Yesterday's Magazette

6 – Learning To Swim

The Day I Learned To Swim

Story and Art by Richard Ong


The last thing I remembered was the horizon keeling on one side before the cold water swallowed up the sky and worked its way into my nose, my ears and into my mouth. Bubbles of air escaped from my lungs as I began to drown.


With my head beneath my legs, I struggled around to look for the illusive grab loop of the spray skirt wrapped around the rim of the narrow hole where my body hung trapped within the center of the inverted red kayak adrift in Lake Ontario.

I began to panic and thumped hard with my wet shoes against the inside bottom of the kayak. My fingers were cut as I pried the spray skirt canvas out of the fiberglass rim. Putting all of my remaining strength against one last desperate kick against the hull, I finally managed to free myself from the kayak and floated up, buoyed by the lifejacket around my torso.

As I neared the surface, my eyes adjusted to the iridescent sunlight that filtered through the lake’s surface like a kaleidoscope of colors. It reminded me of the pencils that I used to bring life into my illustrated swimmers many years ago when I was a child of six.

It was 1971 when I first won an honorary award for a drawing contest in my kindergarten art class in the Philippines.

“Oh, my goodness, Richard, let me see your drawing.” I looked up and showed my art paper to Mrs. Chan.

“Beautiful!” she exclaimed holding the drawing up near the light. She pushed her glasses up her nose and examined the swimmers–three boys in the pool and a little girl standing on the edge of a diving board. I noticed the shading indents at the back of the paper. Even as a child, my passion for art was evident in the intensity of my shades.

“It’s me and my friends, Mrs. Chan!” I exclaimed. “Look here.” I stood up and made my way around the desk. I stood on tip-toe and pointed at my swimmers. “That’s Francis. That’s Julius and that’s me, over there. Oh, I forgot, that’s Jenny on the diving board. Jenny is the star and we’re all waiting for her to jump and make a big –“ I threw my hands in the air with an exaggerated spread of my fingers. “—splash!”

Mrs. Chan rubbed my head and handed back my drawing. “And are you a good swimmer, Richard?”

I lowered my head and stared at my swimmers, suddenly wishing that I were somewhere else.

Four years passed, but I recalled the teacher’s question one day when my parents took us for a Sunday drive to a parkland resort area just outside of Manila.

The sun was exceedingly warm and I felt its prickling rays testing and searching for a way through the soft protective layer of my skin. The blue water of the pool looked inviting and it also made me nervous. There were a lot of families swimming, wading and sunbathing in and around the long oval of the country club’s Olympic-size pool. The kids were laughing, screaming and spraying each other with water.

Except me.

I stopped walking when I reached what I believed to be the shallow end where most of the younger kids were playing. I felt the garter of my swim trunks tightening around my waist, hurting my gut. I tried to kill time by fiddling with the locker key neatly tucked in a small inside pocket sewn in the lining of my trunks. All of a sudden, someone pushed me from behind and I flailed my hands in the air in panic as I lost my balance and fell into the pool.

“Boo!” I heard my cousin Nino laugh just before my face struck the surface of the pool.

I felt as if everything were happening in slow motion. Water went into my nose and open mouth as the top of my head sank below the surface. It was silent underneath as if the earth suddenly reached up and swallowed my ten-year-old body in its belly, cutting off all contact from the outside world. My eyes stung as my vision adjusted in the water. For a moment I wasn’t afraid of drowning. My attention was diverted to the various legs that moved in scissor-like fashion beneath the surface of the water. I realized that these dancing legs belonged to the little kids whereas the ones that stood on the bottom of the pool originated from their parents.

Barely a few seconds had passed since I swallowed water when I felt my own feet hit the bottom. I instinctively bent my knees and jumped, breaking the surface for air. The sudden auditory assault of people screaming and laughing all around disoriented me for a second. I panicked and splashed people with water. Every time I opened my mouth to shout, blue water streamed in to fill my belly. I tilted my body into a face-down horizontal position and pushed against the nearest object my toes good reach. It felt as if I just propelled myself by kicking against someone’s chest.

I tried to plow through the water using my arms like a pair of oars until I reached the nearest side of the pool. I hung with my arms draped over the hot cement while Nino continued to laugh.

“How was the swim, Richard? Was it good?”

In response, I threw up a belly-full of water on his shoes, grabbed his shirt and pulled him down into the pool with me.

It took another five long years and a trip that would settle my family halfway across the globe towards Canada before I finally met someone who inspired me to learn how to swim.

“All right boys, just a minute more!” said Karen Oliver, my Grade Nine Phys Ed instructor in swimming. Her auburn hair was tied into a ponytail and she bore herself with an athletic air of confidence. She was one the few people I admired and aspired to be in my first year in Canada. During one of the many teaching demonstrations in the pool, Miss Oliver’s body moved with such a grace that I believed she could’ve been a mermaid in another life.

Twelve of us struggled to thread in the water. My legs were numb with fatigue and I felt myself starting to sink.

“Spread your arms wide and gently skim the water towards and away from your chest. Most important of all, people, relax! The stiffer your body becomes, the harder it is for you to stay afloat.”

I tried my best to do what she said and arched my body backwards with my head tilted up towards her.

Water got into my eyes and I blinked through the haze. I imagined Miss Oliver bending down from where she stood, isolating me from the rest of the pack and spreading her protective wings around me like some guardian angel.

“Don’t fight it, Richard,” she said softly. There was an ethereal glow around her head and I squinted against the light. “The water is your friend. Do not be afraid. Let it embrace you, caress you. Trust in your body to keep you afloat for as long as eternity allows.”

Twenty-eight years later, these flashbacks down memory lane were suddenly interrupted by an alarming pressure in my chest. My lungs were running out of air and it was time to focus on my present situation.

I reached out towards the light and broke through the surface of Lake Ontario. The sun welcomed me back like a lost sheep as I drifted next to the inverted kayak. People on shore shouted, asking if I were all right. I grinned and gave my fellow rowers the thumbs up. With one hand braced against the kayak, I undid the clasps of my life jacket.

“Hey, what do you think you’re doing?” I heard someone ask.

I removed the life jacket and left it on top the kayak.

I threaded and took a deep breath.

“Trust in your body,” a voice said.

I swam toward shore.

Vol. 38 No. 2 – Copyright © Yesterday’s Magazette


Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: