I was not yet five years old, the youngest person at my first swimming lesson at an unheated (freezing) outdoor pool in the Don Mills townhouse complex where my family lived when we first immigrated to Canada from South Africa in the late sixties.
My mother stood at the side of the pool and wept that day. In South Africa at that time swimming lessons were for whites only. Most (all?) public pools were for whites only. And the beaches with the safe swimming were for whites only. Of the many things that apartheid would have denied us if we’d stayed in SA, the swimming lessons were the least negotiable with my mother once we moved to Canada.
And though I may not have fallen in love with it that very first day, it didn’t take me long. I cannot remember a time in my life when I haven’t loved to swim.
Before I turned five, my family moved out of the townhouse complex and into a single family home further out in the suburbs. After a year or two there, taking advantage of the spacious back yard, we put in a concrete swimming pool. The construction ended sometime in November.
November in Toronto is cold. No matter. My dad cranked up the heat on the new pool and we swam and swam until it had to be closed for the winter. The steam rose from the water as we splashed around. The cold didn’t deter us from running (okay, walking quickly, because running on deck is a no-no) to the diving board and showing off our best dives.
Through my childhood and teens, those swimming lessons were a constant. When I ran out of levels in the regular lessons, I switched to synchronized swimming for a while, to competitive swimming (back stroke was my best event, with freestyle a close second), and even to diving.
When I outgrew lessons, I still loved the backyard pool. Even though 40 feet is short for lap swimming, it works if you want it to work.
Like Samantha, I’m training for that triathlon in July, so I dove back into the pool this week after a pretty long hiatus from lap swimming. A couple of days ago a friend and I made a date to meet at the Y for a swim instead of going out for lunch as we normally would.
When I slid into the fast lane of the pool, I had a feeling of “coming home.” I wound up slowly with ten lengths of breast stroke and then got into a rhythmic freestyle for about fifteen more minutes. I shared the lane with just one other swimmer who was happy to let me pass whenever I lapped him (I do get a bit competitive in the pool. I love to pass, hate being passed.).
Swimming laps calms me like no other activity I do. In 1988, when started as a PhD student at MIT, the first thing I did was look up the pool hours. I used to go swimming every morning at 8 a.m. I did 40 lengths of the 25 metre pool. Just enough to keep me in the water, suspended in a thought-free state, listening only to the rhythm of my breath and the splash of my arms for about 20 minutes. It kept me grounded in the early months of what was for me an extraordinarily stressful PhD program. It has a meditative quality that I have spoken of before.
After just a few months, I gave up swimming for the gym when I read in a women’s fitness magazine that swimming made it harder to lose fat. I have no idea if that’s true. I’ve seen some pretty lean looking swimmers. But that article kept me out of the pool for a few years.
I felt deprived. Looking back, I can see that I experienced a deep sense of loss and sadness. But because my goals back then were more aesthetic than anything else, an activity that would keep me “fat” (note: I was not the least bit overweight) just wouldn’t do.
After a few years without the pool as part of my life, I dove back in, intermittently, when I joined the Y here in London in the mid-nineties. It’s been on-again, off-again since then. A few years ago I got serious with swimming again. I even started working with a new style of swimming, total immersion.
And then the ear aches began. After two or three minutes in the pool I’d have an excruciating ear ache that made swimming impossible. So I stopped.
I went to a conference a couple of years back at a university that had an exquisite 50 metre pool. By then, I’d actually forgotten why I stopped swimming. I read about the 50 metre pool to which I’d have access and it was a no-brainer. Of course I would use it. In I went. Again came the ear ache.
These days, I do a lot of sailing. And when I sail, I swim. I’ve been experimenting for a few seasons now with ear plugs. For the kind of light swimming I do in the lake when we’re on the sailboat, the earplugs have served me well. No problems.
So for my first trip back this week, I took them to the pool. I went in cautious, worried that the ear plugs might not work for serious lap swimming. But they did! And for that period of time that I was in the water I felt like a kid again. Swimming is the only thing I do activity-wise that doesn’t force me to think about wear and tear on my aging body! I feel as light and at ease in the pool now as I did when I was a child.
Because I wasn’t sure how this experiment would go, I took a day-pass earlier in the week. I am joining the Y again today, recommitting to my first love on Valentine’s Day.
Swimming, I love you and will never leave you again! And Mum, thank you for introducing us and insisting we got to know each other!