Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Swim Qualification

Being the Men's Department of the Navy, the Marines Corps requires that all Marines qualify in swimming proficiency. Easy, right? Sure...

There was this one Marine, Lcpl. A. who came to me a few days before the swim qualifications to confess that he had some concerns. When I asked what was the problem, he told me that he never swam as a child, and had to have a lot of help to figure out just how to float. I asked him how he managed in boot camp, and he told me that he had a lot of help there too. He told me of a theory that he had regarding Africans having a higher bone density that made flotation and swimming more difficult for him than some others. It sounded only somewhat plausible to me, but what the hell do I know about bone density? I do know how to swim, so I offered to give him some help.

There are several levels of swimming qualifications, the level of which you are awarded are dependant upon the last level passed. To explain further, everyone gets into the water for 4th level. All will do all the techniques, and those that pass will have the option to continue to the 3rd, 2nd, etc., each level adding in number of techniques, difficulty of same, and length of swim. There are those that are quite content to crawl from the pool with a 4th level qualification. There is no shame in this, swimming is not something that we had the opportunity to train in regularly, and everyone recognized that swimming came a lot harder to some Marines, whatever shade of green they were.

When I had the opportunity to test for the highest level, a jump from the high dive lead off to the swim portion. This was to simulate having to abandon ship. The Marine was to; 1) Step to the edge of the board. 2) Cross feet (hitting the water from upon high with legs spread was a sure way to have a Very Bad Day). 3) Cross arms, with one hand pinching shut the nostrils. 4) Look down to ensure that you wouldn't land on anyone, or anyone important. 5) Raise gaze to the horizon, and 6) step. Now swimming was fine, I've just never been terribly fond of heights. I can deal with it, but I very much don't like it.

Upon getting the order to step to the edge and prepare to leap, the instructor started to get pissed when he thought I was taking my sweet time. He then noticed my toes inching in infinitesimal increments towards the edge, and my muttered curses at the world, and asked "are you afraid of heights? Ok then, just take your time and get it done." I remember being kind of surprised by his consideration, and I definitely remember being very surprised when the fucker pushed me from the board.


Back to the Lcpl., I gave him the same advice I give everyone, from how to pack your gear, what are the easiest strokes to maintain buoyancy and economy of motion in the water, and told him that I would be at the pool to offer advice when he was in the water. First thing off was the low board leap. It is the same event as for the higher level of qualification, just from the lower board. He did all the steps, and entered the water...and sank like a stone. We were starting to be concerned, when he finally began to rise. He broke the surface and began to swim.

You know how in the cartoons of childhood, the character will have all arms and legs moving sooo fast that they are just represented by circles? That is what he looked like. His arms and legs were pumping and kicking, water was flying into the air. It took me a second to realize that he was not moving. He was bobbing up and down on the near tidal waves that he was causing, but there was absolutely no forward motion. At all.

I started screaming at him to calm down, breath, cup the hands and all that jazz. He nodded, slowed down, sank about two feet, and almost drowned. Back to 150,000 rpm and 0 mph. After a solid two minutes of all out going nowhere, he actually started to drift backwards. I have never seen anything like it. I could not figure out how someone could be working that hard and be going backwards.

He drifted back so far that he ran into the wall underneath the diving board. Using the wall to kick off from (technically a no-no, but no-one was going to give him any grief considering how hard he was working), he managed to gain some momentum and to keep it going enough to slowly, painfully, inch his way to the other end of the pool. He was so exhausted he had to be helped from the water. 25yds, about 4 or 5 minutes.

He was quite happy to leave the water, but kind of disappointed in his performance. I explained to him that methods and techniques can be taught eventually. It was his display of will power and refusal to quit when the going got tough (or even underwater) had impressed me and most others, for sure.

Man, he was terrible at swimming.

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