Marissa Falco lives in Somerville, Massachusetts and is the creator of the zines Miss Sequential and META. Read more about Marissa’s zines and other projects at marissaland.com. Her four-year anniversary with the Boston City Swimmers will be April 29, 2012.
About four years ago, I hurt my back. On doctor’s orders I spent several long weeks on the floor of my bedroom (reading the last Harry Potter book and watching The Wire on DVD to pass the time), and then I started physical therapy. I started to understand that weak core muscles had been the reason for my back injury, and I began to understand how strengthening various muscle groups would lessen the likelihood of it happening again.
To continue the work we’d done in my ten weeks of PT, the physical therapist suggested I start thinking about what kind of exercise I could do to keep working on all of this. As someone who dreaded gym class all through school, this wasn’t particularly appealing. But then I thought about swimming– I already knew how to swim, and the thought of getting into a pool sounded more tolerable than going to the gym, so I decided to give it a try.
There was only one local YMCA offering a stroke technique class, and I signed up right after the new year. I already knew how to swim from years of YMCA lessons in my youth, but I was pretty rusty–aside from some paddling around at the beach in recent years, it had been ages since I’d done any serious swimming. I felt as though I was starting from the beginning again, figuring out how much I needed to kick in order to stay afloat and trying to avoid drinking so much chlorinated water.
I took two sessions of the stroke technique class because I wasn’t feeling too good about my breaststroke, but by the end of the second session my instructor was ready for me to move along.
“Have you been swimming laps on your own outside of class?” he asked. “Have you thought at all about trying out a practice with the masters’ team here at the Y?”
So one evening, I decided to try swimming with the masters team. My instructor had assured me that I could just stop by and join the practice, so I showed up early and swam a few laps to warm up before everyone else got there.
My brief warm-up couldn’t prepare me for the practice, though. The pool was divided into three lanes, and swimmers were placed in lanes according to speed. I was placed in the slowest of the pool’s three lanes, and I was definitely the slowest person in that lane. There were six of us circle swimming in one lane, more people than I was used to sharing a lane with. I couldn’t keep up, couldn’t breathe without drinking water, and couldn’t do butterfly–the one stroke my instructor told me not to worry about, because I “probably wouldn’t need it.”
I felt so overwhelmed by the timed intervals and tried not to cry out of frustration as swimmers swarmed around me during drills. I was sure that I’d made an awful mistake: I wasn’t ready to swim with a team, I was too slow and too nervous, and the team would probably agree that it wasn’t a good fit.
Which is why it was a surprise that after our workout, as I stood in front of the mirrors drying my hair beside the other ladies on the team, they asked if I’d be back for the next practice. Had they not seen me lagging behind the swimmer in front of me, getting passed by the faster swimmers in my lane? Did they miss all the times I stopped at the wall, coughing up water? I couldn’t tell if they were just being polite or if they really hadn’t noticed.
“Yeah, I guess I’ll see you on Thursday,” I said, not sure if I’d actually show up.
But I did. I showed up to the next practice, I chatted with other swimmers, I exchanged high-fives at the end of practice. I found out that of all the swimmers in all the lanes, very few had been on swim teams in high school and college–most of them, like me, had started swimming with a team as adults. I found this encouraging, seeing the speed and endurance they had developed over time.
I appreciated that the three coaches (one for each of the three weekly practices) had different styles and approaches. One of the coaches liked everyone, no matter their skill level, to focus on drills and technique. Another coach pulled me aside to tell me, at length, about correct elbow position for freestyle. Not one of them ever suggested that I was too slow, too out-of-shape, or not a strong enough swimmer to be on the team. It felt like the opposite of gym class to me. As long as you showed up ready to work hard, you were taken seriously.
As I started to get stronger and faster, teammates asked me if I’d be interested in competing in one of the upcoming meets. I started swimming with the team in April and swam in my first meet in December of the same year. I didn’t do great, but I did get to experience the thrill of competing and the cold water of the competition pool.
Even better, I set times that I could try to beat in future meets. I swam in two or three meets after that, and in my most recent meet last year, I decided that I would try to swim a 50 yard butterfly. One of my coaches helped me determine a seed time for my race, and I decided that I would try to swim strong and have fun, and work on controlling my pace throughout the 50 so that I could finish strong as well.
I don’t dive, so I got a good push off the wall to start. I pushed through the waterand felt like I was completely in control of the stroke I had worked so hard to learn. I knew that my technique wasn’t perfect, but I felt strong and fast as I moved closer to the end of the pool. As I approached my turn, I could hear a coach and a teammate cheering. I’m pretty sure I smiled every time I popped out of the water–it was the most fun I’d ever had swimming a race.
I touched the wall and found out that I’d beaten my seed time by four seconds. Four seconds! That’s a lot of time in a 50-yard race. It was something I never thought I would accomplish: swimming butterfly at a swim meet and beating my own seed time. But it was a pretty good example of how swimming changed my ideas about what I could achieve.
My teammates quickly became a much-needed community for me outside of the pool. The team went out to dinner after practice once a month, and to coffee after every Saturday practice. But what seemed really remarkable to me was that my teammates were always so supportive of each other’s life events outside of swimming. Swim team was there to support each other through moving, job searches, decisions about fostering dogs, health issues, family stuff, and much more. We went to see teammates’ bands, the team showed up to my open studios event, and many of us attended a teammate’s doctoral defense. Although several of our teammates have moved away, they are always welcome at practice.
I’m always excited to see someone new waiting on deck at the start of practice. My teammates and I will introduce ourselves, and the new person will look a little overwhelmed as he or she chooses a lane. We’ll warm up, do some drills, and then do the workout. Some of us will high-five at the end. After we’ve all climbed out of the pool and thanked our coach, we’ll turn to the new person and say, “So we’ll see you on Thursday?”
Want to guest blog for Fit and Feminist? Hit me up at saltonmyskin at gmail dot com.