Second excerpt from my forthcoming book Growing Old, Going Cold: The Psychrolute Chronicles, about my Life as an (aging) cold-water swimmer by Kathleen McDonnell
I remember standing in line with my fifth-grade classmates as we waited to get our polio shots. I knew that throughout history there had been terrible epidemics, like the Black Death, where people dropped dead in the streets (which was actually more the case with cholera than the Plague). Like most people who grew up in the twentieth century, that was pretty much the extent of my acquaintance with serious contagious disease.
So when the Covid-19 pandemic and the worldwide lockdown hit in early 2020, I wasn’t terribly phased by it, at least on a personal level. Shelter-in-place? No problem. My spouse and I already worked from home. In fact, a lot of the writing of this book was done during that time. Social distancing? No problem there, either. On this part of Toronto Island the houses are close together – sometimes a bit too close together –so we don’t feel isolated. Like everyone else, we stayed separate from our daughters and grandchild, but FaceTime and outdoors visits made up for that. Get outside once a day for exercise? Let’s see, I live in a village on the edge of a nature park, on an Island surrounded by water. I venture outside, walk for less than five minutes and I’m in the water. Even in the time of Covid Isolation, there couldn’t be a better situation for a swimmer. As time went on, though, I realized just how extraordinary my situation was, how truly fortunate I was.
I began to see posts by fellow open-water swimmers going through withdrawal, lamenting that they couldn’t get to the water since parks and beaches everywhere were closed. It was just the time of the season when cold-water swim groups were gearing up, and now they were blocked. In the UK the guidelines were rigidly enforced in some areas, with patrolling bobbies chasing people out of the water. One determined outdoor swimmer stopped because she couldn’t stand the stares, the sense that onlookers were thinking, “Why should you get to swim, when I can’t?” A couple of months into the pandemic, swim memoirist Bonnie Tsui published an article in the New York Times entitled “What I Miss Most Is Swimming” “There’s a poignancy to being a swimmer now,” she writes, “in that we’re not able to do it just when we need it most.”
I was always disdainful of those single-lane lap pools, and the so-called “Endless pool,” a jet resistance you swim against, basically going nowhere – endlessly! But with the shutdown of conventional pools, swimmers were buying them or, more commonly, wishing they could afford to. Meanwhile, the open-water community in the UK refused to take the situation lying down. I saw a flurry of posts on online sites about blow-up backyard pools. Yes, folks who proudly describe themselves as “wild swimmers” were ordering blue plastic inflatable pools on Amazon, setting them up in their backyards, tethering themselves to a stationery object and proceeding to swim in place. Swimmers who hate chlorinated pools were dumping chorine into their backyard pools so they wouldn’t become germ infested. They patted themselves on the back for making do with cheery British pluck. And as pitiful as it all looked to me, I could totally understand. It’s an addiction, this need to be in water. I even felt a bit guilty. They had these postage-stamp-size pools, and I had a Great Lake.
After the full-on lockdown began to ease up in early summer, outdoor pools in Toronto began to re-open, but with restrictions. The city imposed strict limits on the number of people in the pool at any one time, and each swimmer’s time was limited to 45 minutes. Between shifts the pools were cleared and surfaces sterilized. People found they had to wait in line, sometimes for hours, and often didn’t even manage to get into the water. Lanes had to be booked ahead of time. Lockers were off-limits. Time in the change rooms was minimized: Swimmers were encouraged to wear their suits to the pool and home again. Once they managed to get into the facility, some users even found themselves singing the praises of the restrictions. “Forty people is nothing. You feel like you have the place to yourself. Maintaining distance is a breeze.” Ian Brown wrote in the Globe and Mail. Still, in the middle of a summer heat wave, Toronto pools were operating at a quarter of their capacity, in a city that sits beside an enormous freshwater lake.
Now, I don’t believe that the big concrete-and-chlorine tubs are going to disappear, nor do I think they should. But I look forward to a day when they’re no longer the default option for getting into the water. Covid-19 has changed the swimming universe. As I write this, indoor pools in Toronto are once again declared off-limits. And the various Open-Water and Wild Swimming sites I follow on Facebook show a huge jump in interest.
I found evidence of this in my own back yard. A neighbor of mine who is a dedicated pool swimmer told me the lake was too cold for her, even in the summer. But the lockdown forced her hand, and this past summer she broke down and bought a neoprene top. Off Ward’s Island Beach, there’s a line of buoys to keep the boats out of the swimming area. We reckoned they were a little over 50 meters apart. From then on, most days I’d see her doing her daily 1500 meters between the buoys. (Okay, so it is possible to swim lengths in a lake.)
The Wild Swimming trend may have begun as a necessary adjustment to pandemic conditions, but it’s taking hold worldwide, as more and more swimmers go for regular dips in open-air pools, lakes and rivers. At one point, demand in the UK was so high that the Outdoor Swimming Society was forced to take down its map of wild swimming spots, in an attempt to prevent overcrowding. Even colder weather, more challenging water temperatures and the discomfort of wriggling into dry clothing in public is failing to deter many of the converts. The National Open Water Coaching Association (Nowca), which operates bookings for 30 open-water venues in England and Scotland, said the number of swimmers in October was up fourfold or 323% year on year, after a 60% rise in swimmers over the summer. The surge in outdoor swimming has been a boon for watersports suppliers. Sales of swimsuits are down because of the closure of indoor pools, but cold-water swimming gear – wetsuits, dry robes, neoprene swimcaps – is flying off the shelves.
Covid-19 has introduced countless water-lovers to the joys of open water, and a lot of them will never go back. As one convert wrote on an Open-Water Swimming site: “Ya gotta love not having to book lanes at the pool.”
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/.