Peace Corps Writers
Outward Bound
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Outward Bound (page 2)


Freddie LaNue, "drownproofing" instructor
Taking it up a few notches
Freddie talked to all of us the day before about this fearsome challenge. He taught the group something he called the keyhole stroke for effective underwater swimming. Then he said we could practice, but were not to swim the length of the pool, just across the width and back.
     You made it when you touched the end you started on. He reinforced the simple rule, come up for a breath for any reason and that’s it. The big thing was . . . no second chance. If any of us failed this test, there will not be another chance, period.
     The challenge was clear — make your first shot your best.
     Freddie then did some serious confidence building. He explained to us exactly what to do as we swam — look for the lane lines on the bottom of the pool, come in low at the other end so we would not mistakenly push our heads out of the water, graze the bottom of the pool as we pushed off the other end.
     Moreover, he told us how we would feel at critical points: “Your stomach would start to throb,” and so on. He said he had a lot of experience with watching people in this situation and when we got close to fainting he could tell and people would be right there to pull us out. So, not to worry about drowning.
     Then he told us about hyperventilating and how to use it, pointing out that when your fingers start to tingle you are ready.
     One of my friends was skeptical. He recalls, “I knew this was going to be near impossible. I was sure there was no way I could possibly make the length. I couldn’t even do the width. Others were of the same mind. Freddie had us snookered.”
     And we were still reeling from the drownproofing lesson conducted in heavy surf on an isolated beach several days earlier. As waves broke, we had been thrust violently into underwater currents that left us with sand burns and bruises and frightened from the disorienting effect of tumbling over and over underwater.
     This morning we sat on the edge of the pool, our legs dangling in the water, as we listened disbelievingly at what Freddie wanted us to do.
     My friend recalls, “I remember us all being quiet, up tight and concerned, but determined too.”
  From Britannica.com: Damocles was a courtier of Dionysius the Elder of Syracuse, in Sicily, tyrant from 405 to 367 BC. According to legend, when Damocles spoke in extravagant terms of his sovereign's happiness, Dionysius invited him to a sumptuous banquet and seated him beneath a naked sword that was suspended from the ceiling by a single thread. Thus did the tyrant demonstrate that the fortunes of men who hold power are as precarious as the predicament in which he had placed his guest.      Throughout our training, there was always individual pressure to go further, do more, push the envelope. Each of us was acutely aware that the Damocles sword of “deselection” constantly hung over us. If any one of us was judged to be somehow unfit, inept, unworthy of Peace Corps’ high standards, the staff could simply wash us out and send us home on the next plane. It was that simple. No reasons, just here one day and gone the next. And along with it, one’s dreams of serving overseas as Peace Corps Volunteers.
     So we were all under tremendous self-imposed pressure to excel in anything we did, proving our worthiness, digging deep within ourselves to exhibit impressive levels of motivation attesting to our commitment to be part of John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier.
     It was a test. None of us wanted to fail.
     And now it was a test of endurance, swimming without breathing until — what? Until you drowned? Passed out? Came up and got a breath and then ended up hustled out on the next flight to the mainland?
     It had finally come down to this one test of individual resolve and commitment. The group couldn’t help you anymore. It was self-conflict in its purest form, battling instinct for survival against the will to go beyond endurance, to venture into the unknown.
     It was symbolic of all we’d volunteered for.

The advantage of experience
To me, it was déjà vu. I’d done this often before, swimming as far as I could without taking a breath. During my freshman year at Iowa State I’d managed to earn my way onto the swimming team as a “walk-on” and the coach assigned me to specialize in breaststroke. It was 1956, and the rules for breaststroke were still in transition. At that time, competitive swimmers were not limited to a single underwater stroke at the start and on each turn as they are now. Back then you could swim underwater for as far as you wished before surfacing for breath.

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