, six—walked up to the edge of the pool as I tied the other end of the rope around my waist.
They asked me what I was doing. After I explained, they asked me if the rope was going to hurt my stomach. “Maybe a little,” I said. “But I need to swim.”
I slipped into the pool and started swimming. The rope drew taught and pulled my body back a few inches. I resumed my swim, and a few moments later, I felt the swift pull of the rope against my belly. I felt like a 200-pound yo-yo.
I decided if I swam hard, I could resist the yo-yo effects of the rope. So I began a strong crawl. This time, my body inched forward. Rather than bounce back, it continued onward. I was a few feet from the far end of the pool when I realized something was wrong. I stood up and looked behind me. The patio table was at the edge of the pool, one of its legs like a diver on the end of the board. I had been one stroke from pulling the table into the pool.
My daughters were disappointed. They’d hoped to see the table take a plunge.