Water portraits by Liesa Cole

Essay by Joe O’Donnell

“The pictures achieve something rarely articulated about the metaphysical state of swimming: The body, immersed, feels amplified, heavier and lighter at the same time. Weightless yet stronger.”

– Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies

I break through the water and breathe deeply before submerging again. It is timeless somehow, this submersion in water, as if we were meant to be like this. I was meant to be like this.

I started swimming at the YMCA in downtown Birmingham. Again. I go through this every few years, thinking that finally I will become a swimmer. Like my uncle. He swam every day for probably 30 years, the same strokes, the same pool, the same submersion. Month after month. Year after year. I watched him once when I visited him in California. Slow steady, moving through the water at a pace that seemed almost tranquil—as if he were moving through an entirely different universe.

And maybe we are in a foreign universe, weightless in water. I know I often feel weightless, floating and gliding there beyond the world.

There is a book, Take Me to the Water: Immersion Baptism in Vintage Music and Photography 1890-1950, that can give you a glimpse into this other world. Filled with about 75 vintage images of immersion baptisms at the water’s edge, the book is about 100 pages and comes with a CD with 25 scratchy, vintage baptismal songs from early in the last century. The images and the music create a powerful impression of what such a baptism must have been like, or is like today since the tradition continues, even though I’ve never seen an outdoor baptism.

Covered. Immersed. At one with the water. Maybe that is what we are all searching for. I know I have felt the power.

And so have the people in the pool at Lakeshore Foundation. Lakeshore is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization which serves people with physical disabilities throughout Alabama, across the country and around the world. Since 1984, Lakeshore has helped advance and promote the impact of positive, long-term physical and emotional effects of physical fitness on people with disabilities. From infants to seniors, to injured soldiers and elite-level athletes, every participant is free to discover his or her own potential.

Part of that potential is discovered in the water. With pool temperatures set at 92 degrees, the water at Lakeshore is there to heal: victims of stroke and other diseases, soldiers wounded in combat, people seized by the refusal of their muscles to cooperate, to move free from pain. So that water at Lakeshore is healing water.

But submersion in water can also bring unexpected dangers. I remember vividly when I was about 5 and my father was teaching me to dive off a diving board at a motel pool. He treaded water off to the side of the board and I would jump towards him. He caught me before I went all the way down and would pull me up. With each dive he would move a little further away from the board until I didn’t think there was any way he could reach me in time to keep me from slipping all the way down to what I was sure was the endless bottom of the pool.

Last dive. I turned as I dove and tried to grab a hold of the side of the pool to keep myself from sliding under. The concrete met the bottom of my chin in a bloody, little encounter which these days would have shut that pool down for days. Wired up teeth, stitches in the mouth and chin, I experienced the danger of water.

Not the way Steve Colter did, though. He fought for his life in the water. He describes the episode of nearly drowning on the Gulf coast as a soul-shuddering experience.

“Find a thought, something great, strong enough to keep you alive. That’s what I did and it kept my head focused on the mere task of getting air into my lungs.

“Our family was on vacation at a Florida beach. An area that claimed nine lives on the weekend we visited. We had just eaten dinner and went for a walk on the beach. The waves were much bigger than normal and my father, brother, and nephew went into them to play around. I observed for a moment and then decided to join them. I removed my shirt and handed it to my wife who watched me run towards the water as she held our 2–year–old daughter’s hand.”

His essay about the experience of nearly drowning in the Gulf is below. It really touches on the experience of an immersion nobody wants.

Fight for life

by Steve Coulter

Find a thought, something great, strong enough to keep you alive. That’s what I did, and it kept my head focused on the mere task of getting air into my lungs.

Our family was on vacation at a Florida beach. An area that claimed nine lives on the weekend we visited. We had just eaten dinner and went for a walk on the beach. The waves were much bigger than normal and my father, brother and nephew went into them to play around. I observed for a moment and then decided to join them. I removed my shirt and handed it to my wife who watched me run towards the water as she held our two-year-old daughter’s hand.

As I entered the water my nephew, Philip, was coming out. “It’s too rough,” he said as I passed by. By now my father and brother had swam out about 30 yards. I didn’t pause and just went right into the surf, swimming towards them. I paddled in their direction and when I got to them I was breathing deeply. I turned to look back at the beach and was alarmed at how far out we were. “We need to go back in,” I said. “Just rest and float,” my brother replied. I went to my back and tried for a short time but I had never been able to float on water and the waves just splashed over my face. I looked back to the beach and now couldn’t make out who the figures were. We were moving outward as we just treaded water. At that moment I knew we were in trouble. My brother and my father were having some success floating but I was getting tired. “I’ve got to go in,” I said. “If we let it carry us we can eventually get out of the tow. I learned that in diving class” my brother replied. I glanced at the setting sun and felt uneasy about how long we would have light and I was also unsure of how long I could continue to swim. I didn’t hesitate to ponder options, “No, I can’t float,” I responded and immediately turned to swim for the shore.

I swam hard at first, until I was breathing rapidly but when I looked towards the beach, expecting to have gotten close for my effort, was shocked at how little I had advanced. The current was continuously pulling at me so it was like swimming upstream in a river.  I looked back and my brother and father were still attempting to float and had moved further out. We need help, I thought. I pushed upward to propel as high as I could and then waved both my arms in the air as I screamed as loud as I could “Help.” I looked to the shore and still couldn’t tell who the figures were though it appeared that no one noticed my call for assistance. They can’t hear me; I’m on my own, I thought, and started swimming again. I dog paddled, back-stroked, swam like a frog and used the over-shoulder technique, but nothing made much progress. For several minutes the process went like this: A wave comes over my head, pushing me under a few feet and I would dig my way up to air then swim forward to advance a few feet before getting hit by the next one. Then I missed my timing on breathing as a wave came over my head and got some water in my air.  The salt water burned my nostrils as I expelled the air underwater and when I submerged I was just trying to get more air rather than making my way back in. A few more waves passed as I just bobbed up and down, trying to keep my head above the surface while not going back out and losing the advancement I had made. I could see people gathering on the beach like spectators just watching me in a fight, definitely an out-matched one.

A huge wave came over me and sent me very deep. Where in the hell was the bottom, I thought, as my feet must have been over ten feet under the surface. I felt like I was tied to a weight and struggled to rise from the water. At this point I felt I might not be able to reach the precious air above, I was about to die. I thought of my wife and daughter standing on the beach, looking for me to surface, hoping and praying I could find the strength to fight on. I think I started to cry as my lungs began to burn. The thought of them seeing me pulled lifelessly on to the sand was the push I needed to survive. Anger ignited my whole body. Mad at the spectators, mad at the water and mad at myself, I was not giving up yet. Still a few feet from getting a new breath of fresh air the sunlight on the surface grew fuzzy. Some force broke the bond to the weight holding me down and it was like the hand of an angel pulled me up. So anxious for air my lungs instinctively cleared as the now useless gas expelled and my neck stretched while my mouth opened in expectation of reaching that next breath. The phrase “nick of time” was spot on as just a second more and my lungs would have been full of water rather than air. The instant my lips broke the surface I took the biggest gasp of my life and though some water came with it, there was no gag or choke. I just ignored the gurgling salty drops in my lungs as I replenished my air supply. Now determined to get back to my wife and daughter, I just had to keep my head above water and surely some help would come. I looked at the growing crowd that stood several strides from the water’s edge and thought could one of them throw me a football or something to help me float. At that point I really thought to myself that I would have welcomed an arrow in the chest attached to a fishing line to pull me in.

I pushed as hard as I could, timing my strokes with the incoming waves to help me move inward and I made some advancement towards land. I looked down for the bottom, surely by now I was close to a sand bar as I was about 30 or 40 yards from shore but the bottom was way over my head. It was like the undertow had sucked away the sand. Breathing so hard I couldn’t risk the loss of air to yell and my muscles could only produce short jerky dog paddling to propel me slowly inward. If I didn’t get my feet to a place I could touch in order to at least give me something to bounce just a little boost of momentum I was done. I had gone farther than I thought I could. My muscles were giving out; sporadic pushes were all they gave me now. I focused on the motionless crowd again and they only brought me desperation. There was no activity, no movement or plan being formed, they had simply gathered to watch me drown. Surely at any second my body would just lose energy and stop. I don’t often pray but at this point spouted out loud, “God help me”.

Then I saw them, four bodies sprinting forth from behind the crowd their shirts flying off in stride. As they popped though the line of people on the beach, I was inspired to keep on fighting for my life.  It was evident they were coming in for me as three plunged through the waves heading directly at me while the fourth broke formation and went to my right. The three moved in to my position and though my vision was blurry but I now made out their faces, it was Philip and two other young men. They stayed out of arm’s reach, I knew that meant my look was that of panic and they didn’t want to be pulled down with me. “Cramping… can’t… go… much… more,” I mustered between gasps. I wasn’t cramping but couldn’t speak enough to explain that my muscles were not responding to give me enough power to even raise my arms above the water. “You are panicking,” the dark haired young man said as he moved behind me. I was thinking clearly and responded, “I won’t… grab on… to you.” He then began to give me shoves to my back as he took strides in the water. Philip and the other young man swam several feet in front of me looking back. “You’re going to make it,” Philip said. “Keep going,” the other young man with the buzz cut added. Shortly thereafter one of them said “put your legs down, you should be able to touch.” As I stretched I felt sand beneath my toes as they scraped to push me inward. Philip and Chris, the young man with the buzz cut, now had their shoulders out of the water a few feet in front of me and reached out to give me a hand as Mike Lindy, the darker-haired young man gave me one more push. I took a few steps and my legs buckled as a wave hit me in the back. My arms couldn’t even get out in front of me to slow my fall and I went face first into the three feet deep water. The three of them snatched me up. I was done, my body now shut off energy to everything but my heart, lungs and brain.

I was hoisted up and they carried me from water. “Is he the only one?” Someone asked. “Two more,” I mumbled out in a cracking voice. I couldn’t even raise my head as they laid me on the sand. I closed my eyes and felt consciousness slipping away. I heard Robin’s voice but don’t remember what she said. “Keep him awake, I’m going to check on the other one,” an unknown man’s voice ordered. I felt my face being shaken by gentle hands. My eyes cracked open to see Robin speak out, “You have to stay awake.” I rolled over to my side and threw up all the contents of my stomach as I also cleared my lungs of the remnants of salt water. I lay still unable to move even if I wanted to roll away from the glob of regurgitation in the sand. “Is that blood?” one of the bystanders asked. I looked at the glob before shakily responding, “Pizza, guess it’s true, wait one hour after dinner before you go swimming.” Robin’s voice calmed at my statement and she sounded relieved “You are going to be okay.”

One Response to “Submerged”

  1. Joanna Lea says:

    Wonderful photography! Glad the author survived…wonder if he ate pizza again for awhile…or went swimming? 🙂

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