swim!

The nicest thing about swimming is you don’t sweat.

There are people with swimming pools and then there are people who like to swim. For those of us who proudly think of ourselves as swimmers, those landscaped, kidney-shaped, terraced, beautified, but above all small backyard items, advertised as pools, are shams. God, the Amateur Athletic Union, and the International Olympic Committee want us to swim in lengths of twenty-five yards or fifty meters, and nothing else will do. So unless you’re able to construct a genuine pool in the backyard to satisfy your craving for water, you have to rely on the kindness of strangers, health clubs or public institutions.

I am an unabashed convert and proselytizer with all the zeal of a born-again Christian. I joyously rebaptize myself every day in the sometimes murky, sometimes oily waters of a public pool and emerge an hour later cleansed in mind and spirit, purged of nervous tension, and ready to resume daily life. But it was not always so. Until the age of 23, I was barely aware that I had a body; much less was I conscious of my obligation to care for it or of its connection with the rest of my being. After spending years in high school and college feeling vaguely tired all the time, and taking two-hour afternoon naps, I decided, although for what reason I cannot remember, to begin a moderate exercise program.

In those benighted days, before jogging, aerobics, health food, and earth shoes had fully entered our collective consciousness, exercise was pretty much an informal affair: You simply did something. So I packed myself off to the university swimming pool, then in its last days as a sort of gentle-man’s club where faculty and students swam nude and from which women were exiled to their smaller, more distant and unattractive facility. (Fortunately those days are gone, and now everyone swims together, exchanging information about strokes, diet, and breathing techniques.) One undressed, walked through a ritual footbath, and entered a large, domed cavern with an old tiled and unlit pool in the middle. One dove in (I slid), swam up and back as long as respiration, strength, and time held out, walked back through the trough, showered, dressed and went his way.

At first I was embarrassed and shy; it’s easy to get over that, as you realize that no one cares what you look like in the water and there’s probably someone worse than you are, anyway. I set goals for myself (10 laps today, 12 tomorrow), met them, reset them. I became stronger. I became addicted. I became a jock. When I went home for a Christmas vacation from graduate school and was unable to swim for two weeks, I knew that something strange had happened. I became irritable, itchy, sarcastic – a reversion to my standard adolescent behavior. Years later I read Frank Snorter’s claim that if he hasn’t run at least ten miles by 3 p.m., wherever he may be, he begins to develop withdrawal symptoms. I understand what he means.

Part of the initial appeal, was, of course, the oddness of the whole experience. Here I was. who had loathed athletics and considered summer camp the worst torture, now plunging in with folks of all sizes and abilities, and I felt good. I haven’t stopped yet.

Swimming’s advantages over land sports are many and obvious. No shin splints, torn ligaments, sprained ankles; no tennis elbow, jogger’s knee, pulled muscles, broken bones. Rather, lean, supple muscles, improved respiration, weight loss and redistribution, a general air of calm. The effect of a one-mile swim is always energizing, not enervating. You can’t hurt yourself swimming- in fact, the only serious hazard is to one’s hair, which becomes, alas, brittle, dry, and split and is the horror of all barbers and hairdressers, each of whom will recommend a different treatment or conditioner to restore luster and protein to the desiccated strands. Nothing really works. But no internal damage can be done. A doctor friend of mine once said, “When I run, I sweat and feel dirty, and my legs get tight; when I play tennis, I sweat and wrench my shoulder; when I play racquetball. I sweat, feel dirty, and generally manage to break my glasses; when I try to ski, I sweat and generally manage to break my leg. When I swim I feel wonderful.” And. to quote Elaine May, that man is a doctor.

How, I have been asked, do I manage to prevent boredom from setting in during an hour’s swim? The problem has never arisen. I manage my life while swimming; I review the day’s activities and plan the future; I sing songs and recite poems to myself; I compose essays about swimming; I concentrate on various parts of my body (for one lap I’ll think of my kick; for another I’ll isolate my right arm). Finally, with the aplomb of a Zen master, I think about nothing; at this point all effort is eliminated, and the mind empties itself as the calm of yogic breathing takes over. It is what joggers, like swimmers, begin to feel after the first twenty-five minutes or so of a distance run. It is the culmination and purpose of the activity.

To a novice, all pools are the same; to a maven, each is different, with its own peculiarities and customs. It is important to know and observe pool rituals and courtesies: For instance, where ropes divide lanes, people generally swim circularly (up one side, down the other) and slower swimmers, like golfers, should defer to faster ones. Don’t do a butterfly in a crowded lane, and above all, don’t do a backstroke if you can’t swim in a straight line. Where there are painted line markers but no ropes, one tries to accommodate oneself to the traffic. Asking the lifeguard what to do is generally the safest policy when there is doubt.

Swimming has only one disadvantage: It can be terribly inconvenient. There are no pools with round-the-clock hours, and so one must adjust one’s schedule to that of the facility he uses. If money is no object, perhaps the most sumptuous place to swim is Kenneth Cooper’s Aerobics Center on Preston Road. The pool is small (25 yards) but the other facilities are astounding, and one may swim from 5:30 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. Unfortunately, there is a $475 annual fee and a six-to-eight month waiting list.

More convenient are the various YMCA’s, which are also the most reliable places for swimming lessons. In Dallas, half of the Y’s have outdoor pools, which, during summer, are probably too crowded for serious lap swimming. The main branch on North Ervay, the Park Cities and Town North Y’s have indoor pools with different hours. And different fees as well. An athletic membership downtown costs $225 the first year, then drops to $175; the Park Cities branch, which offers less, has a $60 yearly fee.

Some of the city’s most opulent pools are run by the Dallas public schools. Loos Pool on Spring Valley Road is an enormous facility, open for adult swimming Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings from 7:30 to 8:30, and from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday. All six DISD pools charge 500 admission, 25¢ for children. Most of the private health clubs have small pools; the Richardson Nautilus has an outdoor 25-meter pool, available to members of any branch who pay the $225 fee.

I harbor a Walter Mitty dream: I want to win a trophy. Spared the fate of Hous-man’s race-winning athlete dying young, and too old and illusionless to think in terms of Olympic medals, I figure I have one chance only: to outlive the competition. Fortunately, there is hope for my kind. The Masters of Upper Texas, an A.A.U. affiliate and part of a growing national group, sponsors competitive swimming meets for the over-25 set. The North Texas chapter has semi-monthly meets; there are two national meets, of which the next will be held in either Dallas or Austin in May. Some club members work out individually and gather for the races: others, like the groups in Plano and at TCU, work togetner. in eignt years, according to Jim Gibbs, local coodinator, the national organization has grown spectacularly; all age categories (25-30, 30-35, 60-65, etc.) are kicking and splashing.

As in any sport, one gets inspiration not from the Olympic champions, young and beautiful, but from the old and slow. It is never too late to begin, and swimming is perhaps the only sport which anyone at any age may safely undertake. One of my swimming acquaintances is a 73-year-old man who began when he was 59, at which time he also gave up smoking and changed his diet. He now swims a mile a day in addition to occasional jogging and bicycling.

As running may be, swimming is always solitary and hypnotic. In exercising the body, it allows one to movepast his feelings for and of the body towhat can only be called spiritual (significantly from the Latin spiritus, breath)appreciation of the body’s hold on themind and of the flowing consistency between the swimmer and his medium.Water sustains us, in more ways than one;buoyant, the swimmer learns to sustainhimself.

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