Modern Manners: The Importance Of Staying Afloat

>May is National Water Safety Month. In preparation for this cultural milestone, I thought I would share my own story about why it is a good idea to be careful around large bodies of water.

Before I moved into my freshman dorm, my first association at Stanford was with the Lavender Lollipops. We were a group of eight freshmen-to-be and two older leaders participating in SPOT, the program that offers pre-orientation camping and service trips. My fellow Lollipops were a fun group of people, and our camping trip was a great experience. As an aside, it should be noted that our group name was assigned, not chosen.

The Lollipops went backpacking in the Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe. It is a beautiful area, featuring alpine forests and meadows, hidden lakes and streams and mountains that are sometimes capped with snow. Our first day on the trail was an easy one. The hike was uphill but was less than two miles, and by lunchtime we had reached our camping spot on the shore of a small lake.

After lunch, we explored the lake. When a lake is within a certain size range — and this one was — vigorous young people will always feel challenged to swim across it. It’s very hard to make an accurate estimate from memory, but the lake was perhaps 300 yards across.

Sure enough, we Lollipops decided to make a crossing, setting our sights on the sun-drenched boulders on the far shore. Most of the group got into the water together, but I lagged behind because I had scraped my leg on a rock and was putting on a bandage at the campsite. When I went down to the shore, the rest of the group was almost at the other side of the lake.

I decided to swim as fast as I could to catch up. Seconds after plunging into the cold water, I was swimming freestyle with all the strength I had.

Going full steam was a stupid idea for a number of reasons. First, I had just had a big lunch. Second, I had not done serious exercise in months, except for a handful of touch football games. In high school, I played baseball in the spring, relaxed in the summer and then whipped myself into shape for soccer in the fall and winter. This being the end of summer, my fitness was at my yearly low. (Confession: worried about not being assigned to a physically challenging trip if I told the truth, I wrote on the SPOT application form that I was jogging several times a week and playing tennis.) Third, the water was extremely cold, as it had been formed by snowmelt. If you’re not used to it, cold water can exhaust you in a hurry as your body struggles to stay warm.

Obviously, sprinting tires you out a lot faster than an easy pace. Sure enough, I ran out of gas about halfway across the lake. My crawl collapsed into a dog paddle as I desperately propelled myself forward, suddenly realizing the danger I was in. I tried to stop for a rest, but I was breathing so hard and tiring so quickly that I could barely float. I had never been in a direct struggle for survival. Part of me was expecting a surge of adrenaline, a burst of strength reserved for when it really counts. None came, so I just had to keep paddling, trying not to panic as my body sank lower into the water.

Once I knew I was going to make it, I grew calmer, and it became laughable how weak I was. Luckily, the place where I crawled ashore was a good distance away from where the other Lollipops were relaxing in the sun. After all, it’s pretty embarrassing to be the guy who almost drowns when everyone else crosses the lake easily.

As crazy as it sounds, my overconfidence nearly killed me. I had been a great swimmer my whole life, and I had routinely won races in P.E. classes. But that didn’t matter when I was alone in that alpine lake. In retrospect, the week before starting college was an excellent time to be reminded that it is ultimately up to me to keep myself safe, healthy and afloat.


Questions, comments, suggestions, anonymous tip-offs? Contact Jeff at jeff2013 “at” stanford “dot” edu.

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