Thoughts on swimming

Swimming is so much pleasanter once you start treating the water like your partner rather than your enemy. This sounds obvious yet it has taken me until my 28th year to realise it.

I have swum more in the last four days than in the ten years preceding. (Where a ‘swim’ is defined as a period of time immersed in water, most of it spent roaming rather than, say, sprawled on one’s belly in the shallows — or, which is more often my case, estimating the minimum amount of time one is expected to remain in a pool among polite company after all the effort of having disrobed, swallowed chlorine, etc.)

Giving a much-needed boost to my normality rating, I have learned to enjoy swimming. I am starting to understand why Baudelaire compared the sensation of swimming to ‘being kissed a thousand times’ (from Philip Hoare’s excellent NS essay).

My technique has improved only very modestly but it has transformed my feelings about being in water in a short space of time. Water no longer seems like the obstacle stopping me, or trying to stop me, from getting somewhere; it is, rather, the only available path to where I want to go (i.e. another bit of water). This is as powerful as it sounds simple.

Sojourning in the suburbs has afforded me the opportunity to flail in a quieter, more civilised swimming pool. This has diluted my varied anxieties about swimming, as has ditching my goggles. Being short-sighted and squeamish about contacts, encasing my eyes in miniature Tupperware boxes of steam and drizzle has, finally, lost its appeal.

Rubber-Ring-Floating-in-a-Swimming-Pool-1971-David-Hockney

I now use tendons and ligaments in my upper body that rarely get a sustained workout. All I can manage is breaststroke, with only my head above surface, periscopic. Typing this at my desk, my neck is a little stiff. It’s working much harder than it’s used to.

In one sense, this represents a reversal of traditional alliances. Once my body was on my side and the water was against me; now the only aching parts are those that continue resisting its embrace.

To swim faster or longer, I will have to reconcile my stubborn will to live with the act of repeatedly plunging my head underwater. I can do this but only with a hand to seal off its many leaky openings (how much longer until we evolve gills?).

Overcoming my head’s fear of invasion by a swarming horde of chlorinated fluid seems the hardest part. I hope I have already taken the first and all-important psychological step, though: seeing water as a sometime friend rather than a permanent foe.

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