Teaching my blind husband to swim strengthened our marriage.
It took a few weeks before I was comfortable asking the visually impaired man I was dating what, if anything, he could see. We trained with the same Santa Monica-based marathon running club. Every Saturday we intersected at the top of the Santa Monica Pier. I had no idea he was blind because he flew past me at a 7-minute pace alongside his guide runner, each of them holding on to a joint tether rope.
Funny enough, we didn’t meet until he was assigned to me as a story. I was a field producer for the Los Angeles Marathon, and Adrian was being featured during the live broadcast. When we finally met, I wasn’t just impressed by his running times. He was a lesson in positivity, adaptability and living in the moment. He also had a beautiful smile that lit up the room.
It turned out Adrian also had game when it came to dating, and a couple of weeks after the marathon, we had our first official date where we climbed the famous sand dune on Pacific Coast Highway and discovered all that we had in common. We were both first-generation Americans of Mexican descent. We loved animals and the Lakers. Sitting atop the sand dune together, savoring the ocean breeze, we felt a constellation of imperceptible bonds between us. We fell in love reading Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” together, having dim sum in Chinatown and volunteering regularly with a local dog rescue.
The sensitive question about his vision did not lead to a cliché Hollywood-style romantic moment in which Adrian intensely felt my face with his hands. Instead, as always, he responded in words that were efficient and profound.
“It’s like being underwater in the dark,” he said.
I had no idea then that oceans and tethers would be such a salient part of my future. Eight years into our marriage, Adrian was suffering from a serious Achilles’ tendon injury that grew worse with every run. Watching him limp around, I suggested he finally make good on his goal of learning to swim so he could fulfill his dream of competing in an Ironman triathlon.
Adrian’s first lesson with a triathlon coach was a success, but his enthusiasm was short-lived. At his next lesson at the YMCA, a discouraging instructor recommended my husband abandon swimming — or, as the instructor had added, “risk endangering himself and others.” I had been a competitive swimmer in high school and had grown up swimming in the ocean, so I was confident I could teach him to swim.
Surfrider Beach in Malibu had calm waters and Adrian’s wetsuit would provide him with buoyancy, so I figured it was a relatively safe plan. It wasn’t until we waded out far enough into the ocean, with our feet floating up and off the sandy ocean floor, that I realized how much of a struggle the swimming was for my husband. Running came so naturally to him, but he was working very hard to tread water.
In that moment, I also realized that our swim lesson could easily go awry and earn me a starring role on an episode of the television show “Snapped.” Fortunately, the wetsuit kept Adrian afloat as we started our swim crawl. The length of the Malibu Pier was the perfect visual for him. Every 10 yards or so he lifted his head up out of the water and asked how we were doing. By the time we reached half the distance of the pier, he was breathless and mentally taxed. I knew it was time to get him back to shore. Our progress at each lesson was slow but steady. After just a few swims, we made it to a buoy floating about 300 yards offshore.
Then it was time to introduce the swim tether so we could safely swim beyond the buoy and swim in tandem. Little did I know that being bound together at the hip by a tether constructed from bungee cord and hard plastic would be so miserable for me. I felt bound and constricted by every movement my husband made.
Swimming without the tether frustrated Adrian. He would sneer every time I raised my voice over the roaring waves and he resented my instructions. We were suddenly the worst versions of ourselves, full of accusations and projections.
It was on a day when I was swimming just behind him in a red tide — and proudly watched him easily swim over a four-foot barrel wave that ended up pummeling me — that I saw the parallel between our ocean swimming and our marriage. Even in a good marriage, you don’t swim uniformly stroke by stroke. In marriage, you circle around each other, moving in the same general direction. Sometimes you swim side by side, and other times you draft off each other without making your partner feel bad for doing so.
These days we laugh because Adrian is faster than I am and has eclipsed my endurance. We also swim weekly with an ocean swim group with generous volunteer swim guides. At least once a week we do a long swim together, untethered. We have learned from our past mistakes. He has grown more patient with me and no longer takes it personally when I have to raise my voice. I, in turn, let him swim off into the horizon, knowing he will eventually stop to check in with me. I no longer say, “You went the wrong way,” which makes him feel bad. Instead I say, “Over here,” to which he nods, then swims back toward me.
Two years after our first swim lesson at Surfrider Beach, I watched in amazement as my husband crossed the finish line at Ironman Canada. With the help of a guide, he swam 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles and ran 26.2 miles in 13 hours and 42 minutes. Our marriage also crossed a new threshold as a result of the swimming. We learned to communicate better and trust that once we get past the breakers, we will always find each other.
The author is a freelance journalist, a ghostwriter for public figures and a screenwriter in Los Angeles. You can follow her trials and adventures as the wife of a visually impaired Ironman at tetheredforlife.com. She’s on Twitter and Instagram: @tethered4life.
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