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In grade school, the swim test humiliated me. In college, it nearly killed me.

Our hero, suiting up for the water.
Gabriel Spitzer
Our hero, suiting up for the water.


This story originally aired on June 29, 2019.

It’s 1985 — think New Coke and “We Are the World” — and little 8-year-old Gabe is shivering on the tile floor next to Jewish Community Center swimming pool in Canton, Ohio. I’d just wrapped up my “Advanced Beginners” swim class, and was lined up with the other kids awaiting our Red Cross cards. That card would be my ticket to the next class: Intermediate. 

The instructor came down the line and, when she handed me my card, it did not say “Intermediate” — it said “Advanced Beginners.” It appeared I would not be advancing at all. 

I repeated the class. And again I flunked. And again. I’d take the Advanced Beginners class four, possibly five times. 

This didn’t bother me much at first, but over time, my aquatic inadequacy began to mingle with my prepubescent body shame and aversion to macho male sports culture. The pool is where I began to understand, with the help of my peers, that I was not the sporting sort. Rather, I was the pale, short, physically awkward sort. 

So as soon as I was able, I retired from swimming, and from most other competitive sports as well. 

Throughout high school I focused instead on things I was good at — mainly reading and smoking — and thanked my lucky stars that I’d no longer be judged on my ability to swim with a minimum of competence and masculine self-assurance. I was headed to college, where I expected to be measured instead based on my brains and my personality. 

But I soon discovered that I was not finished being judged at the pool — or, rather, the pool was not finished with me. In fact, the next time I got in the pool it wasn't just sink-or-swim, socially: it was life-or-death. 

Click the “Listen” button above to hear how it unfolded.

This story was featured in a live event co-produced by Sound Effect and the Seattle-based storytelling series Fresh Ground Stories. Listen to more stories from the event in this episode, and in future installments of Sound Effect.


Gabriel Spitzer is a former KNKX reporter, producer and host who covered science and health and worked on the show Sound Effect.