We stand in one long row, tingling with anticipation in our peculiar uniforms. I look to my left and to my right, seeing strangers, untested and unproven. Don’t focus on them. Just worry about what you have to do. I try my best to quell the paroxysm of emotion raging inside my chest, a mix of nervousness for what I’m about to do mingled with confusion as to why I’m nervous. I’ve done this exact thing countless times; this time shouldn’t be any different. I take several regulated breaths, a semi-feeble attempt to calm down. I see another test-taker a few spots down. Is he nervous? He doesn’t look nervous.
I shift my eyes forward at the task ahead of me, loosening my muscles in preparation. I reassure myself of my capability. I can do this. A voice behind me tells me it’s time, and before I can question my resolve, I feel my legs tighten, my feet abandoning the safety of solid ground. My new environment envelops me, and the sensation acts as an eraser of sorts, wiping away any passing thoughts or nagging worries. I am of single mind. Forward. My arms become twin couriers, propelling me further from my untested self. My breath becomes more ragged, and I begin to feel a familiar burning in my muscles. I don’t mind; there’s a satisfaction that comes too, a sensation of accomplishment. The anxiety of waiting has faded away, leaving the quiet strength of action in its place. Before long, I feel my hand slap against wet concrete, and I know my trial is a quarter of the way done. I allow the smallest smile to take residence on my lips, but my rendezvous with sturdy land is fleeting, and I immediately contort my body and propel myself forward once again. Forward, the only thing that matters.
My single-minded state begins to wane as I cross the halfway point. Fatigue has begun to circle me with hunger in its eyes, growing closer and closer with my every move. For the first time since beginning, I open my eyes to see the ceiling far above me. For a moment, I am distracted, taking notice of its size and the intricate pattern of its tiles. However, the increasing difficulty of my labor wrenches back control of my attention. With each impact, the burning in my shoulders is kindled further, each side quick to pass off responsibility to the other, over and over. My progress stalls as my pace becomes sluggish. Try as I might to maintain my resolve, doubt has entered the edges of my consciousness.
Concrete. I push off one last time, shooting myself toward completion, toward success. I refuse to submit to the exhaustion that nips at my heels. Instead, I channel every muscle, every calorie I have left toward my task. Another inch, another foot, another few repetitions and I will have completed the test and earned my place among my new peers. The glory of success fuels me onward, and I deprive the pain in my arms of any attention. My achievement is almost in my reach.
With a final, triumphant gasp, I emerge from the aquatic quagmire with the confidence of someone returning home from battle. Draped in victory, I take a moment to reorient myself to the conditions of solid ground and walk toward those who would judge me. Relief washes through me. Remnants of the test drip off of me. I turn and look back at the testing area, viewing its contents not as an obstacle, but as a worthy opponent, deserving of my respect. My mind, having recovered from its earlier state, is anxious to move on. I’ve done what I set out to do, and soon I will be gone from this place to focus on the path ahead. The judge, smirking like a Roman emperor, has other plans. I see her lips move and hear her words, but their impact comes a moment later, the crash of thunder from the lightning bolt of her decree.
“Your form just needs a little work, so I’m going to enroll you in Swimming 1.”
Photo by Matt Cashore '94
I stand there, completely dumbfounded. This wasn’t the deal. Before taking Notre Dame’s now-retired mandatory swim test, every single person I consulted told me the same thing: As long as I get through four lengths without drowning, I’ll pass with no problems. Every single person! Yeah, I’m sure I didn’t look much like Mark Spitz while I was doing it, but I put one arm in front of the other and moved from one end of the pool to the other without drowning. I didn’t even get water in my nose. Despite that, here stands this mild-mannered woman sentencing me to adult swimming lessons. Before I could wipe the water from my eyes, the standard had morphed from mere survival to keeping my head at a perfect 45-degree angle and making sure to never splay my feet horizontally. Was I crazy? Had I actually drowned midway through my backstroke and entered the afterlife?
I don’t question the woman despite my confusion. I don’t feel particularly confident in my ability to influence decisions around here seeing as I’ve been a student for around 96 hours. Instead, I carry the quickly dampening slip of paper that might as well have been a black spot on my hand out of Rolfs, trying in vain to make sense of what had just happened. I try to tell myself that my chances of making friends hadn’t just gone belly-up. Maybe I can tell people I failed on purpose as an act of respectful protest against corruption in the goggle industry. Maybe I can get a fake mustache and take the test again. I fill the trek back to Dillon Hall with similarly unsuccessful brainstorming, but as I arrive, I manage to cobble together a positive attitude. Of all the tests to fail, this one is probably the least academically catastrophic. I try to put it out of my head for the time being, hoping that my next activity will have a nicer ending, and maybe a little less water.
Hunter Kuffel ’17 is a writer and editor living in New York City. He can, in fact, swim.