In the water fearless, flying above life’s demons –Dr. Charles van der Horst

Charles van der Horst, M.D., is an emeritus professor of medicine at UNC and a global health consultant.
Charles van der Horst, M.D., is an emeritus professor of medicine at UNC and a global health consultant.

Eyes closed I shouted ‘Marco!” while treading water in the only public pool in Hollandale, Mississippi.

Located in a small park surrounded by towering rich green magnolias, it was close to a regulation 25 yards. An answering chorus of “Polos” from a dozen children assaulted me from all directions. As I swam around the pool trying to catch one slippery child after another, they shrieked in high-pitched laughter and giggled uncontrollably.

During the summer of 1975, both the air temperature and humidity were in the nineties, and the water was a cool relief.

After my first year of medical school I travelled to this Delta town of 3,500 to shadow physicians at a clinic, one of the few willing to take patients with Medicare and Medicaid, both programs less than 10 years old.Having captained the Duke team, I was always looking for a place to swim. At first the clinic staff directed me to a pool in a nearby neighborhood. Driving through the empty streets of upscale brick ranch houses and well-groomed lawns, I saw a tiny 15-yard pool behind a mesh fence, empty in the baking sun. After a few laps, unable to build up any speed, I gave up.

Although lacking the time to practice much that summer, I was happy to discover these children, as comfortable in the water as I was. For me, water and swimming in it was and is life sustaining. When I was their age, I don’t think I was particularly skilled or fast, but I still loved being in the water.

Moving through the water, a mesmerizing gurgle in my ears, the sensual feel on my skin, enjoying the movement of muscles in my arms and legs, rotating my core and reaching my hand out front with each stroke, pushing myself to increase my turnover and swim faster always left me with a tired satisfaction after practice.

Swimming on teams from elementary school through college and beyond and competing forced me to focus on my stroke, kick,and breathing pattern driving out all other thoughts. I was able to lose myself and ignore my inner demons, whether the demands for perfect grades in elementary school or the overwhelming deaths as an AIDS doctor early in the epidemic.

When you are crouched down on the starting block in your tiny suit, nervously awaiting the horn, you are only thinking about driving your legs to launch your body into the air, your head squeezed between your arms, to arc into the water with big rapid dolphin kicks and to surface ahead of the guy next to you, nothing else.

As an adult, I discovered open water swimming. Racing 15 miles in the Hudson River beneath the cliffs of West Point, dwarfed by an oil tanker with its propellers moving whump, whump, whump like some whale in heat, brought perspective as to the vastness of nature. When the surf was high in the ocean forcing me to move a quarter mile off shore or more, the beach moving in and out of view as the waves tossed me about like a piece of flotsam, I embraced the calm knowledge that I could ride them out despite my primal fears of the immense crushing power.

My friends and I, like-minded men and women of all ages and abilities, haul ourselves out of bed in the early-morning darkness to focus on swimming for 60 minutes every day. Each year prior to the big meet, we transform ourselves into buff daddys and mommys through weight lifting, targeted practices and dropping pounds to our “fighting weight,” allowing us to maintain our swim times despite the passing years. Our goal is to beat our own times, our “personal best.” Despite our advancing years we compete credibly against swimmers half our age.

Winning, although not everything, is still nice.

That summer in Hollandale, I was an exotic creature in the pool with long brown hair and bushy beard. At first shy, the children quickly gathered round me, wanting to touch my beard and hair, curious as to what I was doing in tiny Hollandale and their pool. With the easy grace and acceptance of children, they peppered me with questions and demanded that we play. Abandoning any hope of a workout, I settled into Marco Polo with me being forever “it.”. Unsure of their swimming abilities, I anxiously kept an eye on them, even during Marco Polo.

We ended the day with a line of children treading water, each waiting for me to launch them into the air. Over and over, crouching on the bottom of the pool with one child after another standing on my shoulders, I leapt out of the water, hurling them up, for a momentary sense of flying, fearlessness and freedom.

Charles van der Horst, M.D., is an emeritus professor of medicine at UNC and a global health consultant. Follow him on Twitter @chasvanderhorst and read his previous columns at www.heraldsun.com


1. Swimmers Guide:A listing of swimming pools all over the world along with the programs at each pool. http://swimmersguide.com/

2. US Masters Swimming including Adult Learn to Swim programs: http://www.usms.org/

3. Durham YMCA FitSwim program with Bob Schmitz www.ymcatriangle.org\downtown-durham-ymca/fitness-schedules