A handful of sand meant keeping my job.

I'd been certified as a scuba diver, but I'd never learned how to free-dive without gear. Even so, I got hired as a dive guide at Sea Life Park in Hawaii, where half the customers were Japanese.

My boss, Kalani, was honest. "I'm taking a chance on you because I need a diver who speaks Japanese," he said. "Prove you can handle the water."

I wasn't sure I could.

The 300,000-gallon aquarium where we were to take tourists held fish, stingrays and sharks. As a test, I had to free-dive 18 feet to the bottom and retrieve some sand. My co-workers all passed on the first try. I tried 20 or 30 times a day for a week and still couldn't do it. I fretted about being fired.

Kalani coached me while I struggled:"Don't twist. Head straight down."

My lungs burned. I fought against gasping in water. "Release some air and you'll descend easier."

I popped up empty-handed again. Fury flared. This is impossible!

"You can do it, Maria. Once more."

I took a deep breath. Head down. Long strokes. Full kicks. The bottom beckoned. Let out some air. Bubbles ascended from the corner of my mouth. I kicked and thrust out my hand.

Sand.

I broke the surface, hand first, to the sound of cheering, my fear and self-doubt dribbling through my fingers.

Maria Keffler

Alexandria

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