Zen & Tennis Balls

Excerpted from Tales of Al By Lynn Cox | Illustrations By John Battalgazi
Published May 24, 2022 By Alfred A. Knopf, an Imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, A Division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2022 By Lynne Cox

A hot breeze swept across Lake Idroscalo, ruffling the aqua-blue water and making it sparkle like diamonds. It was a beautiful place to spend the day with people and dogs and have fun. Ferruccio and I walked twenty-five meters along the soft white sandy beach to an area where about a dozen intermediate dogs were training with their owners.

Ferruccio said they were working on conditioning. The dogs and their owners had to be strong and in good shape to be able to save people, they needed to have the endurance and strength to swim and pull a person into shore or to a boat, and they needed to be quick so they could swim through a current. The dogs and their owners were wearing swim vests to help them float and keep them safe. They were swimming with their heads up for about twenty-five meters to deep water, turning, and then swimming back to shore. There was something captivating and almost hypnotic about watching them swim in and out in oval patterns.

Each pair of dog and owner swam at their own pace and in their own rhythm. They were working hard, but they were not fighting the water. They were moving across it. It was probably from my years of swimming on teams, coaching swimmers, and watching people swim that I quickly noticed the different ways the dogs swam. The Newfoundlands were the strongest swimmers followed by the Labradors, golden retrievers, flat-coated retrievers, German shepherds, and all the other dogs including the hybrids—mixed breed dogs.
Of all the dogs in the water the golden retrievers looked the most relaxed. They paddled along, back and forth, like they were as at home in the water as they were on land. I imagined putting a bright flowered swim cap with hot-pink, blue, yellow, lime-green, and orange flowers on one golden retriever’s head. She was an easygoing girl and she would not have minded. From behind she would have looked like an elderly lady daintily swimming breaststroke high in the water. She would have enjoyed watching the clouds as they sailed overhead and became cats, squirrels, and large white rabbits.
As the dogs and their owners moved toward and away from shore, they mingled with one another and spoke a few words of encouragement. Those long conditioning swims could be grueling but having a friend to talk with at the end of each lap helped a lot. I remember those years of training and stopping for ten seconds at the end of a lap to say something encouraging or funny to a friend or hoping that they had something to say to me so that I could think about it for the next ten or fifteen minutes or hour before we spoke again. It was often difficult to stay engaged, especially when we were getting tired, and by the looks of it, the dogs and their owners were becoming fatigued and slowing down.
Any good coach knows this is the time to give the swimmers a break and let them catch their breath. Ferruccio knew this and he asked his students—people and dogs—to stop swimming.
After a few minutes’ break he spoke to them in Italian, introduced me, and asked them to show me how they swam ahead of their dogs. It was fun to see how well they worked together. And most of the dogs knew exactly what to do. They repeated the drills so the dogs would remember. There were a few younger dogs that had recently joined the school and they did not follow their owners very well, but they were starting to learn.
One tall, lean man with wide shoulders spoke English well. He stepped out of the water for a moment to welcome me. I remembered how difficult it could be to swim back and forth for a long period of time and stay focused. I told him that I played water polo, and swimming back and forth with the ball made the laps more fun. I asked if he ever used a tennis ball and had his dog retrieve it.
What he said surprised me. He said that they never use tennis balls. The dogs are learning to retrieve people. Smiling, he said that he has to become the tennis ball. Or he has to become more interesting to a dog than a tennis ball so the dog will retrieve him. They do not play with toys in the water.
“You become the dog’s toy?”
“Yes. It’s Zen. Almost mystical,” he said seriously.
I had not expected that at all, but I did anticipate what was happening in the water. It was near the end of the workout, a time when coaches usually have their swimmers sprint and race one another to have them work hard when they are tired so they will swim faster when they are rested. Sprinting at the end of workouts changes the energy flow and challenges a different physiological system within their bodies. Coaches also have swimmers race at the end of a workout to have teammates cheer for one another and bring the team closer together.
The dogs and owners were almost done with their workout. The owners released three dogs and they formed a pack. Suddenly a red-coated golden retriever decided he was going to be the leader of the pack. He started sprinting. The other dogs felt his energy and that tapped their competitive spirit. A black Newfoundland and a yellow Labrador started paddling faster than the red retriever and they pulled up on either side of him. They were riding in his slipstream.
Dragging off him. Saving energy. Swimming faster. The three dogs were snout-to-snout. Paw-to -paw. Head-to -head. The Newfoundland discovered a burst of energy. He sprinted ahead. But the red retriever wanted it more. He caught the Newfoundland, dropped his head, dug deep, and sprinted to shore.
People were cheering, shouting, laughing, and when everyone reached shore, the owners were petting, hugging, and praising their dogs.
We walked to the last section of the beach where the advanced rescue dogs were training.
Some of these dogs had been training for five years or more. They needed to stay in shape and continue training so they would always be prepared.
All the dogs in the advanced group had joined their owners for obedience training. Much of their work was done on shore before they got into the water, on a boat, or in a helicopter.
The owners went through a series of drills. They gave their dogs the signal to sit. The dogs immediately sat. They gave the dogs the command to stay. The dogs stayed. The owners walked a distance and called and signaled their dogs to come. The dogs ran to their owners and were rewarded with hugs and praise. The owners looked into their dogs’ eyes and stroked their furry faces.
Ferruccio explained that they used both voice commands and hand signals. The hand signals were important because a dog might not be able to hear a command if there was too much surrounding noise, but a dog could see a hand signal and know how to respond.
All the dogs were wearing harnesses with an attached buoy. The dogs and owners were practicing what they called “the dolphin system.” They swam about fifty meters out and the owners grabbed the dogs’ harnesses. The dogs towed the owners rapidly to shore. The dolphin system saved the owner’s energy when he or she was rescuing a person, and the drill helped build the dog’s strength and endurance. It was beautiful to watch dog and owner work together. They were perfectly rehearsed and anticipated each other’s movement. They were water dancing. The dog and owner flowed together as they moved toward shore, slid apart when they reached shore, and moved together as they swam back offshore. All while the clear blue water flowed around them, lifting, spinning, and pulling them through its own flow and in its own time.
The day was getting hotter and I was uncomfortably warm and gritty from the long airplane flights. I had never been to Lake Idroscalo and I wanted to feel, see, and experience what it was like to swim in this Italian lake with Mas and see how she performed. As I changed into my swimsuit, I felt a rush of excitement.
I love to swim: solo, with friends, or with dogs. Each experience is unique. When I swim alone close to shore, I let my mind escape the confines of my body. The smooth rhythm of my arm stroke, my light kick, and the sound of the long exhale of bubbles flowing from my mouth and off my fingertips let me mindfully meditate. I observe my sensations, feelings, and thoughts, and as I continue swimming, my mind shifts to movement meditation, where I experience peace through action. My mind wanders from thought to thought and as the water diminishes sound, my meditation becomes spiritual and transcendent. By focusing on the silence around and within me I feel a deeper connection to nature, God, and the universe.
When friends swim with me, my focus is more on them. I enjoy being with them, pacing, pushing one another, moving in unison, joking, laughing, and knowing that we are sharing an adventure. Being with other swimmers helps me keep my mind off myself, from being tired, sore, or discouraged. In some ways it feels like we carry each other and lift each other’s spirits as we swim together.

Swimming with dogs is different—far more intense than swimming solo or with friends. Dogs can’t stop paddling when they are in the water or they will sink. Body type makes as much difference with dogs as it does with people. Leaner dogs with proportionally longer legs like Vizslas and Weimaraners have to move their legs faster than other dogs to stay afloat, while golden retrievers and Labradors can swim slower. But in any case, dogs are fully absorbed by the action of swimming. They are alert, attentive, and fixated on a goal.

When I swim with a dog, I feel that intensity and that we are sharing a deeper connection as the dog emanates warmth, exuberance, and delight.
Mesmerized by the shifting wind patterns and geometric designs on the water’s surface, I stared across the lake. The aqua color of the water reminded me of the Gulf of Aqaba, where I swam between Egypt and Israel and between Israel and Jordan, celebrating the progress of peace between the three countries. The water in the Gulf of Aqaba was hot, thin, salty, and transparent. Swimming in warm water was so different. Every muscle in my body relaxed and I luxuriated in the warmth. I wondered how Lake Idroscalo would feel.
Mas led the way with a spring in her step and we followed her giant paw prints in the white sand.

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