For me, the world is too much present in an aerobics class—the sight of the other people, the thump of the music. And I never had the competitive thrust or the eye-hand coordination to play a team sport or follow a ball. I like the submersion—into the water, into myself—that swimming brings. This isn't because I'm a solitary person. On the contrary, I love engaging other people to find out what drives them. All the more reason, then, to regularly disengage, to disappear from the hurly-burly of the world for a short while.
Sometimes, when I first get into the pool, I have trouble breaking through my initial sluggishness. It's then that I attempt to do something similar to what Zen meditation teachers suggest. I follow my progress up the lane and back; the very thing its detractors find so tiresome about swimming—the repetition, the ceaseless back-and-forth—becomes my saving grace. As I stroke up the lane, I count: One. On the way back I repeat: One. And I proceed from there: Two-two. Three-three. Thoughts and ideas may crowd into my head, but they are all eventually banished by the slow, steady, rhythmic need to keep count. Four-four. Five-five. And usually around the tenth lap, or perhaps, on a bad day, the twelfth, that amazing lifting sensation comes: the reward, when I take off and begin to float, to flow.
There's a freedom that comes with letting go of the busyness in my mind and wholeheartedly embracing each stroke and kick. Time is erased, or else it expands—I'm not sure which. Stephan Rechtschaffen, MD, a holistic doctor with a strong interest in spirituality, talks about this process in his book Timeshifting. "There's a word for the conscious focus in the present moment: mindfulness.... It means conscious awareness of the present, using all our faculties, all our senses—being aware of what's going on around us and within us as well.... When we enter a state of mindful attention, the present moment, the now, eases open. And when it does, life pours in." I had to smile to myself when I first laid eyes on those words. I had immediately conjured a vivid image of life, in the form of pool water, pouring in on me, rushing in on my goggles and my consciousness.
Growing up I enjoyed jumping waves in the ocean and an occasional swim in a bay, but nothing more. Then, in my late twenties, I became friends with a woman I later called Coach. She swam almost obsessively—a mile every night after work and on the weekends, too. She never made dinner plans for earlier than 8:30 because that's when she was finished at the pool. She probably got her lean, wiry body from her genetic code, but her toned shoulders and well-muscled arms could have come only from those endless chlorinated miles. I couldn't understand her devotion, but one day I accompanied her to the pool as a guest.
Next: Falling in love with the water
Slowly, my arms developed a hint of muscle, a tad of definition. I got my mile down to 50 minutes—which, for a slowpoke like me, was a good time. I settled into a swimming schedule, sometimes doing just three-quarters of a mile, with half a mile as my bare minimum.
After some years of steady swimming, a job with crazy hours and a new home in a new city (with no nearby pool) depleted my resolve. The arm definition gradually, sadly, began to fade. And then came a baby, with the attendant time crunch and flaccid stomach.
A few months after my son was born, I accepted a neighbor's invitation to join a local Masters group—adult swimmers who practice together with a coach, who doles out drills and pointers. She assured me that it was very relaxed and open to anyone, at any skill level. Although the group was as relaxed as advertised, it still turned out to be beyond me. The coach's sets often involved strokes I didn't know— other than the crawl, I could do only a strange breast-butterfly hybrid that I'd taught myself.
I quit the group after a couple of months but vowed that I would someday take lessons and learn at least one other stroke. I found a wonderful teacher named Laura St. Claire, and I recently took my first lesson with her. She praised my crawl (you can imagine my joy!) and set about trying to tease apart the elements of my self-taught breast-butterfly.
I didn't want to lose the meditative aspect of my swimming sessions, but I was also interested in gaining speed and losing some of the baby-induced fat. I asked St. Claire about swimming as a workout. Her first reaction was to emphasize that the sport is a total-body exercise: "It's absolutely a full aerobic workout—it uses all the muscles in your body—and you can do it your entire life. If you go to a Masters swim meet, you'll see people in their eighties and nineties."
Then she indignantly addressed one of the most common complaints about swimming—its supposed ineffectiveness as a weight-loss method. "I've had people say to me, 'I can swim a lot, but I never seem to lose weight.' They're getting in the water and doing the same 20 lengths or 40 lengths at the same speed. They're just doing what's comfortable. They never push themselves."
I admitted to her that even at the peak of my swimming passion, soon after I'd met Coach, I never particularly pushed myself. She gave me a basic, common-sense formula to use in future workouts: "Decide on the number of laps you're going to do, and then divide your workout into thirds. The first third is a warm-up—do those laps at whatever pace feels comfortable. For the second third, do intervals: Push yourself—go as fast as you can for a lap, and then give yourself 20 seconds of rest. For the last third, mix it up. Use a kickboard for a couple of laps to strengthen your legs, or put on fins, which increase your speed dramatically. You might try practicing a new stroke or working your arms by using a pull buoy [the foam gizmo that swimmers put between their legs]."
I was afraid that once I entered the world of intervals and pull buoys, I'd lose the dreamlike, otherworldly feeling I so treasured about my water time. But then I spoke to Phillip Whitten, author of The Complete Book of Swimming, and he set my mind at ease.
"Compared to running or aerobic classes, swimming is much, much better at building upper-body strength," he said. "You're pushing against something; your body encounters resistance in the form of the water." He echoed St. Claire's imprecations against those who believe swimming can't help you lose weight, adding that it "has all of the cardiovascular benefits of running or cycling without the pounding and the injuries." I nodded politely as he enumerated the sport's many benefits. But then he got my attention. He paused before articulating a final thought, "It's almost a spiritual thing: Once you get into that rhythm, you become part of the water. It's a completely relaxing, cleansing experience. You get into this zone. It's hard to describe—you're not thrashing against it, and it feels like you can go on forever."
My feelings exactly.
Anne Glusker, a former Washington Post editor, is a writer living–and swimming–in Takoma Park, Maryland. For information on Masters swimming groups near you, go to www.usms.org. If you prefer to train yourself, read Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster, and Easier by Terry Laughlin with John Delves (Simon & Schuster).
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