The Swimmers

The Swimmers is a 2022 movie about real-life sisters Yusra and Sarah Mardini, Syrian refugees who swam alongside a sinking dinghy full of refugees in the Aegean Sea on their way to the island of Lesbos. Eventually they reached Germany and Yusra went on to swim at the 2016 Rio Olympics as part of the Refugee Team.

What does this have to do with feminist fitness? Not much really. I watched the movie with the idea it might be worth reviewing for a blog post. It’s not a bad movie, but not much of a feminist fitness angle.

However, there was some pretty amazing swimming. Yusra Mardini swam butterfly competitively, and there were plenty of sequences showing very fast, efficient butterfly stroke. At every swim practice since I watched the movie I have tried to recreate what I saw on the screen.

Do I look like this?

Nusra Mardini, wearing a white swim cap and pink swim goggles is reaching forward with her arms outstretched in butterfly stroke. She is in bright blue water with water splashing up around her head. Photo was taken at the Tokyo Olympics in July 2022, by AFP.

Not a chance! But for a few moments each length – if I’m lucky – I feel like I look like this, and that’s what matters to me.


T’is the Season for Reindeer Games

Ir more accurately, penguin or polar bear or some other watery animal associated with Christmas.

Sequinned narwhal tree ornament wearing a sparkly Santa hat

My swim club is now on the holiday break, so our last few practices were devoted to coach’s choice drills and games. That’s when the coach dreams up the silliest things to help us improve our swimming, but also have fun. Some of the new ones for me this year were swimming backstroke with a glass of water on my forehead, relay races where we had to tow another swimmer hanging onto our feet, and the zombie drill. Don’t you believe the people who claim zombies can’t swim. Check out this clip from the Gainesville Gaviatas Synchronized/Artistic Swimming team doing the zombie drill.

I have never been a sprinter, so races aren’t usually my idea of fun. Being firmly into my seventh decade, I like to think I am too mature for silly stuff. And yet, somehow, these relay races and crazy drills get me laughing every year. We should all have this much fun at our activity of choice.

See you in the new year, pool!

Indoor swimming pool with lane markers. Two people are swimming while a lifeguard looks on.

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.


Riding the Temperature Down to Cold-Water Swims

I haven’t swum as much as I usually do this summer, and now fall is here, with colder air and water temperatures. My little group of cold-water enthusiasts has shrunk, and we have all been pretty busy. Still, we did get together a couple of weeks ago, which was lovely.

Aimee, Vicki and me in the water under a brilliant blue sky. Vicki wears a wetsuit, but Aimee and I just wear bathing suits and caps.

It may have been our last group swim until spring, unless we can get coordinated for a Vampire Swim. We do that in costume for Halloween, and have treats on the beach afterwards. A blood donation or donation to the Red Cross is traditional.

All that means riding the temperature down will be tough this year. Cold water swimming is fun, but it can be miserable when your body isn’t used to it or when there is a sudden drop in water temperature. In past years, I tried to get into the water at least once a week in the fall and early winter, giving up only in late February if I couldn’t find open water for a swim.

There is a lot less incentive to go without my buddies, and it is also more dangerous should something go wrong. We are very careful about not going past about waist deep, having hot drinks on hand afterwards, and changing quickly into warm dry clothes (we even bring a changing tent so we’ll be out of the wind).

Not everyone sees this crazy sport the same way, though. On Thanksgiving Monday I hopped on my bike and rode to the local pond. The water was about 15C, which is definitely cool, so I did a lot of head’s up breast stoke until I felt I could put my face in the water. I did my usual three loops in just under 40 minutes and got out to a small crowd of people applauding – quite possibly the weirdest reaction ever to one of my swims!

Me in a blue bathing cap, with the pond and autumn trees in the background. Ignore the time info – Strava records the distance accurately but gets very confused about swimming speeds.

I then made the rookie mistake of standing around in my wet bathing suit and bare feet, talking to people who had questions about cold water swimming. I didn’t feel particularly cold, but after I biked home I felt quite sleepy for the rest of the day; I had forgotten just how much energy it takes to keep your body from suffering hypothermia.

How about you, readers? Have you ever considered swimming in cold water? If you tried it, how did it make you feel?

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.


Back to the Pool!

I no longer look forward to the start of the school year, but one late summer ritual for years now has been to return to swimming indoors.

I swim with a masters club, which is a fantastic way for someone like me to keep to a routine. There is a coach to set workouts and correct my technique. There is a fixed schedule, and I have already paid to be there (I hate wasting money, so it’s a strong incentive to show up). Most of all, there is the camaraderie of seeing my swimming friends again.

Between travel, elder care and COVID, I didn’t get nearly as much swimming in as usual this summer. I could have been going much more regularly once the crises of July and early August were over, but once the pattern had been broken I found it hard to get back into it.

So Saturday’s swim was extra special, and extra hard. I managed to eke out 1600 yards. It turns out that my pool is celebrating 100 years of operation today, so extra extra special. You can read more about this historic pool here.

Diane in a white swim cap and goggles, with the pristine water of her pool in the background.

My sister says my swimming pictures are boring because they all look the same. I don’t care. That sameness, that routine, is part of what keeps me coming back to the pool.

How about you? Does the return of autumn get you executed about classes or clubs, or are you able to set your own training programs and stick to them?

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.


Can Outdoor Swimming Improve Mental Health?

About a month ago, I read an article about researchers from the University of Portsmouth in the UK who are starting a study of the benefits of swimming in nature for treating depression.

Some doctors already prescribe exercise to help address depression. Cold water immersion can reduce stress levels. So offering swimming outdoors and measuring its impact in a rigorous way seems like a good idea to me.

The three sites chosen for people to join a swimming program are an urban lido (outdoor pool), rural lake, and an ocean beach. The results of the swimmers will be compared against a control group using existing treatments for depression.

It turns out I read this article just four days after my last swim for a month. I can’t remember when I last went that long without swimming, especially in the summer.

I don’t suffer from depression, but I was definitely feeling unmotivated after more than a month of dealing with elder care, then COVID. But on Sunday there was a last minute group swim organized for early morning. It was amazing! We had the lake to ourselves for most of the time.

Me treading water in my blue cap and goggles, with an orange swim float. Three friends are swimming in the background, and you can see the trees on shore in the distance

It’s anecdote, not evidence, but you don’t need to convince me that swimming outdoors is a mood booster, especially when I go with friends.


Using my Power for Good

Last week I went for a swim at a nearby lake with some people from my masters swim club. In the pool, I’m one of the slower swimmers, but in the open water I kept up easily, and sometimes led our little pod.

Obligatory goofy picture of six swimmers in a lake, all using colourful caps and swim buoys

My strokes felt amazing. Slicing through the water, I reflected on Christine’s power photos. I was wearing my two piece suit, which rarely gets worn despite best intentions. I am now calling it my power suit.

Me, striking a pose in a brightly patterned two piece bathing suit, holding my swim float in one hand. I am standing in the river and there is a swimmer and the opposite shore in the background.

That led to me thinking about ways I could use my powers for good. I think I want to be a lifeguard again.

The COVID pandemic has interrupted lifeguard training, and the work has been more precarious because of lockdowns. Now as things reopen, there is a critical shortage of guards and swim instructors. This will have long-term impacts on water safety for many people.

There is precedent. Robin Borlandoe was a lifeguard when she was 16. Now, at 70, she has come out of retirement to help with the lifeguard shortage in her home town of Philadelphia.

I have already looked up the required training and course schedules to be a lifeguard and instructor in Ottawa. I have found a schedule that should allow me to complete all three courses in time for hiring season next year.

Even if I don’t end up getting hired, it will be good to refresh my skills. And if I do get hired, it will be an awesome retirement project, and a way to give back to a community that has supported me through my greatest sporting love since my first swimming lesson more than fifty years ago.

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.


Swimming and the Enduring Power of Friendship

One of my biggest joys each summer is getting together with my fair-weather friends. Those are the women who I know through swimming, but who I only get to see when the water is warm enough to get together at a lake or river.

Me, Candace, Vicki, Aimee and Jane in the river, wearing bright swim caps and goggles, and with our tow floats.

I have known some of them for more than 15 years. We started out at the same swim program at a city pool, and eventually signed up together for our first open water swim.

A group of women in animated discussion, all wearing bathing suits and yellow swim caps with numbers on them. There are more swimmers in swimsuits and wetsuits in the background.

That led to a years-long love of swimming in the nearby lakes and rivers.

Me, Nadine and Candace in the water at Meech Lake near Ottawa.

I met others more recently, as they heard about our little group and joined in. Over the years we have moved on to other swim clubs. Nadine even moved out of province.

Nadine and I after a recent swim in the Ottawa River. We look wet and bedraggled, but we were really happy to see each other for the first time since she moved away over a year ago.

While a few of us hang out right through the winter,

Four women in a tent, wearing everything from bathing suits to warm coats and scarves. All have colourful swim caps decorated with snowflakes.

and we are friends on-line, the real fun comes in July, when the water is warm enough that even the most cold-sensitive can join for a swim and gossip.

A group of women (plus our friend Filippo) and Aimee’s giant swan float, in the Ottawa River.

Vicki, me and Aimee in the Rideau River. Historic Watson’s Mill in Manotick is in the background.

This summer we haven’t done much serious swimming, but maybe that will pick up after this weekend’s 3k race. Candace is doing it for the 9th time, it is Vicki’s first, and Aimee will be a swim angel for someone who needs support in the water. On Sunday we did spend time giving Vicki advice about managing the swim, but mostly we goofed around.

Four sets of legs as swimmers with their floats do handstands in the river. In the background, you can see a line of sailboats. We think they were practicing for the race, as there will be boats every 100 metres for the entire route.

When we have time, we like to follow the tradition of British slow swimmers, as described in Open Water Swimming: “Cake is an essential part of the whole ritual of open water swimming. Not only does it allows for recovery post-swim, with a variety of healthy and healthier options, but it is the vehicle for our social engagement, it is an essential enabler of this community feeling that is quite unique. We haven’t had a post-swim cake party yet, but I am looking forward to it.

Four umbrellas on the beach, protecting towels and clothing from the rain while we swim. There is also a colourful beach ball.

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.


Days When You Have no Bones

Recently I have had a few tough swims where I felt like I had no bones. It was a feeling of complete complete exhaustion and uncertainty about whether I could make it to the end of the lane, let alone the end of the workout.

I don’t recall where that expression first arose. I’m pretty sure it was used by my son on days when he was being goofy. I know I used it to describe his ability to fall and never get injured; he never stopped moving! Maybe that was the connection I made with my own tiredness, trying to keep up with him.

Then I found an old note to myself about Noodles, an internet sensation last year. Noodles was then a 14 1/2 year old pug who would get his picture on TikTok each day. His pal Jonathan Graziano would help him up each morning. If he stayed up, it was a bones day. If he slumped back down into his comfy bed, it was a no bones day.

Elderly pug on a beige dog bed, with a man in a dark shirt behind him, hands in the air as if cheering.

What is a no bones day? “Bones Day” means you wake up feeling great, ready to take charge of the day and live your best life. A “No Bones Day” is a day for self care, taking a nap or playing it safe. The concept is similar to that of having enough spoons.

Ironically, there are numerous journals based on Noodles, so you can track appointments, water intake, or whatever. I want to laugh about them, and yet…

My fist instinct is to try and figure out how to get things done on no bones days: dancing around the bedroom to lively music, or taking a walk while working on my Duolingo German course.

I want to be more like Noodles. As the description from the children’s book about him says: Noodles isn’t sick or sad. Today, all he needs are extra snuggles and belly rubs. Jonathan soon learns that not every day can be a Bones Day, and sometimes a No Bones Day is exactly what you need to get through the week.

I don’t often have the luxury of napping, but I can work on getting to bed earlier. And like I did on Monday, I can get out of the water even though I haven’t pushed myself as hard or far as possible. Sometimes a swim can just be for fun – a wet belly rub, if you will.

White woman in a blue bathing cap and goggles, with water, trees and blue sky in the background

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.


Happy Hump Day

I don’t particularly like that expression – I like to think that Wednesdays are no better or worse than any other day. However, I have decided that this week needs every bit of celebration I can find.

Last week I had bad allergies and spent a lot of time fussing about whether it was COVID. My walking challenge is starting to wear on me. The weather suddenly went from freezing to being hot enough to kill half my poor seedlings when I put them outside to start hardening off. My lanemate and I were both in the world of “I’m too old for this sh*t” after Sunday’s swim practice. We will not even discuss the state of the world, which has me filled with crone rage on many fronts.

So Happy Hump Day: a made-up internet hope that things can only get better.

My allergies are feeling better, so I have more energy. I updated my tetanus booster, donated blood, and will get my second COVID booster on Saturday, so I feel that I am doing all I can to be healthy.

At swim practice, I learned a fun new drill, something that rarely happens after nearly 20 years of swimming with a club. And at Saturday’s practice I got the comment that I have a very respectable butterfly and natural freestyle stroke for long-distance swimming (coach was commenting on technique, as I am not fast). Every little bit of positive reinforcement feels good, even at my age.

The geese along my walk to work are hatching, the trees are coming into leaf, and I may just combine one of my walks this week with a trip to the pond for an early morning or lunchtime swim.

Adult Canada geese swimming with many babies on blue water, a dead branch in the foreground.
The pond, a popular conservation area and swimming spot near my home. Clear water surrounded by trees just staring to turn green and blue sky with whispy clouds above. The trees and sky are reflected in the still water.

I haven’t yet figured out how to channel my crone rage effectively; that is a feminist rather than a fitness issue, but I’ll keep working on it.

Diane Harper lives and swims in Ottawa.


Returning to Normal at the Pool

I have been swimming regularly since pools reopened after the most recent wave of COVID. I’m still a bit nervous, but I know everyone in my lane is vaccinated, we do our best to maintain distance, and we all still mask except when in the water. Last week, our Saturday swim time changed to accommodate the restart of lessons.

By going an hour earlier, we met up with another masters club just leaving the pool. Such a nice surprise after months of going into an empty space! People who shared our hobby! Even some people we knew!

After our practice, the pool deck and change room were full of parents and kids getting ready for the first lessons offered in well over a year. There was a woman in a beautiful burquini with built-in skirt and a matching hijab, her friend who wore a fairly standard tankini outfit, and a new mum in a one-piece with a plunging neckline and her four-month old baby going for his first-ever swim in a pool. One little girl asked her mom about why some people were not covered in the breast area, and mom explained that some people like to show more than others and everyone gets to wear what they like. It all made me smile.

I swim because I enjoy how it makes me feel strong, but it is also a huge safety issue for me. Along with all the children, I was delighted to see many adults and teenagers were there for learn to swim programs too. I hope they all get as much joy out of the water as I do.

Swimming pool with masked swimming instructors and people in the background waiting to start their lessons