At the age of 35, I am slowly becoming a swimmer

This past Saturday, I took part in my second ever open-water swimming race.  The race was pretty straight-forward – a half-mile north along Clearwater Beach, then a half-mile south. Nothing too far from shore, no rip currents, no sharks or flesh-eating bacteria or anything like that.  Just a bunch of greenish-blue salt water in my face on a hot, sunny June day.

I’ve been working hard on my swimming: doing drills with paddles and pull buoys, faithfully attending masters swims on Thursday nights, showing up at the open water swim clinics on Saturday mornings. I even took my teammate Corrie up on her offer to take video of me under the water, and then let her critique my form (which was, surprisingly enough, not nearly as demoralizing as I feared it would be). I’ve put a ton of effort into learning how to swim, and I wanted to use the race as a way of measuring my progress.

The race ended up going really well – a four-minute PR and eighth female overall – and while I definitely have my list of things I could have done better (stronger kick, faster arm turnover, figuring out how to breathe on my left side without my form falling to complete shit) for the most part I was thrilled.  Certainly I was happy with my performance, but mostly I’m pumped for a very simple reason, which is that I love that I am able to swim.

If you’ve been reading my blog for long you know that I used to be so afraid of open-water swimming.  I mean, I still have my moments where I see a shape in the water or feel something brush against my leg and I totally tweak out, but I used to be so much worse, with tears and shrieking and other assorted behavior unbecoming a supposed grown-up.  What can I say?  I was raised in the high deserts of Utah. We had the Great Salt Lake (ew) and reservoirs filled with slimy carp. There is a reason my people are not swimmers.

So the fact that I can do things like swim a mile in the ocean – or even swim out into Tampa Bay, or swim around a murky lake – is still a marvel and a wonder to me. I imagine it feels somewhat the way my kitty would feel if he suddenly found himself capable of flight.

But here’s what actually astonishes me: that I’m not one of those triathletes who tolerates the swim to get to the bike, that I actually look forward to the swim, and that, at the comparatively advanced age of 35, I’m discovering that I have a little bit of a talent for it. I’m not talking like Olympic-level talent or even fastest-lane-at-masters talent, but rather that I’ve taken to the water with an ease I didn’t expect to find when I first decide I wanted to learn how to swim.

I’m sure that part of it is due to the fact that I have a classic swimmer’s build. That I can run fairly fast is almost in spite of my build, as it’s not terribly common to see tall, solidly built women who are also fast runners, but my body – tall with long limbs, flexible feet, broad shoulders – looks like it was made for swimming. I didn’t know this until I was older.  When I was younger I’d been recruited for sports, but it was always basketball and volleyball, and honestly I’m not all that great when it comes to team sports that involve balls flying at my face. Actually, I pretty much suck at them.  But there’s more to it than that.  Swimming not only suits my body, but also my soul.

Taking up endurance sports in my late 20s was a revelation for me, because it was like I’d discovered this whole new realm of sport where I could actually be good at things, where I didn’t have to overcome my urge to flinch every time a ball came ricocheting at my face or I didn’t have to fight some sharp-nailed girl for position under the basket. I like the meditative qualities of endurance sports, how it is just as much mental as physical, how it rewards toughness at any age

I’ve found these qualities in swimming as well.  When I immerse myself in the water, all the bullshit noise of modern life falls away, and it’s just me and my breath, gliding through the water, thinking about nothing but what my body is doing at that time.  I might change my stroke a little bit, or see what happens if I lift my elbow a little higher, or change the way I breathe, but I’m not thinking about work stress or what horrible thing happened in the world today or some stupid shit I said fifteen years ago that I still really wish I could take back.  When I get out of the water an hour later, I feel deeply relaxed, like I left all the noise at the bottom of the pool.  I’ve never not finished a swim and felt that way.

I think a lot about how funny it is that I, who was once terrified of the water, now look forward to swimming in it.  I think about how so much of what I accepted as fact about myself when I was younger – unathletic, weak, shy, scared of the ocean – has proven to be not terribly factual at all.  I think about how there’s a tendency to allow ourselves be defined by the way we were when we were just starting out as human beings, and how I’m not the only one with this tendency.  I also think about how the possibility for self-discovery is always there, as long as we are alive.  If I can learn to love to swim at the age of 35, what might I learn to love when I’m 45?  When I’m 65?  When I’m, god willing, 85?  I intend to remain open to the possibilities for as long as I can.

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40 responses to “At the age of 35, I am slowly becoming a swimmer

  1. Congratulations. I love that you have fallen in love with swimming. I too look forward to the swim. In fact, if I could find swim-run events I’d probably do them. Your story always inspires me to keep trying (or rather try again, since this summer I’ve prettying given up) the bike. Congrats on your PR and you are no doubt on your way to even more dramatic imrpovements in the water now that you love swimming. 🙂

    • There really aren’t a lot of them, are there? Honestly, I’m surprised that we don’t have more just straight open-water swimming events down here in this part of Florida. It’s pretty much perfect for it.

      Regarding the bike – I know you’ve worked hard on it and I’m sorry that it just never worked out. I do believe there’s value in being persistent, but I also think there’s value in saying something’s not for you and moving on to something else.

  2. You know, I was just saying to my husband that I’m too old to pick up swimming (you and I are about the same age), but I can see that I’m wrong! I used to love swimming, but haven’t done it in a number of years. Maybe it’s time I jumped back into the pool!

  3. Inspirational! I’m heading back into the water this summer. I’ll report back on how it goes.

  4. I love your point that triathlon and other endurance sports “reward toughness at any age.” What a blessing to know that we can continue to enjoy the challenges and rewards of these sports throughout our lives.

    And great job with your swimming, Caitlin! You made a choice to face your fear and push yourself, and this post is a celebration of that. Here’s to more happy revelations regarding what our bodies can accomplish when we put our minds to it.

    My mom used to say that we should face any challenge we choose for ourselves with joy. That’s what this post reminds me of. Swim with joy, Caitlin! It sounds like you already are.

    • Thank you! I like your mom’s perspective a lot. I’m going to make a conscious effort to adopt that in my own life.

  5. I was hoping SO HARD that you would have that Clueless clip right there……. And then you did!!!!

  6. This is gold: “I think about how there’s a tendency to allow ourselves be defined by the way we were when we were just starting out as human beings…” A million times YES. It’s such a simple change in perspective to remember just because you haven’t doesn’t mean you can’t. But it makes all the difference in the world. Thanks for the reminder.

  7. Yay swimming! I was a competitive swimmer all through high school, and after 2 marathons, I’ve decided to try my hand at a triathlon this summer. I’m mildly terrified of the open water aspect of the swimming, but I’m also excited to get back in the water, where I feel so natural.

  8. So well said Caitlin. I have personally seen your transformation and can say I am so proud of you and what you have accomplished

    • Thanks so much, Park! You know I say it all the time, but the team has really been a huge and amazing part of my life, and I’m so, so thankful for all you guys do for us.

  9. I love how you ended this piece. I am wanting to learn how to swim. I am about to turn 35. (I can make my way in water- I just don’t actually know how to swim properly.) Thanks for reminding me to stay open minded.

    • Thank you! I think that if you want to learn, then it’s definitely worth pursuing. Even if you aren’t interested in racing or triathlon, it’s still an awesome skill to have. The ability to safely make your way through deep water is a real confidence booster.

      • I love hanging out in the water… I can tread water like No ones business… But- I can’t swim laps at all. I look and feel like a fool. My arms and legs flail about… I think it is a matter of coordinating movement…

      • That’s basically it. If you can tread water and you can blow bubbles with your face in the water, you can learn to swim.

  10. As a child I nearly escaped drowning once. Even after that water gives me no fear but I still couldn’t learn it. Hope this post will push me a little to plunge in a new realm of life.

  11. So inspiring! As a runner who would love to do a triathlon someday if it weren’t for that pesky swimming bit, this really spoke to me. I’ve just assumed swimming was too hard, that I’d never be able to pick it up at this point in my life, but why not try? I picked up distance running in my late 20s; why not swimming in my early 30s?

    • I won’t lie, it was really hard at first, and it took some time before I wasn’t afraid of the swim portion. But what I’ve found is that once I became more confident in my swimming abilities – and also once I realized that all sea life for a mile around peaces out within seconds of the first triathlon wave – I feared the swim less. Now I just charge into the water and am not afraid to mix it up with the strong swimmers. It took some time but it has been so worth the effort.

      I’m really glad to know that my post is making you reconsider your belief that it might be too late to learn how to swim! (And also, yes, you should TOTALLY look at doing a triathlon. If the swim is still intimidating, you can try a duathlon, which is also super fun.)

      • Definitely thinking about it! Maybe that’ll be my next big training goal after my October marathon. I turn 30 next month and love the idea of embracing the milestone year by pushing myself to try something new!

      • I fully support this idea! I am a huge fan of throwing down challenges for yourself, and plus triathlon is just incredibly fun. It’s like playing, basically. I adore it.

  12. Yay a post! I’m almost thirty and have basically just come around to the idea that I can try new things, especially physical things, and I don’t have to freak out about whether I will be good at them. I tried a volleyball class this spring and loved it. I’m sad it took me so much time but at least I’m here now.

    • I hear you on that. When I think about how much I love to run, I could kick myself for not figuring it out earlier when I could take part in things like cross-country. But my husband often points out that it’s also possible that if I had taken up running earlier I may have burned out by now, or maybe I just wasn’t in a mental space to really enjoy it the way I do now. The important thing, I suppose, is not so much when you make the discovery as much as the fact that you even make the discovery in the first place!

  13. I’m a former competitive swimmer and at the moment are using swimming to regain some lost fitness.
    I’m sorry, couldn’t focus on your post because the pool pic looked too nice. Want to dive into that perfect water.

  14. So many similarities! I love that in triathlon, you’re not really responsible to anyone else but yourself. That’s what was so hard for me about “team” and “ball” sports–besides the fact that I was just SO AWKWARD. It took me a few years (I too got into tri in my late 20’s), but in the last year or so, I’ve come to just love it. Crave it, even. I love the idea of a physical activity “suiting the body as well as the soul.” Makes so much sense. Hey–and nice haircut, too!

    • Oh god, me too! So, so awkward at anything involving a ball or other people. But because that was how athleticism was defined for most of my life, I just assumed I wasn’t an athlete at all. And then of course, fast forward a bunch of years and I’m the big jock in my family. Go figure.

      Funny you mention really LOVING tri in the last year, because that’s how I feel too. And it’s not just about the racing; I really love training. It just feels like playing to me, and when I’m sitting at my desk, I’m almost always just waiting for the shift to end so I can go ride my bike or go for a swim. I totally get what they mean about it being a lifestyle now.

  15. Pingback: Swimming swimming in the swimming pool…. | Fit Is a Feminist Issue·

  16. “When I immerse myself in the water, all the bullshit noise of modern life falls away, and it’s just me and my breath, gliding through the water, thinking about nothing but what my body is doing at that time. I might change my stroke a little bit, or see what happens if I lift my elbow a little higher, or change the way I breathe, but I’m not thinking about work stress or what horrible thing happened in the world today or some stupid shit I said fifteen years ago that I still really wish I could take back. When I get out of the water an hour later, I feel deeply relaxed, like I left all the noise at the bottom of the pool. I’ve never not finished a swim and felt that way.”

    I love this, & so beautifully said. This is absolutely how it is for me, too. The best mental health tool I know, second only, maybe, to dogs. Or maybe on par with them.

    I’m also just getting into open water swimming for the first time: always been completely at home in pools, but the lake swimming training for a relay leg of my first triathlon – at 43 and as part of recovery/physiotherapy for a spinal injury that took me completely out of sport 8 years ago – has seduced me unexpectedly! I really love the constantly-changing conditions, the interaction with the living body of water. Thought it would be something I’d ‘get used to,’ not fall in love with – who knew?

    • There really is something quite lovely about open water swimming that you don’t really get in pools. I think of it as the difference between road running and trail running, where the unpredictability of interacting with the natural world in that way gives things this extra bit of zen that you don’t get when you are in more controlled conditions. At least, that’s how I’ve felt about it.

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