Peace Corps Writers
Outward Bound
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Outward Bound (page 3)

     I recall being appalled when I learned this. Swimming breaststroke underwater is faster than swimming breaststroke on the surface, so competitive swimmers pushed themselves to incredible lengths to get as many underwater strokes in before finally surfacing. When they did finally surface, they were gasping and red-faced. The oxygen deprivation was dangerous and foolhardy, competitors were passing out in the lanes and by the next season the rules were modified to allow only a single underwater stroke at each turn.
     But Freddie liked the old rules and thought it would be a perfectly suitable and appropriate culminating test in this Outward Bound setting for aspirant Peace Corps Volunteers like us.
     To build the self-confidence of the group, Freddie planned it so the stronger swimmers, those most likely to succeed, went first.
     My friend recalls, “Finally, the last big boost — he picked you as the starting swimmer.”
     I dove in without the slightest feeling of anxiety. And when my group saw me go the required two lengths of the pool underwater before I surfaced, it did serve as a confidence-builder for the others: Look how easy it seems!
     My friend recalls, “I remember you underwater. Grace itself. I believe you completed the down and back in 37 seconds! Unbelievable, and you were not even breathing hard!”

The rest of the group
Four more took the test. All of us completed the course in under a minute.
     Then it was my skeptical friend’s turn.
     “I found Freddie’s predictions exactly on and very comforting, so those disconcerting stomach throbs were OK. I made it! I was delighted!”
     Then others went, with us all cheering each other on. The trouble with the underwater swim was, the people needing encouragement and strength from the others couldn’t hear underwater. It was silent down there.
     Finally it came to some people who might have a much harder time. Freddie recruited me to be ready to jump in and help anyone who appeared to be in distress.
     “Watch their head and the back of their neck very carefully,” he instructed me in a whisper, so the others wouldn’t overhear, as I walked up and down the deck ready to spring to their aid. “Just before they pass out, you’ll see this involuntary twitch. For a moment you’ll see them raise their head slightly in a jerky way. That’s the moment when they lose consciousness. That’s your sign to jump in and get them.”
     I watched. Sure enough, for those who didn’t decide to finally surface on their own, there was a slight involuntary twitch just as Freddie said there would be. Then they would go limp, arms floating by their sides, head down in the water.
     When I saw the twitch, I jumped in and grabbed their jaw and led their face to the surface. They emerged sputtering, blinking and choking, but conscious. And breathing.
     And still alive.
     What went through the minds of each of the underwater swimmers that morning as they fought instinct to surface and gasp to inhale air? I watched as their arm movements got slower and slower, as they meandered off-course while making their way underwater, becoming disoriented, slowing to impossible speeds, strokes becoming feeble and uncoordinated, then recumbent and finally that little twitch of the head indicating they’d passed out.
     My friend recalls, “Charlie Terry was especially interesting. He was determined, but the last 10 feet were agony to watch. He was flailing, just barely moving forward. Freddie told you to watch and be ready but do nothing. Charlie finally luckily grazed the end with his hand. Freddie told you to grab him. You pulled him out. Charlie was not pleased. Why did you do that? He was just about ready to turn around and go back. He had no idea how much trouble he was in! Very interesting. Don went off on some unknown tangent and you had to grab him. A couple of others ended up flailing the water and going nowhere. You had to grab them as well. M.L. Corwin took 90 seconds, bobbing up and down on the surface. But she, too, made it!
     “As a group, as I remember it, we almost all made it,” he recalls. “We did well as a group, and no one disgraced themselves. Everyone tried hard.”
     And that, after all, was the whole idea — to muster the courage and wherewithal to try, to reach deep within and haul up heroic levels of performance.
     It was a moment of accomplishment, a new sense of pride and capability, the very thing Outward Bound attempted to impart in each of us.
     Still, for each of those who passed out underwater, it must have felt like experiencing a little death that day. Later there was grumbling that Freddie had gone too far, taken the challenge thing over the top. Some who had passed out, inhaling water into their lungs, developed, congestion, pulmonary infections and in one case pneumonia. That Volunteer was deselected.
     It’s a good thing more Volunteers like me didn’t chronicle these tests and send accounts off to our Congressmen or the media. One older female trainee did several months later and the camp was permanently closed.

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