Swimming is a confusing sport, because sometimes you do it for fun, and other times you do it to not die. And when I’m swimming, sometimes I’m not sure which one it is.
I stand on the edge of the pool and jump.
I’m submerged in the warm water, safe from the chilly air. My muscles start to loosen up, and I feel relaxed. The heated pool is mostly empty, except for some kids taking lessons, which means that I get a lane all to myself. Exciting stuff. No sharing with old guys three times my age, or triathletes, or zig-zagging backstrokers. Tonight, it’s just me.
I clear my mind, take a breath, and push off the wall. I swim underwater for a few meters. From my fingertips to my toes, my whole body is working in unison to get that nice streamline dolphin kick. My arms tight around my head, I kick a couple more times before breaking into my butterfly. The stroke begins in my hands, works its way through my core, down to my legs.
My head comes out and my arms follow. My hands glide right over the surface of the water before crashing in front of me, starting the process all over again. The timing has to be just right so that I can catch a few shallow breaths, which is why sometimes doing butterfly feels like elegant drowning. This isn’t the stroke you want to do if you’re ever stranded offshore.
Am I a masochist for liking the butterfly? My instructor thought so. But from the first time I successfully swam 25m fly, I felt powerful and graceful, even if I might resemble a thrashing salmon.
I transfer all the momentum from my fly into my backstroke. And now, I’m staring up at the night sky. This is where normally the person in the lane next to me decides to do a kick drill and splash me with water. Not tonight. I get to look at the sky and a peaceful sensation washes over me. I feel my arm make its way through the cold air before coming back into the warmth.
Some people are natural breaststrokers. I’m definitely not one of those people. But it’s a good stroke for pond swimming. That is, if you enjoy swimming in stagnant, slimy water.
I move into my freestyle. The stroke feels “well-worn” and comfortable. After almost two decades, you’d think I might rely solely on muscle memory, yet I feel like I’ve grown more sensitive to each part of the stroke. I can feel how my hand cuts through the water, the difference head position makes, and even when my legs might start sinking.
I choose to focus on my breathing. 1…2….3… goggle in; goggle out. 1….2….3….goggle in; goggle out. I trust I’ll find that pocket of air.
I swim into the deep. Eight feet….ten feet….twelve feet…
I feel like I’m on a barren, alien planet. The pool floor is aglow in odd hues of blue and yellow. I can see the “hill,” the place where the pool gradually goes from being 3 ft deep to 12 ft. The hill is marked up by blue trails, otherwise known as pool lanes. I can see the arms and legs of other swimmers above me, who are probably wondering why I’m down here.
My lungs start to burn, but I don’t want to leave just yet. It’s quiet down here. Plus, I know that walk back to the car is going to be cold. I look up again at the swimmers and see a familiar face.
And I hope that one day, I’ll be the old woman still swimming strong, staring down at the young woman, wondering when she will come up for air.