Lessons from Swimming Backward

Kevin John Fong
4 min readMay 15, 2022
Kaimana Beach|Photo: Kevin John Fong

There is nothing more liberating for me than swimming in the ocean. The photo above provides a glimpse of my perspective when I’m in the water. It is beautiful, inviting, and healing. When I dive below the surface, a new world unfolds.

One moment, I may swim among a school of kihekihe, ‘awela, or ta’ape. Then a honu will appear — four feet long from the tip of her shell to the tail, blessing me with her presence.

In the early morning when the water is cool, thousands of makiawa may appear, surrounding me in a shimmering circle of silver light. The collective vibration these beings emanate is palpable.

But don’t be beguiled by this gentle parade of sea creatures. Within this world, powerful currents arise that can take you under or pull you out. These currents remind me of some important rules of the ocean:

  • Assess the conditions before entering. Pay attention to the wind and the waves. Observe the patterns of the swimmers who are already in the water;
  • Stretch well, and offer a prayer or a gesture of acknowledgment to the ocean, asking for her protection;
  • Stay within sight of the lifeguard;
  • As you surface to take a breath, keep an eye on key markers, such as the horizon and the shore; and
  • Always measure progress not by distance, but by strokes.

It is this last rule that reminded me that twelve hundred strokes may take me a mile, or 800 feet, depending on the conditions. This lesson became evident for me last week when I found myself drifting backward from all of my markers on the ocean floor — rocks, coral formations, etc. Under calmer conditions, I would easily pass these markers. The current was so strong that it grounded me back on the beach.

How could I be trying so hard, yet still be swimming backward?

After my third grounding, I got out of the water and resorted to rule #1 — assess the conditions and watch the other swimmers. Some were doing quite well, although they had equipment (fins) that I did not have. Others were stronger and more experienced swimmers. As I sat on the beach, perplexed and frustrated, I heard the voice of Robert Cazimero, my kumu hula, whispering,

“Stay true to you, honey boy. Focus on the basics, and take it at your own pace.
You may not be as strong or as fast as the others, but you will make it through in your own way and time.”

I noticed a certain pathway where some swimmers had an easier passage by swimming at a 40-degree angle. I determined my key markers, said my prayer, and got back in the water. It took 200 strokes to reach the coral reef (on a calm day, I can reach the reef in 20), and another 500 to get to the other side of the reef. The flag at the breakers was still far off in the distance. Knowing that I was already at 700 strokes, I turned around, realizing that the flag was a goal for another day.

Kaimana Beach|Photo: Kevin John Fong

I reached the shore exhausted, but not disappointed, even though some of my fellow swimmers had successfully reached the flag. I stayed true to myself by respecting the rules of the ocean, knowing my limits, and taking care of myself.

This reminder from the ocean had immediate application a few days later. I had to give some critical feedback to a colleague and express my disappointment in pointing out all the ways that they had not reached their outcomes. Then I remembered my lessons from swimming backward. Even though I followed the rules, the current was still too strong to enable me to reach my goal.

I needed to reassess the situation I had placed my colleague in, question whether they were prepared to enter those waters, and whether I had been a good lifeguard, or I had allowed my attention to divert away from where it would better have served our shared cause. Needless to say, my swimming lesson helped me to frame a more compassionate meeting.

We have been facing many tough currents in recent times. The constant push and pull of new variants. Increasing prices at the grocery store and gas station. The continuing waves of grief and sadness. How might the rules of ocean swimming, and the advice of my kumu, add resilience and greater reach to important things that you seek?

Stay true to you. Focus on the basics. And take it at your own pace.

Then get in the water, take a breath, and start swimming. I’ll be out there, supporting you all the way.

Questions for Reflection and Consideration

  1. What currents are you swimming against right now? How can you use the rules of the ocean to determine your path?
  2. Who are your lifeguards?
  3. Who are your kumus (teachers)?



Kevin John Fong

A cultural translator and racial healing practitioner, Kevin works to weave people and possibilities to cultivate communities of belonging — www.kahakulei.com