I hate swimming. It has nothing to do with the water being cold. But any blue swimming pool makes me want to throw up. I feel a sense of helplessness engulf me. I try to physically get as far as I can. This reaction is not because I almost drowned as a child, but an even greater life-altering event.
It’s a chapter I relived, when I read about the conviction of Larry Nassar, a former USA Gymnastics national team osteopathic physician who sexually abused over 100 young girls under the pretence of giving them medical treatment. As I read about the trial, the memories came flooding back.
I was abused by the swimming coach when I was 12. I was groped while being taught how to swim. At a swimming camp, during a summer vacation. For any parent watching from the surface, it would look like a child holding on to the railing to keep her body parallel to the pool floor as she learns to kick the water. A beginner’s first lesson to staying afloat. I was buoyant, but instead of holding on to my tummy to stop me from sinking, he was touching and squeezing my breasts — those new parts of my body which I was still learning to live with. I was shocked and scared. It happened every time he came close to me.
I would watch him move on to the other girls who were also holding on to the railing next to me. There, he looked harmless, like a “real” coach, teaching young girls to swim. They were giggling, happy that they were now afloat, kicking up a storm. I somehow had no energy left in my arms. I just couldn’t kick as hard. Not after what he kept doing to me. I still remember wondering if he did the same to the other girls. The chlorine water stung my eyes. I could feel the tears welling up. I felt broken. It felt like it was my fault.
I still remember his face. I wish I didn’t. The pool was surrounded by parents watching their little ones overcome their fears. I watched my mother smile proudly. I waved back often to her, but kept thinking if I should tell her what was being done to me. Maybe I will tell Mummy tomorrow?
I finally learned how to swim. A week later came the diving lessons. He asked us to line up at the edge of the pool, towards the deep end. “Don’t worry, just jump. I will catch you,” he told the girl at the beginning of the line. She flopped in the water like a startled frog. We laughed. Then, after a series of splashes, applause and boos it was my turn. I was frozen at the edge. I took too long to decide if I wanted to jump. He was tired of waiting for me to jump in and put out his hand over the edge and tugged at my ankles, and I fell into the water. The sudden quiet. The festive tintinnabulation of air bubbles around my head. The slow pull of diluted gravity, all seemed like magic. Magic I couldn’t hold on to, since as soon as my head surfaced, he held on to me, grabbing me again. My chest hurt. It was not right. He took me till the steel ladder so I could get out of the pool. I got out, shivering.
The last class was a competition. Everyone lined up at the diving stations to jump in. I couldn’t dive. I swam to my post, and waited. The bell sounded. Everyone jumped metres ahead of me, already freestyling to the bobbing cork heads that were the finish line. I pushed from the walls, and swam slowly. I ached. I cried. I reached the tiled wall last. He was standing there at the edge, waving at me. The rest of the girls were waiting, they were impatient. I was holding up the prize distribution ceremony.
My mother was waiting with a towel. I got out of the pool, drenched. My tears looked like water. No one noticed. My mom thanked the coach for teaching me to swim, a life skill. I wanted to tell her he was a bad man. I didn’t. I wanted to tell her how I was hurting. I didn’t. I was scared she would be hurt. I thought it would make her cry. I don’t know what explanation I chose to talk myself out of telling anyone about what happened. A reason why even after 24 years I still don’t like to go into a swimming pool.
Sharon Fernandes is a Delhi-based writer.