My water world

Nearing 50, I had only learned to swim in my 20s after losing both of my feet when I stepped on a land mine on the Golan Heights.

Alan Rosen 88 224 (photo credit: Izzy Katz)
Alan Rosen 88 224
(photo credit: Izzy Katz)
It was exciting to be swimming so effortlessly. It was the first time I had felt this sense of freedom and harmony in the water. My breathing was easy. Though only a fleeting sensation, I knew that I would experience this more frequently as I mastered correct swimming technique. Seven months earlier, I had started my weekly Friday morning trek from Gush Etzion to Tel Aviv for swimming lessons at Ori Sela's Water World, arising before six to daven at the earliest morning minyan. There I was surrounded by competitive swimmers with tattoos proclaiming their loyalty to the Water World team. Fridays the pool was filled with babies playing in the pool without fear. Traveling the long distance made the experience that much more significant. My story is not typical. Nearing 50, I had only learned to swim in my 20s after losing both of my feet when I stepped on a land mine on the Golan Heights. Given my handicap, swimming was the only way I knew to exercise. As a child, I hated the swimming lessons that were a regular part of the day-camp program. The chlorine burned my eyes and water went up my nose and choked me. After my accident, I went to the local JCC in Chicago and took a few lessons determined to finally learn. I protected myself from the water with goggles and a nose plug and within a short time I was able to maneuver in the water. The lifeguard at the pool I frequented in Jerusalem occasionally threw a comment my way: "Boy, you're an awful swimmer." I asked him to share some pointers, but a teacher he was not. Two years ago, I moved to Gush Etzion. Within a week I had signed up at the local pool and was welcomed by the new community. Many shared their admiration as they watched me take my prosthetic legs off and crawl into the pool for my swimming regime, then crawl out and put myself back together. Among the regular swimmers was a group that competed in the Israeli Masters competitions, matching top swimmers from across the country. Reuven, a competitive swimmer since college, was always on the lookout for new team members. No one escaped his watchful eye and he made his spiel for my joining his group. Competitive sports had never been a part of my life. In my family we learned only of the importance of books. I was hopelessly uncoordinated. Before my accident I had been a mediocre tennis player and slightly better table tennis competitor. I could neither hit a baseball nor dribble a basketball. Me participate in competitive sports! I listened and nodded my head politely, wondering what was wrong with this guy. But awareness of the lifeguard in Jerusalem reminded me that there was much to improve. When I saw a story about Water World in the paper, offering high-level training, I called to sign up. I was terrified of driving to Tel Aviv, but my passionate desire to improve my swimming won out. I was met at my first lesson by Ori Sela, a seasoned competitive swimmer who would evaluate my abilities. Friendly and welcoming, he watched me swim five meters, decided he had seen enough and then got to work giving me basic pointers. By the end of the session, I had broken my 25-year habit of using a nose plug and had a whole new understanding of what swimming was supposed to be. It was thrilling to receive instruction in a professional sport setting. The following week, I met my teacher Tomer. When I complained about waking so early for minyan, he said that he also woke at the crack of dawn to pray before beginning his own swimming schedule. Not what I had expected to hear in this secular Tel Aviv haven. Each week he would help me to make some very small change in my technique, and improve my swimming abilities just a drop more. If I awoke early each Friday morning wondering why I was shlepping to Tel Aviv, by the end of each session I had the feeling that I had made a significant step forward. "Quiet," he said, as I splashed my arm into the water. I learned to put my hand in the water gently, perfecting graceful strokes. "Put your arm in the water straight," Tomer explained calmly for the 50th time, as my stroke invariably veered toward the center, a no-no. At times I experienced fleeting moments of concern about my athletic inferiority, but I pushed the thoughts aside, knowing that the all that mattered was to practice and get better. It's nice to dream. Can I compete in the Masters? Maybe. For now I'm happy to finally be an athlete; just one of the guys.