Teaching my blind husband to swim brought us closer together

It took me a few weeks to feel comfortable asking the visually impaired man I was dating what, if anything, he can see. We trained with the same Santa Monica-based marathon running club. Every Saturday we cruise at the tip of the Santa Monica Pier. I had no idea he was blind as he flew past me at a 7 minute pace, along with his lead runner, each holding on to a common tether.

Weirdly, we only met when it was assigned to me as a story. I was a field producer for the Los Angeles Marathon and Adrian was featured on the live broadcast. When we finally met, I wasn’t just impressed by his runtimes. It was a lesson in positivity, adaptability and living in the moment. He also had a beautiful smile that lit up the room.

Turns out Adrian had a game when it came to dating, too, and a few weeks into the marathon we had our first official date, where we climbed the famous Pacific Coast Highway sand dune and discovered everything we had in common. We were both first generation Mexican Americans. We loved animals and the Lakers. As we sat together on the sand dune and enjoyed the sea breeze, we felt a constellation of imperceptible bonds between us. We fell in love reading Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, drinking dim sum in Chinatown, and volunteering regularly at a local dog rescue.

The thorny question of his vision didn’t lead to a cliche Hollywood-style romantic moment of Adrian intensely rubbing my face with his hands. Instead, as always, he responded with words that were efficient and profound.

“It’s like being underwater in the dark,” he said.

Little did I know then that oceans and tethers would be such a prominent part of my future. Eight years into our marriage, Adrian suffered from a severe Achilles tendon injury that got worse with every run. As I watched him hobble around, I suggested that he finally achieve his goal of learning to swim so he could fulfill his dream of competing in an Ironman triathlon.

Adrian’s first lesson with a triathlon coach was a success, but his enthusiasm was short-lived. At his next class at the YMCA, a discouraging instructor advised my husband to stop swimming — or, as the instructor added, “take the risk of putting yourself and others at risk.” I was a competitive swimmer in high school and grew up swimming in the ocean, so I felt confident that I could teach him how to swim.

Surfrider Beach in Malibu had calm water and Adrian’s wetsuit would give him buoyancy, so I figured it was a relatively safe plan. It wasn’t until we had waded far enough out to sea and our feet were floating on the sandy seabed that I realized how exhausting swimming was for my husband. Running came so naturally to him, but he worked very hard to stay in place.

It was also at that moment that I realized that our swimming lesson could easily go awry and land me a starring role in an episode of the television show Snapped. Luckily, the wetsuit kept Adrian afloat when we started our swim crawl. The length of the Malibu Pier was picture perfect for him. About every 10 meters he lifted his head out of the water and asked how we were doing. By the time we got halfway down the pier he was breathless and mentally overwhelmed. I knew it was time to bring him back to shore. Our progress with each lesson was slow but steady. After only a few swim laps we reached a buoy floating about 300 meters off the coast.

Then it was time to introduce the swim line so we could safely swim past the buoy and swim in tandem. I did not know it the Being tied at the waist by a bungee cord and hard plastic tether would be so miserable for me. I felt tied and constrained by my husband’s every move.

Swimming without a tether frustrated Adrian. He sneered whenever I raised my voice above the crashing waves, and he resented my instructions. We were suddenly the worst versions of ourselves, full of blame and projection.

It was on a day when I was swimming right behind him in a red tide — and proudly watching as he swam effortlessly over a four-foot barrel wave that eventually flattened me — that I saw the parallel between our ocean swims and our marriage. Even in a good marriage, one does not swim evenly, stroke after stroke. In marriage, you circle around each other and move in the same general direction. Sometimes you swim side by side, and sometimes you pull each other off without making your partner feel bad about it.

Nowadays we laugh because Adrian is faster than me and has eclipsed my stamina. We also swim weekly with an ocean swim group with generous volunteer swim guides. At least once a week we swim extensively together, unbound. We have learned from our past mistakes. He has become more patient with me and no longer takes it personally when I have to raise my voice. I, in turn, let him swim off into the horizon, knowing he’ll stop at some point to check in with me. I no longer say, “You went in the wrong direction,” which makes him feel bad. Instead, I say, “Over here,” to which he nods and then swims back to me.

Two years after our first swim lesson at Surfrider Beach, I watched in amazement as my husband crossed the finish line at Ironman Canada. With the help of a guide, he swam 2.4 miles, cycled 112 miles and ran 26.2 miles in 13 hours and 42 minutes. Our marriage has also crossed a new threshold through swimming. We have learned to communicate better and to trust that once we overcome the breakers we will always find each other.

The author is a freelance journalist, ghostwriter for socialites, and screenwriter based in Los Angeles. You can follow her trials and adventures as the wife of a visually impaired Ironman at tetheredforlife.com. She is on Twitter and Instagram: @tethered4life.

LA Affairs chronicles the search for romantic love in all its glorious expressions in the LA area, and we want to hear your real story. We pay $300 for a published essay. Email LAAffairs@latimes.com. The submission guidelines can be found here. Past columns can be found here.

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