I used to be a runner. I ran about five times a week, usually about six to seven miles at a time. Endorphins ran high. I could eat whatever I wanted. I was ripped, thin as a straw, and addicted to the sport. I would jog at home. I'd jog in the hills. I'd jog through the streets of San Francisco. Running was my life, giving me purpose and structure to my day.
Then, in 2001, I was traveling through Switzerland. A few of us decided to investigate the water temperature of Lake Lugano, on the Italian border. My friend fell into the lake and couldn't get out. The hero in me ran to assist her, but I slipped on some mossy cobblestones and soon found myself in the emergency room in Lugano.
When I saw my X-ray and the look on my friends' faces, I knew the situation was bad. They called it a "tibial plateau fracture," which basically means that my knee crumbled like a stale cookie, and that it was impossible to repair without some extensive surgery.
We flew back to L.A. and I began a journey that was very difficult, especially for someone as athletic as I was. After knee surgery I was in a wheelchair for four months and on crutches for six. Although I was doing all the exercises that were recommended by my physical therapist, I thought I'd never get to enjoy the sports I was used to, especially running. I tried walking, cycling and a variety of activities at the gym. They all helped with my mobility and range of motion, but none of them gave me the thrill I used to get from lacing on a pair of sneakers and taking to the streets. Frustrated, I asked my doctor about swimming. He agreed that it might be a good idea.
I hadn't done much swimming since college, so I wondered if it might be too arduous after so much time. But swimming is a non-weight bearing exercise, so it's very easy on the body. I began slowly, not sure if it would aggravate my knee, but guess what? Once I was in the water, I didn't even feel my knee, or any other part of my body that ached. It was truly like returning to the womb. I've always wanted to be an astronaut, and in the pool, you can pretend you're visiting Mars or any other planet that intrigues you. And swimming can burn up to 600 calories an hour, enabling you to once again eat almost anything you want. And for this boomer, that's a great thing!
Now I swim almost every day. During the summer, I play in the pool with the neighborhood kids, which is a great way to spend time with friends and family, even if you're averse to the water. I also do my laps in the morning, alternating them with my own weird concoction of exercises. I probably look like a praying mantis in the water, but hey, it works for me! Sometimes I rotate with cycling, walking and a few other low-impact sports. That endorphin high I got from running has been replaced with a swimmer's high. And all because I broke my knee.
McGrath lives in Culver City, Calif.