It’s 7 am and dark outside. It’s the last week of November and the first time I feel the chill of winter run down my spine as I step outside of my house. I don’t wait to cross the street because it’s still empty. I clutch my bag tightly to my chest hoping to warm myself. When I get into the car my fingertips instantly freeze when I touch the wheel. I drive fast towards the community centre. I’m not a morning person, but I love driving in the morning. I love listening to the ramblings of the radio, the obscure tunes the DJs sneak into the playlist. This morning it’s Smashing Pumpkins, 1979. I park in the lot by the elementary school the centre is attached to. When I get into the reception I’m greeted by the low hum of fluorescent lights and a tired looking man sitting behind a counter. I give him my five dollars and he points to the changing rooms. The instant I step in the waft of chlorine fills my lungs. It doesn’t bother me. It hasn’t for a long time. My childhood was spent in these type of centres. In these type of public pools. My mother was a swim coach until she switched her career when I was a teenager. Since I could remember I was brought to her practices to be looked after until I graduated to actually being part of a swim team myself. The smell is comforting to me. Pools were my second home growing up. I feel comfortable here.
Here is what I think of when I think of swimming. Overheated rooms. The faint smell of B.O and stale moisture. Pitch black early mornings in the dead of winter. Lying on warm wooden benches with my eyes closed listening to the rhythmic splashes of my mother’s swimmers. Whistles. Granola bars. Apple juice. Empty schools after hours for me to explore. Finding an unlocked gymnasium and sliding across the floor in my socks. Giant swimming parkas I would curl up into and fall asleep if practice ran late. The permanent wet spot at the bottom of my backpack from my towel and bathing suit that never had time to dry from evening to morning. Stiff blankets from motel beds when my mom dragged my sister and I to competition weekends. Later when I competed, the smell of everyone’s duffel bags in the designated area of the bleachers for our team. My hair feeling like straw. The empty pit that was my stomach after a gruelling practice and burping chlorine up. My mother’s face in the bleachers the time I got out of the pool in mid competition, my last competition, before I quit.
I put on my bathing suit and step out to the pool platform. It’s separated into 5 lanes. The first 2 house a flock of Asian elderly women gossiping loudly in their own language, while half-heartedly bouncing up and down in mock exercise attempt. Their husbands sit on some plastic chairs on the other end of the pool. They have their swimming trunks on, but don’t look like they will be going into the water any time soon. They stare at me, pale and stiff, standing at the edge of the middle lane where only one older man is splashing wildly trying to swim the butterfly. The lone lifeguard, a bored woman my age, is sitting at the other edge watching me expectantly. So are the older sitting men. I jump in, waiting for the cold to hit my body and give me shivers when it runs through my hair, but it’s pleasantly lukewarm. I stay underwater. I can’t remember the first time I went swimming. Since I could walk, I could swim. It’s one of the few ways I can ease my mind, a rhythmic movement that shuts down all my thoughts and makes me focus. My breathing. My body. They have to be in sync. I come up for air and put the palms of my hands on the tile. I count to three and push off. I stay under and let myself glide for a few meters to feel the familiar sensation of water sliding past me like silk. I start a crawl. I’m already on the other end but it feels too short. By the third lap I feel a burn in my leg and I know I’m going too fast. There is no reason for me to be going this fast.
I spent almost every day at a pool because of my mom’s job. I started associating water with play time. Hours and hours playing out every underwater sea adventure my imagination could create. I hated when she took my sister and I to competitions. I couldn’t go swimming and had to spend all day sitting in the bleachers reading or doing a puzzle. At competitions they would lock the doors of the building the pool was attached too so I couldn’t explore. Finally, the day came where my mother deemed me ready to join a swim team. By this time we lived in Gatineau and I was a pre-teen. I had grown to love water. I wanted to be in it all the time. I just wanted to swim forever. It was my safe haven. I quickly realized competitive swimming was entirely different. And I hated it. I was a good swimmer though, and was always called up for competitions for my team. One particular competition I was doing the 100m backstroke event. By my last lap, through the muffled shouts of my team and audience through the water, at the last strain in my muscles as I reached behind me to touch the wall, all I could hear in my head matching the beat of my heart was I hate this, I hate this, I hate this. Competing had taken everything I loved about swimming and turned it into something mechanical that was starting to give me borderline panic attacks as soon as I dove into the water.
It takes all my focus and energy to slow down. I want to swim for half an hour, if I keep this up I will be winded in 15 minutes. I think of my mother who was a swimmer that didn’t make it past The Olympic Trials for her team as a teenager in Berlin. She doesn’t like to swim. I rarely see her swim. I see her in bodies of water, but she glides around in a relaxing manner. I think of how rarely I swim. The last time I was in a pool such as this doing lengths for exercise was 7 years ago at UBC. I think of swims in between then. The time Norm came to visit, and being a former swimmer himself, we swam out between Jericho and Kits beach. We swam for almost an hour until we were so far out that we couldn’t hear the city anymore. It was the middle of the night, and we stayed out there, floating on the salt water until the sun began to rise up. Here, in this community pool, I try to enter that state of mind. I try to relax. Just because this isn’t an open body of water, doesn’t mean it can’t be relaxing. I think of the emails I have to send when I get into work. I think of what decorations I want to buy for my annual Christmas party. I keep a steady pace. Breathe in. One stroke. Two stroke. Three stroke. Another breath. Consistent. Don’t push yourself. The old man I am sharing the lane with begins to annoy me. He doesn’t know how to swim and keeps veering in the middle part. I dive under and go to the furthest lane. The fast lane. One man is doing a great looking breaststroke. He has proper technique and I wonder what his past life as a swimmer was. He begins a crawl, but I am faster. We silently begin to compete until I feel the familiar burn in my shoulder. It feels good though. And it feels good going this fast. We keep this up for a while until blissfully, I feel every thought lift out of my brain. Before the man can notice, I swim back to the middle lane which is now empty. I watch as he stops and looks for his competitor. I admire his broad shoulders. He takes off his goggles and cap and sees me in the further lane. He dunks his head underwater and then leaves the pool.
One of my favourite swims of all time was in August 2011 on the island of Naxos in Greece. My friends who were traveling with me were lounging on the beach, sunset was approaching, but I was ready for a swim. A real swim. I didn’t want to swim out a few meters and enjoy the view. I wanted to swim. One friend called out a warning to not go too far, and in my head I smiled. Although my close friends know of my swimming past, they never understand just how long I can go, and when I’m committed to a real swim. I waded past the shallow part of the beach and began. Further and further, salt stinging my eyes, the flat rocks below me getting foggy from their depth. Slow and steady, water turning pink from the slow setting sun. I felt weightless. Like I could swim all the way back to Athens. I reached a lone buoy and straddled my legs around it. It was silent out here. I floated on my back, letting my ears dip below the water so I could feel the pulse of my body. This is how I like to swim. Swim till I feel alone and everything is quiet.
I stand in the middle lane watching the small waves of the pool. I turn my head to the large pace clock on the wall. The enemy of my youth. The hands go between intervals of 15 seconds. I eye the green hand. If I take it, I got 30 seconds before take off. I shut my eyes and calm my breathing from the races I had with the man. I don’t know why I want to compete with myself, but I do. I think of all the pools I’ve floated to the bottom, where you can stay as long as you can stand it, where your heartbeat is the only thing you hear, I focus on that silence. I look at the clock.
I push off. 50 m crawl. I think of holding on to my Dad’s shoulders as he did laps in a pool back in East Berlin. I think of my sister dunking my head underwater in our pool at our house in Gatineau. I picture my mother following along the pool edge at competitions yelling GO! GO! GO! I think of the salt water in Naxos. I think about the things I have lost and I go faster. The burn of my muscles feels exhilarating, and just for a second nothing else matters but this race with myself at 7:30 am in a community pool filled with elderly Asians. I touch the wall and look up at the clock.
I smile and dive underwater to the deep end. I take a deep breath and let myself sink down to the bottom where it’s quiet and all I can hear is my heartbeat. My ears begin to pop. My lungs ache. Time to face the day.