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.