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Opinion

Gift of swimming

Eric Buhain

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Summer is officially here signaling the start of the “Learn to Swim” season.

I remember the jitters when my parents enrolled me in one of those two-week LTS programs at the request of a doctor, who suggested that I should swim to treat my lung problems. I didn’t know what to expect.

The first lesson was how to properly sequence your breath, which I thought was quite simple. Breathe in through your mouth and exhale thru your nose. Simple enough. I remember the pool being so shallow as I was only seven years old back then that added to my confidence.

I thought to myself: “my skinny frame will conquer this 10-meter pool.”

The two-month summer season is when all swimming coaches around the country make their extra money that would help them get through the rest of the year.

Thousands of kids enroll in different programs being offered and it also assures that there will never be a shortage of swimmers for the country in the future.

Some of them, just like me, will try their luck in joining their school’s varsity team and for those who get the nod, it signals the start of their immersion to the world of swimming. Everybody starts somewhere, and for me it was at the very bottom.

My weak body — by some miracle — got me into the varsity De La Salle Zobel swimming team, but I was slower than the girls! The boys would tease me every day and say that I should just stop so I won’t embarrass myself.

But I continued even if it was difficult.

When the coach called on the girls group up to the starting blocks, I would be the only thorn among the roses and, sadly, the roses would easily beat the thorn.

I cried most days and thought that maybe my teammates were right that I should quit.

I found myself smiling and my heart was filled with so much joy knowing that I was able to share my gift to those kids.

But my parents refused to give up and would religiously remind me that I had to wake up at four in the morning to go to practice. Once the morning training was done, they would bring me to school since we didn’t have a pool in the school back then.

Then, they would pick me up after school and bring me straight to afternoon training again.

At first, I was really slow and I reached a point that I would make excuses to my parents just to get out of training. Some days when there were no classes I would hide in my Lola’s house just to avoid training and embarrass myself.

But my parents would find me somehow, even if my Lola would make excuses for me as well to stay with her. I had no choice but to train.

The LTS summer programs could be compared to a mine, where you would scour the earth to find rough, untouched, undeveloped precious stones. Once found, you could now bring them out from their crudeness through training and precise guidance. For some, they become highly valuable and precious stones that are wonderful to behold.

So many opportunities can be drawn from that two-week program.

You can be a varsity team standout. You can reach the Palarong Pambansa and become a national champion. You can join tryouts for the national team and represent the country in international competitions like the Southeast Asian Games and the Olympics. Or you can simply treasure the experience and know that you know you can swim. Just like riding a bike, once you learn it, you will never forget it.

Personally, I went full circle in the world of swimming.

I started in the LTS program, swam competitively for 15 years and won 500 gold medals with 15 of them for the country in the SEA Games.

I decided to retire abruptly in 1993. The very next day, I felt this knot in my stomach that was not letting go of the competitive swimmer in me.

It went on for almost a year, and one day I received a blessing from God. It was an answer to my prayers that helped me move on and find a way to redirect my competitiveness.

I was asked by a friend if I wanted to teach underprivileged children from Manila how to swim. Since I wasn’t doing much a year after my retirement, I decided to agree not knowing that this was the answer to my prayers.

When I arrived at the Dapitan Sports Complex swimming pool in Manila, I was caught off-guard as almost 200 kids were present. I thought this wasn’t what I signed up for — one against 200.

I grabbed a megaphone and started giving instructions to the kids and divided them by height. I placed the taller kids on the deeper side of the pool and the shorter ones at the shallow end. I dove in and a started my very first learn-to-swim program.

I placed together those who had an easier time swimming regardless of height. There were few who had a harder time following my instructions so I separated them from the group. I would give general instructions to those who could easily follow instructions and gave a more personal approach to those who were struggling.

I continued even if it was difficult.

Suffice it to say that after two hours, most of those who were more comfortable in the water were already floating with arm strokes and kicks. On the other hand, I didn’t force those who couldn’t catch up. I just asked my friend if I could continue the program the following week, which he obliged.

Afterwards, when I was alone that day, I found myself smiling and my heart was filled with so much joy knowing that I was able to share my gift to those kids.

Soon, I started Eric’s World of Swimming. And in seven years my team and I were able to teach more than 10,000 kids how to swim in 15 venues nationwide.

That was the joy of sharing the gift of swimming.

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