by Kathleen McDonnell
An excerpt from my forthcoming book Growing Old, Going Cold: The Psychrolute Chronicles, about my Life as an (aging) cold-water swimmer.
It’s not that I have anything against pools. I’ve swum in plenty of them. They’ll do in a pinch. For competitive swimmers they make perfect sense – separated lanes, straight lines on the bottom, water sanitized to kill bacteria and other undesirable critters – everything is controlled, predictable. And there’s the rub. That’s precisely what those of us who prefer to swim in open, natural, “wild” water are trying to get away from. But in the modern world, pools have become the default option, and the pool mentality intrudes where it doesn’t belong.
Some years back I found myself back in Chicago in the height of summer. It had been a long time since I’d been in my hometown during swimming season, and I was excited at the chance to immerse myself in the waters of Lake Michigan once again. This would be a pilgrimage to Touhy Beach, the very source of my swimming passion. The day was calm, the water warm, and I headed in, anticipating a nice long swim. A Big Swim: A round-trip to a beach a half-mile to the south.
There was a lifeguard in a rowboat a little ways out from shore. I nodded to him as I passed the boat, on my way into the deeper water where I could commence my big swim. I dove in and my stroke quickly settled into a nice, steady rhythm. Until I got near the first of the short wooden piers and saw the lifeguard boat in front of me, blocking my progress. I tried to swim around the boat, but he rowed in front of me again. I stopped swimming and faced him, standing in water that was no more than shoulder-deep.
“You’re not allowed to swim lengths here, Ma’am.”
“Lengths? What do you mean, lengths?”
He just shook his head at my question.
“Sorry, Ma’am. Swimming lengths isn’t allowed here.”
“You mean, I can’t keep swimming in this direction?”
“That’s right, Ma’am. You have to stay in this area.”
“Why? It’s not very deep here. I’m a good swimmer.
“We have to keep an eye on everyone in the water, Ma’am. You’re not allowed to swim lengths here.”
Again with the lengths! Not only was I not permitted beyond the pier, it appeared I was only allowed to bob up and down in this narrowly-defined area. I’ve been “ma’amed” before by lifeguards at my home beach in Toronto and I usually try to keep my cool. But it was all I could do to keep from yelling at him. “This isn’t a pool, it’s a lake – a BIG lake and I’m going to swim in it!”
Was I asking for trouble? Would he call the other lifeguards to pull me out of the water? I acquiesced and swam a few strokes back the way I’d come, then swam a few strokes the opposite way, curious to see if this short back-and-forth distance fit his definition of “lengths.” Of course, to show me who was boss, he inched the boat as close as he could without the oar hitting me. We went on like this for several minutes, a few strokes, going a bit farther each time, then turning back the other way, the lifeguard maneuvering the boat so that it was never more than 2 or 3 feet away from me.
Finally I’d had enough. I’d come to the motherlode, the original source of my Great Lakes swimming passion, and all I’d managed to do was get a bit wet. And be treated to a demonstration of how the act of swimming had become distorted, synonomous with “lengths” of a chlorine-filled concrete hole-in-the-ground. It’s yet another way humans turn away from the natural world, and foolishly insist that the experience of being in water can be replaced or – worse – improved upon.
It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when swimming in natural bodies of water was considered completely normal.
Moats, Swimming Holes and Pools
You might think pools are a modern invention, but in fact they go back several millennia. As far as historians know, the Great Bath at the site of Mohenjo-Daro in modern-day Pakistan was the first human-created pool, dug during the 3rd millennium BC. This brick-lined pool was about 39 by 23 feet and was likely used for religious ceremonies. The structure is still there, and has been designated a South Asian World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Both ancient Greece and Rome had extensive public baths that were central to community life as meeting places for socializing and relaxing. Later the Romans built artificial pools in gymnasiums that were used for nautical and military exercises. Roman emperors also had their own private pools in which fish were also kept, hence one of the Latin words for a pool was piscina.
These early pools were used as healing baths for various conditions, rather than for swimming, which took place in natural bodies of water. The Romans built baths in other parts of the empire too, including the one that gave its name to the city of Bath, England circa 70 AD. The original Roman Bath was a renowned healing spa and swimming locale until well into the twentieth century, when a deadly pathogen was discovered in the water. The historic structure is now for tourist viewing only, replaced for swimming with more modern facilities. It’s one example of what Roger Deakin discovered on his epic swim across Britain, lamenting the abandonment and decay of many traditional bathing sites. Deakin’s book Waterlog traces the history of swimming in Britain and its evolution from natural swimming holes to contained, human-made structures. Deakin started his journey from a spring-fed moat on his own property in Suffolk. Typically he would swim from place to place, then walk back to retrieve his clothes and gear at the starting point, basically the opposite of doing “lengths” (So there, Touhy lifeguard!)
The early twentieth century cemented the transition to enclosed swimming structures, and dozens of open-air lidos were built across Britain. For the most part these lidos are much bigger than modern pools, like the massive art deco Jubilee Lido in Cornwall, and they typically designated separate areas or times for men and women to swim. Mixed bathing only became common from the mid-twentieth century. By tradition, many lidos were kept open right through the winter, and were situated by the seaside to capture seawater in the enclosure. There’s an example of this practice in my hometown of Toronto. Built in 1922, the Sunnyside Bathing Pavillion is almost twice the length of Olympic size pool and has room for 2,000 bathers. Now known as the Gus Ryder Pool, this concrete behemoth filled with several tons of chlorinated water sits right next to a Lake Ontario beach – an almost perverse turning away from its own environment. As Roger Deakin said of pools, they are “simulations of nature with the one essential ingredient – wildness – carefully filtered out.”
With the worldwide growth in pools’ popularity came the need for better sanitation measures. Originally they employed archaic filtration systems that required the filters, and the water itself, to be changed frequently. By the time of the polio scare in the late 1930s and 1940s, a panic arose over the public’s fears that children could be exposed to the poliovirus in community swimming pools. In 1946, however, a study showed that chlorine was one of the few known chemicals that could kill the polio virus. As the problem of polio transmission receded, swimming pools regained popularity as a fun and exciting summer venue for families. Moreover, chlorine, as a polio disinfectant, became the near-universal method of pool sanitation, and by the early sixties, strict regulations on chlorine in pools were in place. And it will only get stricter with the rise of a new virus.
Kathleen McDonnell is the author of nine books and more than a dozen plays, which have had award-winning productions in Canada and the United States. She’s also been a journalist and CBC radio commentator, and does a fair bit of teaching and public speaking. As befits a passionate swimmer, McDonnell lives on an island; Toronto Island, a unique, vibrant, mostly car-free community a ten-minute ferry ride from downtown Toronto where she and her life partner raised their two daughters. Check out her website: http://www.kathleenmcdonnell.com/
Keep an eye out for Part Two, on May 7th, here at Fit is a Feminist Issue.