My mom always told me that I could swim before I could walk.
Whether or not that’s actually true, I can vividly remember loving the water as a child. My paternal grandmother, Peggy, insisted that my sisters and I received swimming lessons, so we went to the YMCA in Houston to learn. While growing up, we regularly visited out family riverhouse off the San Bernard River in Southeast Texas, which is where I regularly went crabbing and sliced my feet open somehow every time we went. How I managed to avoid tetanus was a miracle to me.
Somehow or another, my sisters and I were enrolled in the neighborhood swim team, at which I was drug out of bed in the early hours of muggy Texas mornings and rode my bike to the pool, where we swam for practices and swim meets throughout the summers. I can still remember the sharp contrast of chlorine, sunscreen, and sharpie-written heat combinations on my hand. The box of ribbons is still at my parents’ house somewhere.
Any time there was an opportunity to involve water with a trip, we did. My cousins from Arizona came to visit on a semi-regular basis, and we all enjoyed the usage of the pool as much as possible.
Farther back in the history of my love affair with water, I remember watching with delight as the whale trainers at SeaWorld danced with the most spectacular creatures I had ever seen. I stood frozen to the spot as I watched them, tiny as a doll, interact with the whales and swim like mermaids in the water. I remember telling my mom, “I want to be one of them when I grow up.” She waited until after the show and marched me right down to the front of the monstrous water tank and got the attention of the male trainer, who approached us.
She told me that I needed to tell him what I told her, so I did. I remember his smile, the crinkle in his eyes. “Well, can you swim?” he asked.
“Like a fish.” I managed to get the words out before eyes widening in surprise as I realized that I was merely five or so feet from one of the whales, who had slid up on the shallow water trough where the trainer was standing. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
He looked back at the whale, then smiled at me again. “Well, you’re going to have to do that for sure. I’ll tell you three things you need to do as you grow up to be a trainer like me, then you can work with animals like this guy,” he told me.
Mom beamed. I was hooked.
“First, you need to be a great swimmer.”
Check. I had that one, and I made a mental note to never, ever stop swimming.
He held up one finger, then another. “Two, you need to make sure that you love animals.”
Check. I loved animals more than people, easily. I nodded vigorously. Mom did too. “Oh, she does.”
“Good, because that’s probably more important than being able to swim,” he says.
“I love them more than anything,” I assured him. “I like them even more than I like people most of the time!” My eyes flicked back and forth to the whale resting behind him. I wanted to leap over the gate and slip into the water with it more than I could stand, which wasn’t much, as I was about five or six at the time.
The trainer chuckled, then held up his ring finger next to the index and middle finger. “Third, you need to go to college and study animals or psychology.”
I nodded vigorously, and mom put her hand on my shoulder, signaling my time to leave. Dad and my sisters waited a few rows behind us.
The trainer winked at me and gave me a thumbs up. “Good luck kiddo, see you in a couple years!”
I met three out of the three requirements that trainer gave me–I did go to college to study animals, though I wound up in agricultural education with an emphasis in horses rather than marine biology, and I can definitely still swim like a fish. I still love animals more than I love people most days.
This week, my husband told me that I get to meet penguins for the first time as a birthday present, and I’ve swam with sharks and stingrays in the Caribbean. I haven’t met my whales in person, yet, but I know I will someday. Maybe, when, and if, I ever decide to grow up, I’ll fulfill my childhood dream. Until then, I’ll always love my whales, and will fulfill the bucket list of animals I want to meet. Maybe one day, I’ll get to meet my Orcas face to face.
Funny how your dreams never give up on you, even when you push them aside. Funny, that I would still choose to follow that dream if given the choice to today.
I guess, what I’m trying to say is, that if your dreams seem too far away, keep swimming until they’re a reality. I know I will.