Here’s a love story:
I don’t know when I learned to swim but I must have been three or younger because the year I was four, I broke my arm and spent the whole summer standing awkwardly in the shallow end of our neighbor’s pool, holding my plastic-wrapped heavy white cast above the splashing water and watching forlornly as my siblings and neighbors frolicked.
I swam in my first meet at age five. Mom reports that my first question, upon arriving at the end of the pool, was, “Did I win?” (No.)
I swam on competitive teams every summer until I was sixteen, when I had to choose between swimming and basketball and chose basketball – not because I loved it more, but because, relative to other kids, I was better at it (i.e. more likely to win.)
At 24, I retired from a basketball career that had included Stanford University and professional teams, and immediately returned to the pool. I discovered that “masters swimming” includes people as young as 19, and that I still loved swimming, with or without the added bonus of trophies. Diving into the pool again, soaring out over the water in a racing dive, felt like coming home.
I swam on masters teams for another 26 years, until I turned 50 and accepted a job with a thirty-minute commute. Though my masters team practiced from 6:30-7:30 at a pool en route to my new workplace, the schlep didn’t work for me. I tried it: Get up at 5:45, pack the car with swimming bag, the day’s work clothes, and drive to the pool. Swim, shower, dress, eat breakfast in the car, and arrive at work by 8:45. After work, unpack the wet bathing suit and towel, which had been moulding or freezing in the car all day, and re-pack everything for the next day. After a while, my life seemed to revolve around packing and unpacking clothes, swimming gear, and food.
Though I never forgot to pack my underwear or other key articles of my professional attire, I worried about it constantly, left some duplicates in my office locker, and more than once selected and packed a professional outfit I no longer wanted to wear when — too late — I tried it on in the swimming locker room, miles from home.
After a year of this, I stopped swimming, and remained out of the pool for a year. I felt less exhausted and stressed out but missed my swim team: Coach John Flanagan and teammates Sue, Cindy, Mei Mei, Karen, Beth. Even more, I missed those racing dives and my long strong strokes through the water. My heart actually ached for that freestyle motion. When swimming freestyle, the water hugs your chest, somehow, and the balanced, rhythmic motion is satisfying on a deeply primal level.
I stayed in shape through yoga, weight-lifting, cycling, walking. But I never stopped craving swimming. Switching from showers to baths in a vain attempt to satisfy my need for total immersion did not help. Nor did “imaginary swimming,” an exercise I found myself doing on my way to sleep. Nor did occasional ecstatic swims in the ocean, three hours from home.
Finally, it occurred to me that I could swim at the local high school, one mile from my house, shower there, drive back home, dress and eat breakfast at home, and still get to work on time without having to pack my work clothes or eat breakfast in the car.
For about six months now, I’ve been back in the swim. It’s a very different experience than my swim team training, which had been intense, competitive and highly structured. Now I do my own thing, talking to no one and coordinating my laps with no one.
Since I work with people all day, this non-competitive, almost anti-social swimming provides just what I need these days: an hour just for me. Though surrounded by other swimmers, I feel alone in the pool in the best sense of the word alone: solitary, self-contained, quiet. I focus on my breathing, my stroke, my strength. It’s swimming as meditation: deeply satisfying in a way I almost didn’t know swimming could be.
And throughout the day I feel immensely better: more physically balanced, spiritually centered, at peace. No matter what happens in my sometimes hectic and demanding job, I always have that morning meditation to refer back to. Swimming doesn’t “ground” me but rather buoys me, supports me as I swim through the rest of my life.
I’m euphorically happy to be back in the swim.
May everyone find a form of exercise they love this much.