I’m no Michael Phelps but I swim a lot. Plus, ironically, I’m not particularly athletic nor am I what the young term ‘young’ but among other consistent sporty pursuits I do, swimming is the core one. It’s my go-to. Swimming is a given and everything else, no matter how dedicated I am about it (track or treadmill) is really just an add-on. Even yoga. Even tango.
I swim almost every day: rain, shine, snow, sleet. I swim after a run, a work-out or yoga. Or I only swim but on ‘only-swim’ days, I double my time in the pool. Without a truck-load of conditioners, due to all the chlorine I encounter, hair looks like I’ve touch an electrical fence.
When my usual pool closes for repairs, I find another one. I’ve swam in every YMCA (and the one YMHA) all over the city, at the pools of friends, at community centers and essentially anywhere I can find a replacement pool to do my laps. There’s always water if you look. There’s no excuse not to swim. Land’s End is my go-to place for bathing suits. Caps are a dime a dozen on EBay; all I really need to swim is for me to show up.
When I watch the Olympic swimming competitions, I’m awed because I know more than most just how hard it is to do what Olympians swimmers do; I do an iota of it and it’s still hard but I also love it. It’s my barometer of how hail I am and how I can commit. Buoyant in the water, seemingly without gravity, I am also the most grounded in the pool. It’s also my place to think. It also washes away my thoughts. And not to disappoint you, but nothing hurts me when I swim. If anything does before I go into the pool, the pain is gone when I’m done.
So when I read this piece the other day about a 90 year old cancer survivor who swims daily as part of his healing journey and to have a sense of purpose, I was riveted. He’s going the distance. The upshot is when New Yorker, Leo Shliselberg had cancer in his 70’s he dramatically changed his diet and started swimming. He’s been swimming ever since, 5 times a week, no matter what, rain or Rosh Hashanah rain or shine, and throughout 45 radiation treatments. As a pious Jewish man, he dedicates his laps to his wife, children and seven grandchildren to counter the boredom of lap swimming. His medical cancer team credits swimming with his health, healing and longevity.
I so get this guy.
I’ve been swimming since 1976 which is forth years which makes me (I can hear you doing the math), a gorgeous, svelte and fit 62 year old. I also tango, do yoga, run, walk and bike but I would say my exercise soul mate (aside from dance) is: swimming. Swimming is so old school, it’s new again but I was there before it was fashionable.
So you have the when and the how of my swimming life, but why did I start?
Now that is a good question.
In 1976, in the midst of American celebrating its bicentennial, there was a sad, lonely, part-time college student, mostly unemployed, newly married young woman. That would be me. I was lost in a malaise of marrying too young, had no direction in my education (English Literature), prone to anxiety (which given the age and circumstances would be a default state even for a Tony Robbins) and generally, wandering through life. What would I do for work? What was a wife supposed to behave like? Why wasn’t I more adventuresome? Realizing I had to do something, I dropped out of school but ironically, got a job as a secretary in the same university I dropped out of. Student or employee, I had access to the athletic facilities.
I decided that at the least, exercise is good for any malaise; it was the least I could do for myself, long believing in the body/mind connection.
I discovered a huge, subterranean swimming pool in the old ‘women’s residence of McGill University. It was called Royal Victorian College residence and the pool was built for the ‘girls’ of the early 1900’s to have privacy from their male student colleagues. Upstairs there was still a cafeteria that served tea mid afternoon. (RVS has since become McGill’s newly furbished Music Faculty and the pool was renovated and created to be world-class recording studios where the likes of Sting and Elton John come to record). The Royal Victoria College pool in summer, being three stories underground, was like being in a WW II submarine. In winter, it felt like you were swimming in a bomb shelter. But the pool was big, clean and you could swim unfettered. I went daily. It was my salvation. No one even knew I went. The water was ice-cold and trudging to it, on snow-and-sand-crusted Montreal streets to get to was a trial in itself.
But it kept me level.
I swam in a thread-bare red Speedo until I exhausted myself. Then I would go back to my office job that was leading nowhere.
But I began to see that no matter how badly I felt, I was able to do this one thing. It was exercise (good for body and soul) and it was a commitment to something healthy. It was my purpose and my place. It was also so out of left field (I wrote poetry, baked and dabbled in perfumes and essentially, was a lost new bride without a career) that it comforted me. It awakened a little bit of necessary testosterone in that the sheer physical outlay gave me psychic strength. If I could swim, I must be strong.
My life changed; the swimming habit stuck. I moved to the suburbs and found a pool around the corner. I had three sons and swam at 6 am before the (then) husband went to work and before the boys were fully up. I divorced and still swam, joined a gym that had a pool (that no one uses: heavenly) and swam all through single-parenthood (and added tango, running, pilates and yoga). I’ve never once done aqua fitness.
I never meant to continue swimming but I never put a limit on when I would stop. So I never did. I also always thought that the first day I say: I just don’t feel like it would also be the first day of the rest of my life of not swimming or exercising in general. When it comes to exercise, you can’t take prisoners or consider ‘not feeling like it’. You have to not think; just do it. Repeat.
No matter how I feel: happy, hyper, thoughtful, even sneezy: I swim. If I don’t have time for 40 laps, I do 20. It’s like a well-being bookmark. The pool is my mikvah. Once I leave, I feel, each and every time, on Cloud 9. I can tackle the world.
I still play with perfumes but now I bake for a living (I write cookbooks) vs. a hobby. My three boys are men; in fact, one of them started swimming. (He also runs, does cross fit, and weights). He’s like a born again zealot. It’s like he invented water and discovered swimming and no one else get it. I preen as he tries to compete with my time/laps. I don’t care. Of course he’s faster but I’ve already gone the distance.
I just hope for my son, and for me and anyone else that like the 90 year old cancer survivor Leo Shliselberg we’re all still breast or free-stroking our way at 110. b�tv�2�