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Breath & Shadow

Spring 2022 - Vol. 19, Issue 2

"Swimming Out of The Competence Trap"

written by

Samir Knego

I no longer count my laps or watch the clock when I swim. This is a pretty new development--for ages, I wanted to think of myself as an adaptive athlete, which essentially boiled down to pushing myself to be as “good for a disabled person” as I could be.

I may be disabled, the thinking went, and I may not be able to run or jump or do any kind of land-based exercise, but swimming can be my thing, my exercise. I can be a Swimmer.

This aspiration to athleticism was less about wanting to compete or improve my fitness, and much more about showing myself to be a “worthy” disabled person.

* * *

While out in my wheelchair, I often experience what I’ve previously termed the “competence trap”; feeling caught between the pressure to appear strong and capable and navigate the landscape with ease on the one hand, and the reality of inaccessibility (and a desire to make inaccessibility visible to nondisabled people through my annoyance and struggles) on the other.

In the pool, the competence trap looked a bit different, but I was still stuck in it.

* * *

The realities of my body often made swimming painful and I struggled to mimic proper swimming form. Despite this and how my lap counts and times were never remotely impressive by normal standards, I felt intense pressure to keep up the pretense that in the water I was magically nondisabled. Ironically enough, it’s in rejecting that pretense that I’ve realized that there’s some truth to it.

Water is my escape, the place I can move with more ease and less pain than I can on land.

Like many chronically ill people, I have some unease with the social model of disability and the ways it potentially ignores the very real, medical difficulties that we would live with regardless of social barriers. But when I swim, I kind of start to believe in it. I begin to buy the idea that in a different, better, and (most importantly) water-based society, I might not really function as disabled.

In the water, I don’t have to be disabled, and I (hesitantly) love it. I hesitate because I don’t think that disability is bad, or that my disabled body/identity/life is bad, or that my (or anyone’s) goal should be to not be disabled. At the same time, I’m sure it won’t be controversial to say that living with disability and/or chronic illness can really suck, and there is joy to be had in a brief reprieve from some of that suckiness.

These days, I try not to even think of myself as a swimmer--I don't really do the strokes properly, or quickly, or for long enough. I’d like to think there’s space in the word “swimmer” for me, someday, but at the moment it’s too tied to something I’ve stopped trying to be.

Rather than forcing myself into the mold of “athlete,” I’ve tried thinking of myself as more of a water dweller.

* * *

A couple weeks ago I watched Creature from the Black Lagoon for the first time. I’m sure there’s lots I could say about the film’s metaphors for being misunderstood and not belonging, and I could recommend the film for that and for thinking about the value of science and exploration (though in other ways, be warned that the film has not aged well). But really, what stuck out to me most was not the implicit messages but the physical movement on screen.

There are a number of swimming scenes, both above water and diving, and they’re delightful. Particularly when the Creature is swimming, I could vividly feel the sliding-soaring-cushioning feeling of the water and the satisfaction of moving freely in it. When the humans swam I longed to go to the pool. When the Creature swam I longed to live in the water.

* * *

I still feel embarrassed at the pool sometimes, wondering if other swimmers are judging me for being slow, or think I'm silly for only really using my arms when I swim. I worry that I will scare the lifeguard when I float on my stomach and lazily dive underwater in the 3 ft area for most of my swim time. I worry that I don't belong in the pool, and in these pandemic days of signing up for a pool spot--a tangible claim to a piece of the place--that worry can be even more intense.

Of course, that worry--of taking up space we don’t deserve in places that weren’t really designed with us in mind--is a huge part of many disability experiences.

So I’ll go back to the pool, and swim in my funny, water-creature ways. I’ll float above the jaws of the competence trap and taunt it.

Samir Knego edits for Decolonial Passage and has published poems, essays, and art in various journals and zines. He lives in North Carolina with a bright green wheelchair and a little black dog. Find him on twitter/instagram @SamirKnego or at

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