It's my kids' fault.
A number of years ago I was swimming with my then 8-year-old and having trouble keeping up. "Are you swimming your fastest?" I asked her. She answered an incredulous, "No", and admitted she was taking it easy. I grew up in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, so I was water safe, but I had poor stroke technique. As participants in a summer swim team, my kids had quickly surpassed my swimming skills. I decided I needed to join the fun and take some swim lessons.
At my first lesson, I was unable to swim the length of the pool without gasping for breath. Fortunately, I had scheduled the lesson in the winter so nobody was at the pool to watch this humiliating performance. The coach looked a little concerned, probably regretting that she did not have on a bathing suit in case she needed to rescue me. Over the next few months she exhibited remarkable patience as she taught me the basics, making sure to give me a compliment for every criticism, less my fragile ego keep me from ever returning. Eventually I achieved some competency in each stroke and she suggested I join the Masters program to build stamina, assuring me all skill levels were welcome.
I did not sleep a wink the night before and arrived at the Masters practice with my first ever pair of swim goggles. I swam a few warm up laps before the coach stopped me to suggest I peel the protective film cover off the goggle lenses so I could see. For the first six months I almost completed the warm up portion of the work out in the allotted hour.
That summer I was timing the kids at a meet when word spread that our team was short a swimmer for the final race of the day, the all-important parents' relay. I tried to make a dash for the car, but the coach caught me. "We need you to swim or we'll have to forfeit!" My kids pleaded, too, so in an ill-fitting suit from the lost and found and my daughter's goggles and cap, I jumped in, my heart pounding, sure we would have to resign from the swim club in disgrace after I was lapped twice in a 25-yard race. Much to my surprise, we didn't lose, in fact due to a couple of parents who were former competitive swimmers, we came in third and a medal was placed around my neck.
I was pretty excited and admitted to my kids that this was the first medal I had ever been awarded in my whole life. As is the case with most children who live in Palo Alto, they each have many bedroom shelves cluttered with medals and trophies. They were astonished and felt really sorry for me. It reminded me of my Dad's stories about growing up in the Depression. It was all he ever knew as a child, and everybody else was poor, too, so it did not seem that bad to him, but my siblings and I were shocked as we considered his childhood to be one of terrible deprivation. Similarly, my children could not believe in 45 years I had never been awarded anything.
My kids stretch me. They stretch my patience, my negotiation skills and my tolerance for sleep deprivation, but they also stretch me to try activities I never thought I would enjoy. I've sung, danced and acted in front of an audience, coached softball despite never having played sports, and struggled up a 12,000-foot pass with a 40-pound pack.
And, because of my kids, I have a medal, and more importantly, know the joy of a rosy sunrise after an invigorating pre-breakfast swim.