Updated: Dec 4, 2020
Under the roll-top cover, I swam the length of the pool. Without light to guide my line, I somehow made it to the deep end. Out of breath and lungs stressing for oxygen, I went to press up on the sealed pool cover. In the shallows, near the end where I’d rolled the cover back it had lifted easily, allowing me to breathe. Here, however, the cover didn’t budge. Panic struck. I was about to drown.
I’ve written about one of my scariest nights in Glacier National Park, with me waking up next to a grizzly, but this month’s story gets my heart pounding every time I remember what it was like to nearly drown. With whitewater kayaking being one of my passions during the most reckless time of my youth, this isn’t the only time I was convinced I was going to drown. This story is one of those that raises the goosebumps on my arms and makes me ask myself, what was I thinking?
When I was twenty, I was working summers in St. Mary at the KOA just outside the National Park Boundary. My duties were evening maintenance, which meant that I was in charge of closing down the pool somewhere around ten thirty or eleven. This also meant that I had the pool keys. With a large outdoor swimming pool and fifty-person hot tub located in one of the most visually spectacular places in Montana, of course my friends and I would open it back up after our shifts and soak into the early hours of the morning.
The key was to wait until about midnight when everyone was done showering and away from the pool area. We’d come down, unlock the gated, and roll back the cover for the hot tub. With the covers being on automatic tracks they sealed tight to the surface, allowing almost no debris to dirty the pool during the night. They also acted like a thick blanket that we could go out and lay on like a waterbed. With the cover set in the tracks, several of us could go lay on the pool cover and star gaze. With the pool being heated, you could stay out there for a while before getting cold enough to want back into the hot tub.
One night, we rolled back the pool cover to expose about ten feet or so of the shallow end. Sometimes the hot tub felt a little too hot and cooling off in the pool was just what you needed to keep soaking for longer in the massive hot tub. On this night, I wanted to know if it was possible to push up the pool cover when it was opened up like that. I thought since it wasn’t sealed on one end, it should be possible. I didn’t tell anyone in the hot tub what I was doing and quietly got out, transferring into the pool. I slid under the cover about ten feet or so and pushed up. The cover easily lifted. Then I thought, “Yeah, it totally lift’s up.” I wondered if I could hold my breath and swim to the other end of the pool. I’d made it most of the way before, in the daylight when it was uncovered. “If I don’t make it, I can just push up on the cover,” I thought. Why would it change much farther from the end that was cracked open? That was my error. I didn’t think about how much easier it was to lift the cover nearer to the opening. Back at the deep end, the pool over was sealed tight.
Taking a deep breath, I dove under and swam as far as I could on my lung full of oxygen. Reaching the back wall, I went to push up on the pool cover. I knew it might be a little more difficult and pushed off the bottom of the pool with all my strength. It didn’t budge. That’s when I realized all at once what my error was and how I didn’t have any more air to breathe. I had already held my breath for as long as I could willingly. The open end of the pool was at the opposite end. Panic set in and I thought about how people had told stories of others they’d heard of drowning under pool covers. I knew that if I didn’t focus and swim for my life; I was going to drown.
After a brief moment of panic that lasted all but a second, I became laser focused. I pulled on all my knowledge from swimming lessons and tried to swim as efficiently as I could. With the lights of the pool off and it being the middle of the night, the only light I could see was at the far end, the shallow end where it was rolled back. I don’t remember feeling that kind of focus before then. There was a real life and death threat that if I didn’t swim fast and use every stroke to the most leverage that I wouldn’t make it back. After all, I had only ever swum the length of the pool just one way without needing to come up for air.
Stroking with my arms and kicking my legs, I dug through the burning in my lungs. It was difficult not to try to breathe off necessity. What kept my mouth shut was the fact that only water would fill my lungs and I’d be dead. As the tightness increased in my lungs, my vision tunneled. I wasn’t wearing goggles and my eyes burned from the chlorine, but the darkness surrounding me was circling in. The thin strip of light from where the pool cover was slid back came nearer but was still out of grasp. As the darkness closed in and everything went black, my last conscious movements were kicking my legs, rotating to my back and sliding through the water as torpedolike as I could. I blacked out, slipping from consciousness. Air breaching my face forced the instinct to breathe. I drew in the humid air and opened my eyes. It was still dark. My body was still under the cover, but I’d made it to the point where the cover separated from the surface of the water.
Gasping for lung-fulls of air, I pulled myself out from the cover. For a moment I crouched in the shallow water, staring at the dark water beyond the mouth of the tarp. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was not to have been stuck under the tarp. When I climbed back into the hot tub, the other guys who were soaking hadn’t even noticed that I’d left. The noise of the jets covered my exit. I don’t like to think about what would’ve happened if I didn’t come out from under the tarp on my own. I told them about what happened. They seemed almost more taken aback by it than I was. It didn’t take much brain power to know that the cover wouldn’t budge on the deep end of the pool when it was almost all the way covered.
The following evening, we returned with the lights to the pool on and tried to reenact what I’d done. We rolled back the cover in the shallows and had someone following me as I swam, lifting up the cover along the way so I had somewhere to breathe. The first time I didn’t make it to the far end. I ran into the wall on the left because I wasn’t swimming in a straight line. The second time I opened my eyes and made it to the back wall but veered off course, hitting the side wall again on the way back. Two of my friends tried it as well, each time not able to swim in a straight line back to the opening in the darkness. Even after we durned on the pool lights, none of us could do it again.
That was the last time I tried swimming under a pool cover.