It Used to be a Haven

It used to be a haven.

When I was little, I was always in the water. Eventually, I fled to the sanctity of the lanes to avoid high-school drama. Nothing like a good workout, body screaming down the pool, to take your mind off chemistry tests and French homework. There, I knew what to expect, and it was the one place I loved bringing my best every day.

If your alarm goes off every morning at 4:45 just so you can swim, you’re probably going to get better at it somehow. And I did. Not great. Just barely good enough to know I didn’t necessarily have to be done after four years of high school.

I did two uneventful years at one small university, then transferred to a slightly larger one. I had a fabulous junior year. Great friends, and for me, great times, in the pool and out. I never forgot that I was a mediocre athlete at best, but I surprised myself with what I could do when I worked hard. I had never been happier, and I was so excited for my senior year.

Until it started.

I struggled at my first meet. Disappointed but optimistic, I toweled my hair and my tears and I turned my focus forward. Next time would be better.

But it wasn’t. I was getting slower and slower, and worst of all, it hurt. I searched, but this time, I couldn’t find solace through my fogged-up goggles.

I swam and I slept. Nothing else. I hung a blanket over my window to keep the world away. I woke up disoriented, bewildered, in the dark ““ was it time for morning or afternoon practice? Had I been to class? It didn’t matter. Numbly, I put my contacts in, drew the hood of my sweatshirt over my unbrushed hair and plodded off to the pool, barely able to stand straight.

This went on until I found out I had mono, and then it still went on. Nobody would tell me to quit, and I wasn’t strong enough ““ or perhaps, some days, I was too strong ““ to tell myself.

Four days a week, we ran. Six days a week, we swam. Twice a day. I didn’t love it anymore. I didn’t love anything anymore.

Sick as a dog and barely able to walk straight, much less steer as I swam, I finished the season, and I even had a fun and fairly successful race at the conference meet. But it was never the same. By the time I felt human again, I felt like I was out of touch, and I was definitely out of time.

And then I dropped it. I never thought about swimming. I reached a point where I could be thankful for what it had done for me, and that’s where I stopped. I couldn’t let it back into my life, ever again.

Years went by. I tried running, cardio classes and even yoga ““ which I actually liked quite a bit. Tangled goggles and twisted swim caps, still smelling faintly of chlorine, were relegated to the bottom of an unused gym bag. I threw out my collection of mildewing, knotted swimsuits.

But something was out of joint. Years later, I realized what it was: I missed racing.

This was surprising. I have always been taciturn and yielding; for me, daily activities fail to ignite the fire of competition. But once I thought about the thrill, how the adrenaline used to course through my veins, I couldn’t stop. I knew how much I had loved it, how much it had once meant. But I wasn’t just afraid of swimming ““ I was afraid of trying. Setting off to reconquer the peak of where I had once been was foolish, and I knew it. What could there be to gain?

Still, it tugged at me.

So I did what came naturally, and I pictured the pool. Even in a quiet room, I heard the humming of the beast at 5:55 a.m. on a winter morning, all the pipes and machines purring and grinding together to chlorinate the thousands of gallons of liquid like clockwork. It was quietly alive, pulsing and shimmering, before it finally gave way to one brave swimmer (never me) at the stroke of 6.

Then there was nothing but the easy, rhythmic slop of the water in the gutters, intensifying in the next five minutes as 20 more people dove in, and arms became windmills and feet became motors and lane lines bobbed with the energy and within moments it was as though the place had never been empty.

My heart once beat to those sounds, and given a half a chance, I know it could again. Over 15 years, combined with the sweat of a thousand practices and the dull roar of a hundred teammates ““ friends ““ screaming from the side of dozens of pools, half a chance was all I ever really needed.

After four years, I reneged on my pledge to stay dry. I start Masters swimming this week. We’ll see how it goes.

Image Credit from Morguefile

12 replies on “It Used to be a Haven”

I was never that good–I just swam in high school–but going back to swimming now in grad school has been really wonderful. I never fully gave up running, but maybe it’s because everyone runs, and the bar is a little higher in the water, but I like being part of this exclusive club, so to speak, of people who get in the pool a couple times a week and swim a couple thousand meters. I wanted to join the club team here at my school, but since I also run and dance, I hesitate to commit to 8 hours a week of any one physical activity. But I’m tempted… You’ll have to report back how the Masters team goes.

Longboarding at night gives me the same feeling sometimes. When you hit smooth pavement, and suddenly the sound cuts out and the asphalt vibrations are barely tickling your feet. You feel like you’re floating. No one else is around, because it’s around midnight in the middle of the week. Just you, fresh pavement, and a couple golden-colored streetlights.
It’s lovely and perfect and relaxing.

I almost have a hard time reading essays like this because they hit SO close to home. It freaks me out to know that someone out there knows EXACTLY what the sound of the ventilation system in a pool area is like, the sound of the water slopping into the gutters, the clapping sound of your forearm against the water during a lazy warm up or swim down. The sound of water rushing past your ears in the middle of a flip turn. Not just that they know the sound–but that it still haunts their memory 10 years later. The faintest smell of stale chlorine that permeates your swim bag your old latex cap all dried out and stuck to itself. Your PERFECT pair of goggles–the good ones. You have another pair just like them, but one one is the really good pair.

I quit swimming after high school and stayed out of the pool for a few years. I swam again recreationally in college, but then we moved accross the country, I totally left it.

Until last year when my doctor urged me to get back in the pool (for my physical and mental health). I hadn’t swam a lap in 5 years. But putting on that suit, walking up to the edge of the pool, stretching my cap over my head, fixing my goggles so they’re juuuussstt right, and finally diving in–it was like no time had passed. Every stroke felt like an old friend.

And I was actually laughing while swimming because I had forgotten how goddamn good the water feels.

I haven’t stuck with it regularly. It’s not the same without a coach to scream at me and the camradarie of teammates. But the important thing, for me, is that it’s reminder that I AM an athlete, and still am, even after all these years. And there’s something about swimmers. We’re a special breed.

The water feels like home. No matter how much I suck at real life stuff, or how awkward I am, or how much weight I’ve gained. I get back in the pool and I am home. An elite athlete, gliding through the water effortlessly and weightlessly.

Exactly! I know everything you said — but it’s more than knowing, it’s having lived every word. I know it’ll never be the same, and part of me is a little sad about that, but another part of me feels so liberated. A special breed, indeed. I’m now even more proud to be of that breed because I know you’re there.

This hits home for me too. I was a champion swimmer in highschool. I got to college, hit depression, body issues, a boyfriend that sucked, and I tried to swim again, but I was discouraged by the two times I tried and failed…well failed in my mind. Swimming two 500s after not swimming for a year is hard. That was four years ago.

I’m dying for a pool to swim in, it’s in my blood every single person in my family was a lifeguard and was on swim team. I know I’ll go back eventually, but I have to get in shape first, so I don’t scare myself into not swimming for four years again.

Thanks for writing this, a really well written piece. Good luck with your journey and there really is something about the water right? I think it’s primordial thing.

As a former competitive swimmer, this really hits home. I got something very similar to mono in highschool and had to quit swimming. I felt so lost without that outlet and have struggled for years to find what feels like a missing piece in my life.

I started Masters swimming a few months ago. I can’t believe the difference it’s made not just in my fitness but in the amount of stress and happiness in my life.

Thanks for this piece and good luck with Masters!

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