A few weeks before I departed Abu Dhabi, one of the other expats working at Khalifa University showed up at my desk in External Relations.
“I just heard that you’re a swimmer,” she said. “Olympics or something.”
“Was,” I laugh. “Qualified for Olympic Trials, but didn’t go.”
“A group of us swimmer types are helping teach female students how to swim. Would you be interested in that?”
“Sure. When and where?”
“At the Al Jazira Club on Wednesday nights. From 8 to 10 p.m.”
“Why so late?” I loved the idea of helping except during the timeframe when I was completely preoccupied with trying not to drown my sorrows. I’d been sober for five weeks. Still trying to get my own bearings on land.
“That’s open swim time for women,” she said.
“What’s the skill level?”
“All over the map. Some can’t swim at all. Some can do a few laps and have fairly good strokes.”
“I’d be happy to work with them,” I said, even though the idea caused me some anxiety.
She leaned down to whisper in my ear. “Most wear full swimming costumes. Head to ankle. It weighs them down, but there’s nothing we can do about that.”
I nodded. I wasn’t interested in altering their swimsuits or their culture –only their relationship with the water. They needed to be able to save themselves in a water-related crisis. And those occasions – boating accidents, falling into pools—rarely come with advance warning and opportunities to put on a Speedo.
My lone concern would be conveying basic stroke techniques to non-native English speakers. The swimming vocabulary – leverage, rotation, reach – is very specific to the sport. But most of Khalifa University’s mixed-gender student body was studying engineering and all of their classes were held in English. All I needed to do was translate their school lessons to their work in pool.
I took a cab to Al Jazira Stadium and didn’t, for one second, think about asking the driver to stop at Spinney’s. I was as focused on coaching as I’d once been about swimming. The driver dropped me at the pool entrance, parked his car, and walked over to the Bangladeshi coffee shop where a number of cabbies on break had gathered. I opened the Club’s side door to locate my tribe.
Al Jazira is home to an Olympic-size 50-meter pool. Impressive, but way too much water and space for novice swimmers. We’d have to corral the women by level and keep a close eye on them. But I was new to the program, and I assumed the coaching staff had sorted these details earlier.
One of the other coaches, a professor at Khalifa, greeted me with a handshake. Her physique identified her as a former racer. A sprinter. I felt a surge of adrenaline, as if we’d come to compete not teach.
“You must be Nancy,” she said in perfect English with a slight Slavic accent.
She introduced herself as a one-time member of the National Teams of Yugoslavia/Bosnia in the 50-meter freestyle. She’d trained at the University of Miami in Florida in the summers. We tried to determine if our paths had ever crossed. But she was 10 years younger than me. Even so, I was certain that I’d been faster.
The two other coaches joined us on deck, as our swimmers streamed out of the women’s locker room. Most in the swimsuits made especially for Muslim women. A few wearing light pants and t-shirts. And one in a bikini top with denim shorts! Some wore swim caps, but most let their hair hang free or with a ponytail. They were safe here from the eyes of men, and free to test those waters in terms of skin and hair coverage. My work would be to ensure their safety in any waters regardless of what they wore.
The Bosnian coach suggested that I take the top swimmers to the deep end and work with them while she helped the beginners in the shallow end with the other coaches.
I asked the KU team, as I called my collection of eight women, to dangle their legs in the water while I reviewed our lesson plan and gave a short demonstration of the techniques we’d cover. The most important of which was getting back to pool wall, especially when fatigued.
“Never, ever stop kicking,” I said. “The muscles in your legs are the largest, and they will carry you back no matter how tired you get.”
I asked the group to swim out to my place, about 10 feet from where they sat. We treaded water for a minute before I instructed them to swim to the wall.
“Swim slow and steady,” I advised. “There is no need to sprint. Make your strokes even and purposeful. Hold onto the water as if it were a solid mass.”
Survival over speed—a new concept for me as well. I went with them. Letting most of the girls finish before me.
Holding on to the wall, I asked them to pull themselves up on desk, using only their upper body strength.
“First, try it with your arms set wide apart.”
They struggled to pull themselves up the 12 inches from water to deck. Arms collapsing in the process, sending them back in the water.
“Now, try it with arms and hands at shoulder-width.”
I demonstrated, transported from water to land with one motion. The women followed my lead.
“Why does that work better?” I asked, as we all sat poolside.
“Physics,” one answered. “Fulcrum, load, effort.”
“Laa,” I say. Yes in Arabic. “Let’s talk about that in terms of stroke efficiency. If your arms are wide under your body when swimming, you won’t have as much leverage on it.”
I demonstrated while standing on deck. Arm reaches out in front. Pulls down through the water under the body. Recovers with bent elbow though the air.
They practiced on land—as I had done—and corrected form as I walked through the group. One by one, I asked them to jump in the water and apply the lesson to the water.
“Yallah,” I said. Let’s go in Arabic.
We completed the evening lesson by playing a game of “sharks and minnows.” I was the shark who tried to tag the minnows as they made their way from one side of the pool to the other. To escape me, they had to kick hard and pull efficiently.
Exhausted by the effort, we all pulled ourselves on the deck to recover. Some of the women were laughing from the fun, and infected the rest with their giggles. I found myself in hysterics before too long.
The water had leveled our playing field, so to speak. No longer Arab and American. Muslim or Christian. We’d merged into a team of Bedouin Mermaids. The best of all possible worlds.