For years, my personal identity was framed by one word -- swimmer.
Between the ages of 10 and 20, from grade school through half of college, I was a competitive swimmer. I swam at least five days a week, swam in swim meets on weekends, and earned money in high school and college as a lifeguard, swim instructor and coach. Even as late as my mid-20s, I taught swimming in the summer time, updating my Red Cross Instructor cards and teaching at Montessori School summer sessions.
And then I stopped. While I once wet at least two hours a day, I have swum regularly in years. Since my daughter was born, going to the pool every morning has become too time consuming; it’s easier to run, jump rope, and or leap around to my P90X DVDs in my garage until I pull a muscle and hurt myself.
I now have lived more decades dry than wet, yet I still think of myself as a swimmer. Why? If I had been a pole vaulter or a football player, I would have stopped calling myself either noun long ago.
I think it’s because swimming welcomes you back. It is a sport you can do it your entire life, so it allows you to hang on to the persona for a long time.
And now I’m swimming again. Lily is on summer break, so I’m sneaking back to the pool for the first time in two years, getting to the outdoor fifty meter pool in Sherman Oaks at 6 a.m. with thirty other people.
The first day I wondered whether I should even bother, but when I saw the steam rising off the pool and smelled the chlorine and the damp concrete, it all came flooding back to me, and I felt like the 20-year-old in me was just a hundred meter swim away.
After two hundred meters of freestyle enough muscle memory came back that I decided I could resurrect my past identity, and now I look forward to it every morning like when I was a kid.
Why does it still work for me? There are several reasons --
Swimming is easy on the body, if you’re doing it right
Running wrecks your feet and your knees, tennis destroys your knees and your back and your elbows. Basketball destroys everything. Swimming is easy compared to those sports. There’s no gear, special shoes, no big prep, no uniform, no ball. You can show up in your pajamas, as long as you have your suit and a pair of goggles. And you can actually slide in the water with torn ligaments in both knees and still exercise without hurting yourself more.
If you swim well once, you can be a lifelong swimmer
Swimming is all about the breathing. When people say that swimming is exhausting, it’s because they’re not breathing correctly, so they’re never in a rhythm that works and they end up holding their breath (sometimes a little, sometimes a lot) without realizing it. Imagine running around a track while holding your breath, then gasping in intermittent staccato bursts that don’t ever fill your lungs. You wouldn’t make it more than a lap. That’s how most people breathe when they swim, without realizing it. People don’t think about their breathing when they run -- they just fall into a rhythm that they don’t even notice. You must go to the pool regularly for six months to reach that same point with your breathing while swimming.
Those six months are easier when you’re a kid. You weigh less, you have more energy, and your life is already full of challenges that you don’t question-- so the six months of struggle pass easily. It’s much harder for adults, but, rest assured, if you put in your six months, five days a week, you will get there.
Like learning the right tennis stroke or golf stroke, the sport isn’t even enjoyable until you feel yourself doing that basic movement correctly. But once you find that sweet spot, it’s an “ah-hah” moment and everything changes, and you won’t need to buy a set of golf clubs to keep chasing it.
It’s About the Perfect Stroke, Not Strength or Speed
Olympic swimmers aren’t just swimming fast -- they’re swimming fast while maintaining good form. If you can keep your stroke perfect and keep up the pace, you swim well. If you get tired and lose your form, it’s like digging a hole in the water and you just sink deeper.
I like to compare swimming to running hurdles in track. You can’t just run blazing down the blacktop and fling yourself over each hurdle. You must find a pace -- step step step hurdle, step step step hurdle, step step step hurdle. You then must keep that pace throughout your race, never wavering, otherwise you’ll miss a hurdle and crash and fall. Maybe at the end you pick up speed, but again, you must accelerate up to a new pace and keep that new perfect rhythm, no matter how much it hurts.
The same is true in every swimming stroke, and it’s especially true in the butterfly. If you lose your pace, or back off, others will pass you like you’re going backwards, and it feels like a baby grand piano has been thrown onto your back halfway down the pool.
When I slip into the pool now, I don’t try to light the world on fire, but I do try to maintain my stroke and work on my rhythm. And again, swimming is kind. Once I find my groove, I feel a Division One swimmer again. I feel smooth and efficient. The truth is, however, that although I have a decent stroke, I only swim half as fast as a collegiate swimmer while taking twice as many strokes, and the hot shots leave me in a trail of bubbles. But it still feels sweet.
It’s Yoga and Meditation All Rolled into One
A swimming pool is a water sensory deprivation chamber. Your hearing disappears. There’s nothing to look at but a white bottom and black lines. You hear your own breath and your own heartbeat. Breathe, rotate, extend, glide, pull, breathe, repeat. I’m stretching while emptying my mind, and I often forget what lap I’m on. It’s a three-in-one endorphin ohm exercise high, all in one hour, and when I get out I feel amazing.
I like being with other near naked people
It’s nice to swim with the same people every morning. I can take a break from the sport and return six months later and most of my compatriots are still there -- Mike, who survived cancer, Joanne, who had twins, Sam, who swam in the Olympics, and Nate, who’s a lawyer and brings his suit in a garment bag every morning. We chat, we know each other, we swim together, but we don’t really speak too much. We’re not socializing, we’re ritualizing, and although it’s a solitary sport, we still do it together. It matters that we’re bare-skinned. Sure, there are some people with amazing bodies, and you can admire them stretching before they leap in the pool, or you see their boobs, torsos, butts and legs close-up in the lane next to you as they churn past. But there are just as many swimmers who are thirty pounds or more overweight, plus men and women in their 70s and older, and people who must use crutches to get to the side of the pool. The full spectrum of life is before us in the morning mist, a memory of our younger selves in the fast lanes to the right and a vision of those who age gracefully in the slower lanes to the left. Me, I am somewhere in the middle.
There is a Japanese term for this kind of bonding, called “sukinshippu,” which can be translated as “skinship.” In Japan, the public bathhouses and the onsen (hot springs) are full of people bathing, relaxing and meditating alone, or talking with friends, and they cherish the closeness. Everyone is equal, the young, the old, all four generations together, and no one is in uniform. The public swimming pool is our American version of “sukinshippu” and it’s something we can cherish. If the California drought gets worse, bathing at the pool may be one way to save water, and out of necessity the unintended consequence may be that “sukinshippu” will take root.
Sometimes I see someone in the neighborhood who I recognize, but I can’t quite place him or her, and he or she does the same with me -- and then we both realize we share pool “skinship” and we smile, and say that we’ll see each other tomorrow morning.
Van Nuys Sherman Oaks Pool, 1961