Many decades later, there's still nothing like the pool at the Y

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It was a beautiful winter day in Western Pennsylvania. The sky was free of clouds and the sun on the snow-covered ground sparkled like a spinning disco ball.

The sun and blue sky were in cahoots to fool me, as my back porch thermometer read 18 degrees. I was in a mood, my energy percolating. I'd been cooped up too long. I decided I was going to the Y. My fourth-grade classmate, Ruth, had invited me to join her there for swimming in the heated pool -- something I'd never been in. It was a short walk from St. Peter's Catholic School to the Butler YMCA on McKain Street. My dad gave me permission to swim and 10 cents to cover the cost as a guest.

I remember walking down the stairs of the Y. With each step the heat and a strange smell grew stronger. I felt as though I couldn't breathe. The humidity was heavy, the air different due to the indoor pool in the basement. Taking a few more steps I wondered what was waiting for me at the bottom.

As much as Ruth tried to explain the idea of an indoor pool to me, I was not prepared for the beauty that lay at the end of our walk down the stairs. We came out of the locker room and into the pool area. White ceramic tile made up the deck area walls. Higher than me ran a border of tiles that were colored waves of blue, purple and green.

Sunlight came in from a few windows, shimmering on the water's surface. Children were splashing, having fun. Ruth and I got in at the shallow end. I made my way along the pool's edge. With a quick splash, I dove into the clear blue water.

I learned to be a better swimmer at the Y. I perfected my stroke and began making clean slices through the water. I was proud to progress from Minnow to Shark.

I spent countless hours at the Y learning to get along and learning from the different groups that made up our neighborhood. I made friends that I still have today, plus developed my first crush and got my first job with the "Learn to Swim" program.

As a teenager, I was among a group from the neighborhood taking a lifesaving class. The class was tough and I wasn't the best swimmer, but I got my lifesaving badge.

There was a cute boy in the class. One day, as I came out of the Y, he was standing there. It seemed as though he was waiting for me. He asked if he could walk me home. That was our first date, one that ultimately led to our marriage of 60 years.

Four of our six children became members of the same Y's swim team, coached by John "Pump" McLaughlin. Under his guidance, they swam mile after mile, winning medals and state championships while also becoming members of the high school swimming team. Several of our children also became teachers with the Learn to Swim program.

As I got my swim bag ready recently to visit the Butler Y, though it's in a different location from the one where I grew up, I realized how I've completed the circle. I could have never known at the outset how big a part of my life the Y would become. Here I am at another stage in my relationship with it. I'm 80 and still swimming at virtually the same place where I met my husband and where my children swam. I try to get there at least twice a week.

As part of a group of women and men with white hair, silver hair, blue hair or no hair, we descend the stairs into the pool. Now that we're older, some hold onto the rail with both hands as their feet search for the next step.

Some land in the water with big splashes, emitting squeals of laughter where they were silent before. We are warriors with hip and knee replacements. We are widows and widowers and stroke survivors, all immersed in the water, breaking into breaststroke like children at old swimming holes.

A lot of what I've done, I've learned from swimming. I love it. It remains a challenge, a joy and a desire. To this day, I owe Ruth a big thank you for inviting me to swim at the Y.

This essay is as told by Patrica Taggart of Butler to her daughter, Cathy Kennedy of Pompano Beach, Fla., who can be reached at cgcg17@aol.com.


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