I’d Rather Drown Than Quit: Claire Kells on ‘Girl Underwater’

girl underwater - claire kells
Photo © S.Pytel/Shutterstock

Editor's Note: Claire Kells was born and raised outside Philadelphia. She received a degree in English from Princeton University and a medical degree from the University of California. Currently in residency, she lives and works in the Bay Area. Girl Underwater is her first novel. Claire shares her relationship with swimming, how it was first a chore, then a choice, and then -- after an injury -- something only writing could help relieve. 

When I was very young -- a year old, if that -- I wandered off a dock and fell into a lake. My uncle had turned his back for just a moment, but that was enough to lose sight of a curious toddler. Panicked, he bent down, stuck his arms in the cold, murky water, and grabbed hold of me. A year after that incident, my mother put me in swim lessons.

Girl Underwater captures my journey as a swimmer through the book’s protagonist, Avery Delacorte, though I would say the similarities between us are more emotional than physical. Unlike Avery, I never competed at a very high level; I peaked my freshman year of high school with an 11th place finish in the 50 free at the Pennsylvania state championships. I was small for a swimmer, with the wrong build -- short torso, narrow shoulders, long legs. I hated practices and dreaded jumping into a cold pool. When my final high school season ended, I was relieved. Never again did I intend to spend any considerable time in chlorinated water.

My retirement lasted ten years. Then came a running injury -- my third in twelve months -- and I returned to swimming out of desperation. Unlike my high school pool, in which you could not visualize the bottom due to its tan color and somewhat chunky consistency, I was fortunate enough to belong to a gym (affiliated with my medical school) that had a rooftop pool in San Francisco. As a lifelong East Coaster, I’d never in my life swum in an outdoor pool that was open year-round. This was a new, somewhat surreal experience for me.

That first day back, I quit after twenty laps. I was tired and supremely bored. Such were my difficulties with the sport -- I hated staring at that black line for long periods of time with no stimulation. It wasn't fun; it was torture.

The next time, I decided to swim my laps alongside the Masters swim team. Masters Swimming is the largest national organization for adult swimmers, and despite the name, it welcomes swimmers of all abilities. I was nervous, though. Swimming laps at one’s leisure was one thing; joining a team quite another. And so I jumped in Lane 2 -- the Masters team was practicing in Lanes 3, 4, and 5 -- and planned to spy on them from afar.

Then the coach noticed me. "You've got a nice position in the water," he said. "You should come out for the team."

I gave him a friendly nod and said I would. Which was a lie. I didn't want to go through the misery of a 90-minute practice ever again. Four-thousand yards, 160 laps. No thank you.

And yet there I was the next week, ready to swim. I started in the slowest lane, which was a good choice because my arms felt like jelly after thirty minutes and breathing had become a chore. I stuck it out until the end, though. My motto in sport (and in life) is something along the lines of, I’d rather drown than quit. The coach never made a big deal out of my appearance at that first practice -- he just said, "See you next time," as if I’d been coming every day for months.

Over the next six months, I became a regular. I competed in meets and worked hard to improve my times. No one was making me go to practice -- I went for me, which made a tremendous difference in redefining my attitude towards the sport. For the first time since my childhood, I actually enjoyed swimming. I loved it, even.

Then I got hurt. What followed was physical therapy, doctors, more PT, an MRI, and finally a shoulder surgery that put me out of commission for over a year. I truly believed I would never swim again. And that’s when I started writing Girl Underwater.

This book is a love story at its core -- a love story involving its two main characters, yes, but it’s also about Avery’s tortured love affair with the sport of swimming. There are ups and downs, heartache and hope. Swimming is the foundation upon which her story is built.

The same is true for me, in a way. Slowly, painfully, I fought my way back from injury. After an 18-month absence, I returned to practice -- same coach, same rooftop pool, same group of enthusiastic adult swimmers.

After thirty minutes, my arms felt like jelly and breathing had become a chore. The coach again complimented my high position in the water, even though I worried my shoulder was going to give out. After practice, he said, "See you next time," as if no time had passed.

As if he’d known all along that I’d be back.