Swim Practice

For the first time in just under a year, I swam at a pool today. It was glorious. The safety protocols were great. We go to the pool already in our suits, and enter through a separate entrance that leads directly to the pool (to avoid going through the community centre). We had a COVID questionnaire before going into the change rooms. We wore masks except when actually in the water. There were three double lanes, with eight swimmers; my lane had three people. We were never less than 6 feet away from the others. Our coach had pre-printed workouts laid out at one end of the pool, so we just read what to do next and swam, rather than having the usual huddle for instructions between sets. Afterwards, a few of us grabbed a quick shower though technically I think we supposed to just change and go. The two women’s change rooms at this pool are huge, so it was easy for the six women to maintain our distance.

Woman in an orange bathing cap and blue mask, with a swimming pool in the background

I was so excited to be back in the water I forgot to take off my glasses and put on goggles before taking a picture.

My last practice with the club was March 14, 2020. Then the pools closed. I swam outdoors until October 26, but then the water started freezing up. The pools were open in the fall, but I was nervous and dithered about registering with my club until all the spaces were gone. I did sign up for January, but much of the city (including pools) has been locked down until this week. Despite doing lots of other activities, including dryland workouts for swimmers, I had to work hard! I could barely do 25M of butterfly, and I needed a nap after lunch. Did I mention yet that it was glorious?

As I swam, I noticed something that reflects a real change from my own days as a lifeguard. One of the guards was a hijab and burquini-wearing black woman. You can just see her on the right in the picture.

Diane Harper has has loved swimming for over 50 years.


Neighborhood walking

I went for an early morning walk yesterday. Morning walks are not my normal thing, but I had time to kill between dropping my daughter at her job and a doctor’s appointment before work. It was my second walk doing something a little different in the last week, and both highlighted three revelations that aren’t totally new, but bear repeating and highlighting.

Walking, for me, shrinks distances. I get into habits of believing that things are further away than they really are, so I take my car. I hate using my car for short distances, so I organize “great circle routes” to do all the errands at once. When I break down some of those errands into single chores, I can easily get in some physical activity at the same time.

When I walk, I notice things. Yesterday morning’s walk included three kids gleefully stomping in a big puddle to smash the melting ice (one of my favourite late winter activities). I also spotted a window with a row of flowering potted plants, and chatted for a moment with a friendly crossing guard. These were all small moments of joy that I would never get in a moving vehicle.

Walking is a way for me to take action. I care a lot about the environment, so by using my own steam I am not contributing to climate change. I acknowledge that being able to walk places is something not available to everyone, especially in winter. I had to navigate icy stretches and some small snowbanks blocking the sidewalks. In summer, I would be able to note where sidewalks are broken or too high for someone with impaired mobility. I won’t notice them as much as someone in a wheelchair or using a walker, but I can at least report what I do see to the folks who maintain our streets and sidewalks so that fixes can be made.

Feet wearing black rubber boots, standing in an icy puddle. Photo by Julien-Pier Belanger on Unsplash


Wealth and Fitness Privilege

I went skating at the local lake this week. I live in Ottawa, where skating is a big deal. In addition to the Rideau Canal, we have many community rinks. COVID has changed the rules around skating though, and it is particularly hitting those who are least likely to have other options.

Just a few minutes from my house is the poorest community in Ottawa. There are many immigrants, and one of the largest Inuit communities outside Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut. A check of the City’s listing of skating rinks shows only two for the entire area, compared to the four in my neighborhood. These community rinks are supported by the City, but the communities need to request them, and maintain them. I suspect that there are fewer rinks because fewer residents have skating traditions, money for skates, and the time or energy to spend hours scraping and watering the ice. Meanwhile, my favourite rink, at my kids’ old public school, has a permanent change facility (not a seasonal trailer), boards, and a chilled pad so the ice is available in the shoulder seasons at the beginning and end of winter.

Even larger facilities are not shared equitably. Last April, one of the City arenas was converted into a temporary shelter for the homeless, because the usual facilities had been forced to reduce the numbers of people they could accommodate. In July, a local parent lobbied to have the shelter so it could be kids could play hockey. He did back down after public outrage. In contrast, the only indoor arena in the poor neighborhood has also been closed for months to serve as a respite center for the homeless and those with precarious housing. No-one has raised a peep.

The City has asked that people who don’t live within walking distance of the Rideau Canal stay away this year. Unsurprisingly, the communities that border this gorgeous UNESCO World Heritage site are wealthy. The lake I skated at this week is bordered by private homes on one side, and no trespassing signs on the other. Parking is extremely limited, assuming you have a car. Although it is in walking distance of that poor community, I have only ever seen white, middle class or wealthier people skating there.

Skating in Ottawa is an example of systemic bias in access to facilities. It’s not necessarily deliberate ill-will. That shelter is much needed, and it serves some of the many vulnerable who live right in that community. The City and the National Capital Commission have reminded residents that there are places to hike or ski in many suburban areas; but that’s not the same as the Canal, and those skiing and hiking spots aren’t available in densely-populate poor communities. Everyone is welcome to set up a community rink, if they have the time and energy to organize a group to make the application, and then maintain it. And the lake is open to anyone who cares to go, if you know someone who lives nearby and happens to mention that it exists at all.

So what to do about it? I have no idea. That is the challenge of trying to make systemic change. Things like subsidized sports and school programs can help by at least introducing kids to sports and fitness activities, but without a community that makes fitness a priority for all its citizens, it will be hard for them to stay fit for life.

Woman in black skating on a path on a lake, with trees and houses in the background

Diane Harper is a public servant in Ottawa. She is lucky enough to live in a really nice, walkable neighbourhood.



Hi there – I am Diane Harper and I am thrilled to have been invited to join in as a regular blogger. Sam suggested I start out with an introduction about my fitness journey. I think it can best be summed up as

Photo by iHearts143Quotes in Palo Alto, California.
White text on black background: Things didn’t go exactly as planned, but I’m not dead, so that’s a win

Though I tried a few sports as a kid, most were for just one season or summer camp program. Nothing stuck except swimming and a joy of hiking in the woods (I credit Girl Guides for the latter). Even those dropped off in university and into my 30’s. However, when my kids were both young (9 and 5), I decided it was time to be a good role model and get active myself.

I started out modestly. A year earlier I had read an article about adult ballet classes, so after registering my daughter, I called back and asked if they offered lessons for fat old ladies. The nice young man responded “we prefer to call it adult ballet, but yes”. I went almost weekly for years, until sidelined by an injury (I am back at it now). A year later, I started a weekly swimming program at a nearby pool, because it was early enough on a Saturday that I could be showered and home before the kids woke up.

From then on, things got a little wild as the kids became convinced that being active for life was normal. My son is a natural athlete who, at one point, was playing on five teams in three different sports all at the same time. As an adult, he is fulfilling my hockey mom dream of being a weekend hockey warrior and still plays shinny whenever he can (he will return to an adult league when COVID conditions permit). He also golfs, runs, lifts weights and does yoga. Meanwhile, my daughter continued with her ballet, completing a pre-professional program and getting herself accepted into several professional post-secondary dance programs before deciding her ambitions lay elsewhere. She discovered ultimate frisbee in high school and played on the university team. She hopes to return to playing post-COVID, but until then she keeps busy with cycling and skating, plus riding her horse (we started taking lessons together when she was eight, and I bought her a horse that we share when she was a teenager).

While all this was going on, I added belly dance, open water swimming, and commuting to work by bicycle. I took up cross-country skiing and skate whenever I can. I even got my son to teach me to downhill ski. I am back to taking long walks with friends. I ride my horse at least once a week. Thanks to COVID I am now doing two ballet classes a week, plus yoga almost every day, and powwow workouts or other dance classes whenever they are offered. Most recently, I have joined a local swim club for dryland training and learned about HIIT (that’s where the “but I’m not dead, so that’s a win” part comes in). I have gone from couch potato to athlete over the past 20 years, and my kids have become lifelong fitness advocates. All this far exceeds my modest expectations when I made that first nervous phone call to the ballet school in 2003.

One of the things I have loved about this blog has been a shift from just getting fit to confronting aging and injury. I’m almost 60. So far, aside from bunion surgery following a badly-landed jump in dance class, I have had no major injuries, but I need time to recover and I get very stiff, so I like to switch cross-train in order to keep as limber as possible. As a result, my posts are likely to cover many activities, as well as thoughts on being an aging athlete. As I work on international development issues, I also have some reflections on fitness, exercise and sport in that context. My regular spot will be on the fourth Wednesday of every month. I hope you’ll stop by for a read.

Diane in a green shirt, with her pink ballet barre in the background.

Diane Harper is a public servant in Ottawa.