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Persistence, stubbornness, perseverance, doggedness, determination, resolve, stick-to-it-tiveness, sheer cussedness– call it what you will. I’ve got it, in spades.

I was born to it. My parents were both from the Balkan countries– my mother hailed from Greece; my father, from Croatia. They don’t call those mountains the Balkans for nothing; my people balk at everything. One of the things that we Balkans balk at most enthusiastically is the idea that we can’t do something we want to do. If the problem is we don’t have permission, if we are sure it’s the right thing to do, we do it anyway, and take the responsibility if it goes wrong (and claim the credit if it goes the way we thought it would all along). If the problem is we don’t know how, we learn. If the problem is someone thinks we’re not good enough, we prove them wrong. If the problem is we’re that someone, we tell ourselves to quit complaining, start practicing, keep practicing, and don’t give up until we get it.

These were the lessons of my childhood, and I have used them well all my life to accomplish the things that were important to me.

I’ve been using those lessons in the past twelve weeks, since I began learning to swim. I applied myself with great diligence this past week, in my effort to finally learn the breaststroke. I wrote about it here last Thursday.

Today, I came into my class set on making it all come together. As soon as I got into the pool with my instructor, Eddie Langer, I told him what I’d been working on this past week, and that I wanted to work on nothing but breaststroke for our entire class.

He had me show him my freestyle and backstroke first, then my elementary backstroke. Then, I showed him what I’d been doing on my own, my breaststroke drills– kicks only, strokes only. He saw that my kick had markedly improved in the two weeks since he’d seen me, and agreed that my arm stroke was strong.

“I found a swimming video online that showed a practice drill with two kicks, stop, then armstroke, then repeat. Can I try that?” I said.

“Go ahead!” said Eddie.

I tried it, and the discipline of starting the next stroke only when the previous one was finished was working. It helped my timing, which has been my problem all along.

“Okay,” said Eddie, “let’s try two arm strokes, two kicks, repeat. Slow it down, don’t start the next one until you finish the one before.”

I did. It was working.

“Let’s try one arm stroke, two kicks, repeat. Keep it slow.”

I did. It was working really well. We were on to something.

I kept up with the drills, just that way, back and forth across the deep end of the pool, when he said.

“Try it one armstroke, one kick, keep it slow.”

I did.

It worked.

It kept working. I was finally doing a proper breaststroke.

“Woo-hoo!” I shouted after going down the long side of the pool and back.

We were both so happy– we had finally found the secret, the missing piece that solved the breaststroke puzzle for me.

“THANK YOU! You’re a great teacher! I couldn’t have done it without your help!”

And then he said the magic words that all of us stubborn Balkans love to hear; “It was you, you did it!”

I did, but with a lot of help, and a lot of well-applied lessons from childhood.

Thank you, Daniel and Julissa, for helping me with my form; thank you Frank, for listening to my endless self-criticism and nonetheless always believing that I would get it; thank you Eddie, for being a great teacher and collaborator, for searching for and finding the thing that helped me to accomplish the thing I so wanted to do.