Among Notre Dame traditions, there is one that is cruel and unusual.
Nobody warned me about it before I left New Jersey for freshman year in 2004. I probably would’ve stayed home had I known that, within a week of arriving on campus, my recurring nightmare about finding myself half-naked in front of a room full of people would come true.
Physical education is a requirement for all ND freshmen, and my section’s first meeting was held in a classroom. About 25 of us gathered to watch an informational video about the Notre Dame Swim Test. It was straightforward and terrifying: the next class session, we’d gather at Joyce Aquatic Center and swim two laps on our front and two on our back. Form wouldn’t matter. Just make it through the four laps and you’d pass the test. Those who passed would be able to sign up for other phys ed offerings, like ballroom dancing or fencing. But the failures would have to take a couple months of swim lessons if they hoped to graduate someday.
I spent the next few days worrying. Sure, I had grown up going to the shore each summer, and I’d taken swimming lessons as a 5-year-old, but I had never swum four consecutive laps in my life. And how does one swim on one’s back, exactly?
When the time came, I walked across campus to the aquatic center. In the locker room, I picked up a towel and put my glasses on a shelf.
I shuffled onto the slick pool deck, inching along with my arms held out for balance, zombie style. On the opposite side of the pool, hundreds of blurry freshmen were lining up in front of about ten lanes. I reached the group without falling, and stood in the first line I came to.
One student after the next jumped into the pool, swam four laps, and climbed out. A lifeguard at the end of each lane handed him or her a green laminated card to indicate successful completion. Every swimmer I watched passed.
Most of the lifeguards were students themselves. The one at the lane next to mine seemed to be napping, half-waking up after each swimmer to hand over a card. The successful swimmers took their green cards to a bank of computers manned by phys ed teachers. They turned in the cards, gave their names, and learned how to register for a fun phys ed class.
When there were just four or five students to go before my turn, I noticed that the lifeguard in my lane was not bored or sleepy. She was loud. In fact, she was yelling at every single swimmer, no matter how they did – usually praise, an occasional critique. She just yelled and yelled.
The student directly in front of me dove in and swam four beautiful laps.
“Were you on the swim team in high school?!” our lifeguard yelled while handing her a green card.
“Oh, yes,” she said, and the two talked about swimming for a few seconds in a jargon I didn’t understand.
The lifeguard then turned toward me. “You’re up!” she yelled.
I took one last deep breath and jumped in. I pushed off the wall and began to doggie paddle with all my might. I made it to the end of the pool and grabbed on to the wall to rest a minute. That wasn’t too hard, I thought to myself. I was gassed, but confident. I doggie paddled back, and started to think how I might try the on-the-back portion.
But as I eased in to the wall, the lifeguard interrupted my relief.
“Get out of the pool!” she yelled.
“Get out of the pool! That was terrible.”
“I thought form didn’t matter!”
“No, you need to take swim lessons. Get out of the pool.”
The gymnastic maneuvering required to get out of a pool is always awkward. It was more awkward than usual that time, as dozens of classmates I had never met were watching. I imagined their expressions, probably mixes of sympathy and relief it was me and not them. I was grateful I didn’t have my glasses.
The lifeguard handed me a laminated card — a pink laminated card. The color of swim-test failure.
I shuffled slowly around the pool to the computer table. “Ah, tough luck, buddy,” one of the instructors said. “See you next time.”
I returned the following week for my first class. Our group of 20 was taught by Skip Meyer, the men’s varsity basketball trainer. In our bathing suits, we started the period in a meeting room next to the pool, where Skip described what we’d be doing that day. The embarrassment in the room was thick, like at a middle-school dance: all the boys sat together on the extreme right, and the girls together on the left, leaving the middle of the room empty.
Before we could get in the water, we had to pick up two accessories, a blue kickboard and a flotation belt. The belt was a big, plastic thing — more like a boxing championship belt than a typical leather one. It had three foam pads: one for each hip and one for your back. The rules were rigid: no flotation belt, no pool. No pool, no graduation. So I put it on and adjusted the pads.
Each session, we practiced different swimming basics. We held on to the side of the pool, inhaled, put our faces under water, and exhaled. One student did not understand how this was possible, and exploded like a geyser each time he tried it.
We learned the elementary backstroke, the sidestroke, and the front crawl, and even played water polo – standing up in the shallow end.
One day, after a few weeks of lessons, we were allowed to go into the deep end. We traded in our flotation belts for life jackets, and took turns jumping off the high dive. Skip explained that this was to simulate what we might have to do if we were ever on a sinking cruise ship. On other days, there were relay races, and I was always asked to swim the anchor leg. It turned out I was the fastest elementary back stroker in the elementary swim class.
On the last day, Skip gathered us in the meeting room one more time. “When you’re a senior, you won’t remember who was in a math class with you, or an English class,” he said. “But you will always remember everyone who was in this class.” And it was true — even years later, I might recognize someone from elementary swimming class on South Quad. We’d make eye contact, have a moment of realization, and then look down and walk quickly in opposite directions.
After that final session, I headed to the bookstore and went straight for the t-shirt section. I bought a gray shirt with blue text that read “Notre Dame Swimming,” because I was now a certified Notre Dame swimmer.
This essay received honorable mention in this magazine’s 2013 Young Alumni Essay contest. To see the winners, visit magazine.nd.edu/news/45034/.