70. A Fish Out of Water

70. A Fish Out of Water

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Curvy & Confident

A Fish Out of Water

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

~Albert Einstein

I was a tomboy. I liked being outside getting dirty and playing baseball in the street. I had a wicked throwing arm — no matter how far the ball went down the street, I could throw it back to home plate.

I loved climbing trees, building forts, catching fish in the creek and rescuing wounded animals. But my favorite activity was scavenging scrap wood to make a raft to float down the creek behind our house. When it reached the river, I’d jump off and swim to shore. I loved the water.

When my father was stationed in Hawaii with the Army, our family would go to the beach on weekends. We kids mostly played on the beach or waded in the water. I was six when my father told me there were hundreds of colorful tropical fish past the breakers, on a reef half a mile from shore. I wanted to see them.

“You aren’t strong enough,” my father said. “If you are able to swim out there, I’ll go with you.”

He promptly forgot that he made this promise, but I didn’t.

When school was out, my mother took us four kids to the base pool nearly every day. There were three pools: One for babies, one for kids playing, and the adult lap pool. I wanted to swim in the adult pool. I wanted to practice so I could swim a half-mile to see the fish.

At seven, I asked the lifeguard every day to let me swim in the adult pool. Hardly any adults swam there during the day because they were at work. I guess the lifeguard finally got tired of me asking because one day he said if I could swim 200 yards without stopping, he’d give me an adult pass and I’d be able to swim there any time I wanted!

I practiced in the play pool for two weeks. When I took the swim test, I kept swimming until the lifeguard finally grabbed me and stopped me. I got my swim pass! From that day on, I swam every chance I had. I grew stronger and started to have visible muscles. When it was time to swim out to the reef, my father was the one who couldn’t make it. His friend swam with me the rest of the way.

I matured early, and by ten I had the height and figure of a grown woman. I was sensitive about my mature body and hated the way boys looked at me. I started swimming with a T-shirt on. Other fifth grade girls didn’t experience this problem so they made fun of me. They couldn’t imagine how self-conscious I was about my body. By seventh grade, I was so shy that I rarely looked anyone in the eye.

My love for swimming continued, but I noticed that the other girls on the swim team stayed thinner and significantly less curvy than me. I didn’t let that keep me from competing, but between races I’d huddle under two towels. It was lonely being so different.

I tried different sports — track, softball, kickboxing, cycling and racketball — and I was usually the curviest girl there, too. My athletic ability was often overlooked because of my body shape. As an adult, a co-worker asked me to be on the company’s co-ed softball team and I was thrilled.

“You don’t have to play; just sit on the bench,” he said. Apparently, they needed another woman or they had to forfeit the game.

I sat on the bench and watched as the team dropped fly balls and overthrew the bases. When our team was down by four runs in the seventh inning, they put me in. I made two outs at first base, and clobbered the ball for a triple with the bases loaded, adding three points to our score. My co-workers were in shock. I could play; I just didn’t look like I could play.

After college, I taught swimming. I loved working with kids, but it hurt every time parents asked for a different teacher before I even worked with their child. They assumed I was a bad swim teacher because of my full figure. The other teachers “looked like swimmers.” By the end of the four-week beginner class, my students could swim in the adult pool while the other kids were still doing the dog paddle. After that first summer, I always had a waiting list of students for my classes.

I was also the head coach for several year-round competitive swim teams and once again, parents walked out before their child even swam with me. It happened so often that by the time I was thirty I had a full-blown case of body shame. Getting into the water to work with the kids on stroke technique became difficult for me.

I realized how beautiful and strong my body must be to this young girl who wanted to be a swimmer like me.

I had a natural feel for the water. I was a born swimmer. I could teach anyone of any age to swim well. It was both a source of great joy and pain for me that my strong, athletic body was considered “fat” by so many people.

One day, after swim practice, one of the nine-year old girls on my team said she wanted to have a body just like mine when she grew up. Tears welled in my eyes.

“I want my thighs to have big muscles like yours some day.”

I realized how beautiful and strong my body must be to this young girl who wanted to be a swimmer like me. She saw my life, energy and joy when I swam. She saw my passion for the sport when I coached her. I was a role model of what a swimmer was supposed to be. She, and the other swimmers on my team, didn’t see me as a “fat” woman; they saw me as the athlete I was. I was still that seven-year old who swam a mile out and back to the reef to see the fish.

My body may be a liability on land but it is perfectly equipped for water. I was only fat when I wasn’t in my natural element. I was only fat in the eyes of those I wasn’t built for.

But I was built for this nine-year-old girl’s eyes. I was built to show this future swimmer, who wanted to be just like me, that she could do anything. I was built to mentor and teach her to love herself. I was built to teach her how to get anything she worked hard for no matter what she looked like.

I was built to show her how to be the amazing woman she was built to be.

Just like me.

~Kathryn Lehan

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