Back in the Swim: June 2021

After a fourteen-month, Covid-prompted hiatus, I’m back in the pool.

The pandemic abruptly closed our neighborhood community center, where, for the seven years we’ve lived in Portland, I either swam or practiced yoga every weekday. Once under quarantine, I took up yoga with Adriene on YouTube. But alas, there was no online substitute for swimming laps. 

I am not an ocean swimmer, a river swimmer, or a lake swimmer. But give me a twenty-five-foot indoor pool separated into lanes, and I lap it up. Freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke. Down and back seventy times for one mile and ten more for good measure.

My workouts are forty-five minutes of pure Zen. I glide through silky tepid water with fluid strokes and powerful kicks, oblivious to the world beyond my lane. Below me, blue tiles guide my path. Meet the wall, flip and repeat. And flip. And repeat.

Sometimes I imagine the water rippling through my brain, cleansing it of all cares. Other times, my mind is a reservoir where snippets of creative ideas collect until I can download them onto a page. As I hoist myself onto the side of the pool after every swim, my body tingles, revitalized.

I grew up in the Midwest, a land of lakes, and much family time was spent by the water—boating, fishing, swimming. Those were the days when children were not allowed in the water for an hour after eating, and movie star Esther Williams made synchronized swimming sexy.

Despite an abundance of youthful hours logged in and around the water, I am not a natural swimmer. At Girl Scout Camp, I never achieved the coveted “White Cap” status reserved for the best swimmers because I was afraid to dive off the pier. (Oddly, I’ve never had trouble plunging headfirst into dry-land pursuits.)

I did manage to bungle through lifeguard certification training in my mid-teens. Then, the summer before leaving for college, I was promoted from housekeeping to a pool post at a resort outside my small hometown. Thankfully, pool-goers were more interested in suntans than swimming, so my lifesaving skills were never put to the test. I was tested in other ways, however, when recruited for the staff water ballet corps. We performed for guests on one evening each week. Sadly, I was no Esther Williams. The experience will go down as one of my life’s most embarrassing.

When I decided to take up lap swimming for fitness nearly twenty years ago, I discovered some harsh truths. No matter how vigorously I kicked, my feet sank. Now fins are my friend. When rotating my head to breathe between strokes aggravated my neck, a swimmers’ snorkel was prescribed. Since I was already unstylishly geared up, I added hand paddles for extra resistance to strengthen my upper body. 

Do I envy those sleek swimmers who streak through the water with nothing but a suit, cap, and goggles? For their style, of course. But mostly because of spontaneity – they can swim anywhere without needing to schlepp a bag full of accessories. 

When Covid restrictions began to lift, I pondered joining a health club that’s part of a national chain. But this was pre-vaccination, and I wasn’t sold on the rigors of the club’s pandemic protocol. And I have a husband with health concerns and an aging mother to protect. After I was vaccinated, I considered joining the wellness center at an area medical university. But swimming sessions were limited to thirty minutes, and the pool area was dark and uninspiring. 

I decided to hold out a while longer, hopeful that our community center pool would re-open soon. However, when I learned it would be fall at the earliest, I despaired. And then, I drove by the Jewish Community Center a few miles from my home. Worth a shot, I thought. I discovered that Catholics were welcomed, took a tour, and fell in love with a pristine pool bordered by a wall of greenery-filled windows.

It’s not a perfect scenario. Reservations are required, and the forty-five-minute timeslots fill up fast. Nevertheless, it’s a small price for reclaiming my swimming routine. So I dove in (figuratively speaking; I still don’t dive), a fish out of water no more.

Here’s looking at you, Esther Williams.