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Scholarship winner Learns to say “Yes” to life

Scuba scholarship winner faces her fear and becomes a new diver

Pamela Jean Kreigh, Winner of the 2102 Women’s Divers Hall of Fame Ocean Pals scholarship. This scholarship is sponsored by Kids Sea Camp and Family Dive Adventures.

Trying not to hold my breath….breathing through the regulator….watching the bubbles rise past my mask…hearing the startlingly loud percolation of the regulator as it supplies me with air.  Watching my own hand, magnified, as it grips the descent chain too tightly.  I press the deflation button on my BCD in quick bursts and will my hand to let go of the chain.

This was no swimming pool, where I could stand up or shoot quickly to the surface if something went wrong.  It was the White Star Quarry in Gibsonburg, Ohio, and I knew that I’d have to descend to at least 45 feet that day if I wanted to become a certified scuba diver.

As I sank slowly into the quarry water, going deeper than swimming-pool depths for the first time in my life, I took some time to look around myself.  I wanted to remember this moment.  I could see other divers above and below me, hanging onto my descent chain and other chains around me.  All of us were first-time divers, all of us were nervous.  Every now and then, I made eye contact with other divers, and I wondered if my eyes looked as wide behind my mask as theirs did.

My buddy diver was Kari, one of our instructors—I’d told her about my boating accident and my resulting water phobia before we got in, so she buddied with me purposefully.  She made frequent eye contact with me and gave me reassuring “OK” signs.  Every time, I signed back “OK,” and it wasn’t a lie…I really was doing OK, much to my surprise.

Remembering everything I had to do as a diver kept me busy and focused, which helped to keep my fear at bay as I went deeper and deeper into the water.  Equalize.  Go slowly.  Equalize.  Short burst on the BCD.  Equalize.  Signal OK.  Equalize.  (I had some trouble with the equalizing part.)

I was surprised when I landed gently on the platform, 25 feet down.  I could see the bottom of the quarry, another 10 feet below.  It didn’t feel like I was that far underwater.  It didn’t feel real at all.  It felt like I was watching a scene in a movie.  Or perhaps dreaming it.  Divers floating all around me at my platform, other divers further away on other platforms, visibility fading into blue-green twilight in the distance.  Our instructors hovering like bulky neoprene angels with their hands folded in front of them, nodding at us as if in benediction, making eye contact and signaling OK to each of us in turn.  The surface of the water shimmering like heat waves, far away, above me.  A dream, surely.

As I took another moment to look around, trying to register and remember everything, I also looked inside myself.  Was I really OK?  Astonishingly, I wasn’t afraid!  Not even a little.  I was too busy, too focused, too excited, too exhilarated by this experience to have any time or energy to waste on fear.  And fear was the one thing I had expected with concrete surety.

I grew up boating and swimming—a real water baby.  Motorboating, sailing, canoeing, swim team, skiing, river tubing…you couldn’t keep me out of the water as a child and teen.  And then, in my 16th summer, an accident happened that reshaped my relationship to water.

I was river canoeing with a group of friends on the appropriately named Mad River.  Fast and dangerous, that river has a bad reputation.  The canoe I was in swept broadside against a large mid-river logjam and flipped.  My friend was thrown clear, but I reflexively, foolishly, hung on to the yoke, which meant that I went with the direction of the flip.  I was immediately trapped underwater, between the upside-down canoe and the logjam.  The river was moving fast.  The water was black with silt, completely opaque.  The current held me firmly in place, with the canoe smashed against my chest and my back against the logs.  All of me was underwater, including my head, which was turned forcibly sideways and pressed backward by the hull of the canoe.  I couldn’t see, couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe.  I could reach across, with outstretched arms, and brush my fingertips against the far gunwale, but I couldn’t push the canoe away from me.  I could get my hands up next to my shoulders, but then didn’t have enough strength or leverage to push the near gunwale into the current.  I was well and truly trapped.

I remember very little about what happened next.  I do, however, remember thinking, very clearly, that I was going to die that day.  It should have been terrifying, but I wasn’t afraid in that moment—just sad and a little disappointed.  As I struggled to push the boat away, and as my lungs started to feel like they were on fire, a single, shining thought went through my mind like a thread of bright silver light in a dark room: “What a shame, for me to die like this…I’m only 16 years old.”

It is the truth, by all the laws of nature and physics, that I should have died that day.  No one was coming to my rescue—my friend in the boat had been thrown clear when the boat flipped and didn’t know where I was.  There was nothing I could do to push the boat away in the few seconds of oxygen my body had left in it.  I wasn’t even wearing a life jacket, because we were typical teenagers with no sense of our own mortality.

But it is also the truth that my head broke the surface of the water 30 feet downstream, and that I was conscious when I came up.  I had to have been conscious the entire time, because if I’d lost consciousness I’d have drifted and drowned, not surfaced.  I don’t know how long I was under, but my friend had enough time to swim to the logjam and clamber onto it.  She was looking for me, shouting, panicking.

I have absolutely no recollection of what happened between the moment of that single, shining, sad thought and the moment when I surfaced.  But that experience turned me from a joyous, carefree water-baby into someone who couldn’t get into water any deeper than her knees unless that water was crystal clear.  I was calm in swimming pools, but being deeper than my knees in any lake, river, or ocean water that had the least amount of silt in it was completely out of the question.

So, for me to descend 25 feet into a quarry, where the water got gradually more silty with depth, was quite an accomplishment indeed.  And for me to do that without any fear at all…to be enjoying myself…it truly was astonishing.  The only things I had any reservations about were going past the 30-foot CESA we had practiced in the pool (horizontally of course), and a lurking, unfounded worry that my BCD would spontaneously inflate and I’d pop to the surface too quickly and sustain lung damage.

We went through our skills exercises with no problems, and I felt increasingly confident.  Then the fun started.  We went on a tour of the quarry.  I kicked away from the platform, experimenting with my BCD, trying to control my depth.  Breathing through the regulator had already become second-nature.  I followed Riley (our other instructor) as he swam away into the murk.  I was concentrating on keeping up with him, clearing my mask occasionally, and not floundering around with my arms.  As we went, I checked my SPG and realized that we had gradually descended another 20 feet—I was forty-five feet under water, well past the CESA we had practiced, and I wasn’t afraid!

When we surfaced (without any lung damage, of course) all I wanted was to go again.  And I did, three more times over the next 24 hours.  More skills exercises, more tours of the quarry, swimming through hoops (literally—the quarry is set up with lots of interesting things for divers to see and do).  And every time I got back in the water, I felt more and more like I belonged there again.  I was a dolphin…a mermaid!  It was delightful…amazing!… to be so at ease in the water!

When Kari and Riley signed my dive log, indicating that I was a certified diver, I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment that I hope I remember for the rest of my life.  Not only because of having learned how to dive (which is, of course, cool in the extreme), but also because of what this event represents in my life.

I’ve spent the past four years learning to say “yes” to life again.  As a child and teen, the world around me was tremendously, unknowably huge, filled with limitless chances for fun and growth and excitement.  I grew up and went to college and got a career, then quit the career to raise my children.  Somewhere along the way, my world became very small—bounded by vague fear and negativity, with a constant underlying attitude of “I can’t do that.”    I don’t know how it happened…it was a gradual shrinking of my confidence and of the boundaries of what I thought I could do.  A gradual settling for a smaller, sadder life.  And then, four years ago, I started taking karate lessons with my children.  I joined the lessons because I had gotten tired of just sitting and watching whatever fun thing I’d arranged for my children.  I remember watching the teens at karate, doing katas and jump-kicks and other cool, amazing things, and I’d think, “Wow, I’ll never be able to do that.”  Imagine my surprise…after four years of joyous hard work and study, I’m now a second-degree brown belt, and I have a firm resolve to attain my black belt.

And I’ve learned that I can do that, whatever “that” is.

I started saying “Yes…YES!” when life offered other opportunities for fun and happiness and adventure.  I was invited to become a ski instructor at our local resort after one of the instructors there saw me teaching some of the kids on the slopes… and I said YES!  A friend suggested that I apply for a scuba scholarship from WDHOF and I said, “Become a certified scuba diver?  Hmm, well, I have this water phobia…but YES, I can do that!”  Travel to China on a shoestring budget?  Yes, I can do that!  These are life-changing events.  They’ve reopened my eyes to the wide wonder of the world around me.  They’ve deepened my appreciation of the time I have and how I want to spend it and the things I want to do.

I’ve learned that anything is possible…that I can do anything, if only I keep myself open to the world and all the wonderful, exciting opportunities it presents.   If only I’m willing to take the chance and find out what I really can do, instead of focusing on what I can’t do.  This adventure—the adventure of me conquering my water phobia and getting my scuba certification—is another chapter in the delightful, ongoing book of my new approach…saying YES to life.  And I can hardly wait to see what’s next!

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