Upstream – by Ramona Eloise

On your marks! … Get set! …

The crowd’s chorus of chit-chat and cheer seems to subside.

GO! My legs spring taut; the balls of my feet push off the diving block.

My coaches’ pressure to finish with the best times in my age group was already a steady tension in the back of my nine-year-old mind. But even the occasional sting of chlorine in my nose during flip turns didn’t hold me back from welcoming that engulfing plunge-splash into the deep end or the energy surging—at times, burning—through my muscles.

I focused on my strokes for the individual medleys, where each of the four strokes glide into the next after each 25m, without pause. My coaches’ mantra flowed through my mind as I swam: “Fly Back so your Breast can be Free.” Propelled by my dolphin kick for the butterfly, my arms came up and over and dunked down into the water, over, in, through, and back over again.

Silently timing the distance between the backstroke flags dangling overhead (3 … 2 … 1 …) to reach for the tiled wall before impact. Webbing my kicks, sculling with my hands, and mastering my breathing techniques (no gasping for air!) in the breaststroke. Practising front crawl again and again, to get my slower arm up to speed. Ah, and then the relief of removing my tight silicone bathing cap and my goggles, their suction-prints left behind, after a meet. (Or even, “oh no!”, needing the washroom after I got in the water.) I thought nothing would ever come between me and swimming.

“You swim like a fish,” friends and relatives and instructors repeated, the praise washing
over me again and again. After doing laps and laps with my mom for months at our small-town aquatic centre, I joined the local swim team … but I’d never trained like the other swimmers.

And so I kept up with practise and that steady relay-race between home, school, and the pool.

My worries dissolved once I dove in. Lap after lap. Lap after lap.

Little improvements:
_____breathing bubbles underwater
_____flip-turning without a pool noodle
_____keeping my belly level to the water when floating on my back…

Oh, how I dreamed of extending my underwater breathing time (flip-turn) so much so that 400m might someday seem a short distance. And I loved the sport too much, I was sure, to let it slip from me.

I remember sitting in my grandparents’ living room, watching the Vancouver Olympics on TV, with my Grandpere. His loud-voiced, false-teeth greeting and belly laughs were gone—replaced by jaundice, half-closed eyes, and a slowed, scuffing moccasin gait. We sat there, watching the athletes and awaiting their results. Then the medal ceremonies, and the anthems: national melodies ringing out the winners’ attainment of their hopes and dreams.

And then Grandpere died.

Lap after lap.

I began menstruating. Lap after lap. Extended family became estranged family. Lap after lap. My parents separated. Lap I suffered injuries from physical activities. after My beloved black lab Belle died. lap My childhood home, sold.

But, back at the pool, I had to block out all those struggles. Swim past them. From one month to the next, I dropped my 100m IM seed time by fifteen seconds.

Get set! Training got harder. I tried and tried to keep up, but my 100m IM time dragged, slowed some more, stalled. I’d praised and loved swimming so much … little by little, session after session, I felt drained. What I learned at school in those days is a blur, but I remember my homeroom teacher—the one who introduced me to writing in English—going out of her way to ask how I was truly doing. I was trying to make sense of all the choppy, turbid changes.

And swimming felt like yet another chore:

_____make my bed
_____tidy around the house
_____do my homework
_____attend swim practice
_____travel to weekend meet
_____lather, rinse, repeat

My mom encouraged me to keep churning away, to swim for fun, but … (GO!) I left the pool behind.

Now, after all those hours spent flutter-kicking laps away, listening to whistles blowing, hearing coaches’ yells, catching the start-and-stop beeps of the timekeepers’ chronometers, and inhaling whiff after whiff of chlorine on hair, I’ve realized that what can draw you away from your dream can teach you more about life than your passion.

When I was fourteen—no, thirteen (gee, maybe even earlier?), the chronic pain began. Instead of finishing assignments after school, I dozed off. When I was pushing away my plate of food—nausea swelling up, my nose and forehead wrinkled as the grimacing began, again—I wished I could just enjoy a meal. Life—suffering—kept crashing in. Bedridden with lingering fatigue and rib pain, which made my breathing (no gasping for air!) so ragged, I missed the water most when emerging from months-long flare-ups.

Months later, while relearning to move, step-by-step with the help of a walker, I got to my dresser, reached to the back of the bottom drawer, and found the goggles, cap, and one-piece swimsuit I’d stowed away.

Within a few weeks, I returned, for the first time in years, to the pool where I’d once trained, competed, built up my endurance and stamina, and then left behind. This time, to access the slippery surfaces, I borrowed the centre’s wheelchair, rolling in with the support of both my mom and my mentor—my first at-home academic tutor and health team supporter. No slow down! from the lifeguards this time.

I scuffed and shuffled my pool-shoed feet along the humid tiles. Then, tiled step by tiled step, I edged into the shallow end, holding onto the rail with one hand and my mentor’s arm with the other. Strangers were staring. But what glared back most of all was the contrast. Oh, I would’ve loved to jump into the deep end, again, into the engulfing splash … yet not just the lifeguards’ wariness but my own held me back.

Wading in, deeper and deeper, my instinct to swim was still there. Oh, to swim across, out there into the deep, to plunge down down down for diving rings at the bottom … but my body couldn’t.

For not quite a half-hour, I stood, then floated on my back, in the shallow end. The kids’ end. Shaky muscles. Flared pain. Fatigue. Not even a possibility of a lap.

Back home, I slept for hours. Days to recover.

I had been trained to be fast, get faster, and speed past my competitors—to be the first to touch the wall. To go, go, GO! But, years after quitting, I now see that life doesn’t have to be about the finish, but the head-down, stroke, breathing-through, stroke, one after another.

As the world plunged into a pandemic, I sat down to write. I began to look back on, to grieve, and to work out the complexity of my relationship with swimming, and with pain, through different strokes—the flutter-kicks of reflection and the keystrokes of my writing.

While drafting this piece, I was blessed to receive a handwritten letter from a father, willing to reach out and remember a young adult other than his own: “I’ve been informed that the Salmon searches for the strongest resistance in river current to guide their path forward.”

Thanks to people whom I wouldn’t have crossed lanes with otherwise, I’ve been led to turn pain into strokes on these pages. People, reflections, writing, and even (believe it or not) pain remind me that there is a way upstream.

In the river that is your life, float with the current or tread water when you must. And then, may you reach a time when breathing is more rhythmic, when you can find purpose—sometimes in unexpected moments, as you travail your way toward a guiding source.

And a passion that propels you. Lap after lap after lap.

Living in the ancestral and unceded territory of Mi’kma’ki, Ramona Eloise is a writer, historical research assistant, and Masters student in Francophone and Acadian Studies (Linguistics). Her writing – essays and poems – echoes vital coastal landscape, heritage, and language.


4 thoughts on “Upstream – by Ramona Eloise

  1. Ramona, I appreciate how you illustrate with words. … Young in years to realize “what can draw you away from your dream can teach you more about life than your passion.” Pain and loss are powerful teachers. May you have just enough resistance in the current of life to guide your way forward, resting in the eddies when need be. … May we be granted more days to stand together in the River of Abundance and Time. Grateful.

  2. What a gift, the strength and sensitivity of your body, spirit, and words as you carry us with you through the smooth and rough laps of your life. Thank you for taking us upstream with you, Ramona.

  3. Such beauty, honesty and the bittersweet taste of the fullness of life as it is are found in these words. They whisper to me to live in the depths wth wonder and to meet the pain in life with openness to what it offers.

  4. I love this story! So many wonderful human qualities are intermingled in these few paragraphs. Although I never swam in a pool until I was an adult, I easily relate to the relationship found challenging a body of water as I was raised on an island. Congratulations on the Honourable Mention Ramona!

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