My mom had a cigar box full of swimming medals she earned as a champion of three states, if you call Washington DC a state, along with Virginia and Maryland. Her mother kept loads of newspaper clippings of her wins during adolescence. People said she swam like a bullet. Then she went away from swimming, but she had confidence from those years in the pool.
I learned how to swim during summers at Tam High School in Mill Valley, and spent hours playing ‘tea party,’ diving off the high dive into twelve-feet, so deep I wanted to hold onto the side.
I decided to join the swim team in High School, after my sophomore Biology teacher showed the class two lung slices, one who smoked, and a non-smoker, I was so grossed out I stopped smoking cigarettes (after six years at that point). Talk about bathing suits we wore, ordered to wear by our coaches, black tanks with straps in back and saggy butts. Five days a week workouts, for at least two hours. We shared lanes and did all the strokes, back, free, breast and butterfly. Kickboards were a big part, too, over and over.
The first time I raced, I was so excited I flew off the starting block loaded with adrenaline, only to notice a moment later that the gun went off, meaning we had to start over. When I got back up on the block, I was shaky, and came in third place, oh well. I wasn’t going to be a racer. At the end of that season, I earned a Varsity letter, but embarrassed, I hid it in a drawer. Girls like me didn’t earn Varsity letters. I was more of a back parking lot type of gal, not a jock.
My dad’s death and other sorrows came and went, and I picked up the cigarettes again, along with even more alcohol. I moved to the Theatre Department. Forget the pool and those lung slices.
In 1977, my first teaching job in Oregon ended around 4 p.m. each afternoon, so I drove to Beaverton’s indoor community pool and started doing laps again. It felt right for my body. That was a crowded pool, but I still went, and got into the routine, started bringing swim gear, goggles, earplugs, shampoo, soap stuff. I still smoked too, but instead of quitting, I coughed, and swam for three years.
In 1986, I returned again to California, got the perfect teaching job for me, spent my first summer vacation money on fees for a private club with an indoor pool down the street from work, and I’m still a member. The club has a hot tub with a couple of good jets, which loosens me up after the workout, changing my day for the good.
I find peace behind a physical routine, but it’s also mental. I try and talk myself out of going. My main mantra through the years has been, “don’t-think-about-it-don’t-think-about-it-don’t-think-about-it…” I chant this aloud as I drive into the club parking lot, through the changing room into my funky swim suit, almost as bad as the high school one, (but chlorine is super hard on suits, so I live with the look). I say, “don’t-think-about-it-don’t-think-about-it…” until I rinse off, sog my way to the pool deck, grab two kickboards and jump into my favorite number 2 lane without testing the water. I start kicking up and back, and it’s work. I just GO.
I meditate, like being in a dream, very close to sleeping, my body rhythm rocks me. I often feel like a seal, or a tuna or a cruise ship, because of my size and the way I move. My breath is very regular. I use the kickboard for leg kicks, do tons of freestyle, backstroke, breastroke, relaxing frogkicks, and start the whole routine a second time. Earplugs cut out sound, except my breath. Water pushes in stroking rhythm. I go for an hour and a half. Sometimes it’s boring, but I let my brain go wherever it wants. I’ve kept track of milage before, over a mile each time. But I’m not interested in exact length anymore. Instead, I let endorphins pump into my brain. In many ways, it feels like I have left the pool. At the end of the swim, I come back to Earth.
When my mother died nine years ago, I said goodbye to her body as I knew it, left the hospital, went to the pool. I did laps. Muscle memory got me through that devastating afternoon. Comforting warm water helped heal my sorrow, since I truly did not know what else to do. Swimming felt like salvation.
I don’t have a cigar box full of champion medals. But when the swim ends, I feel great every time, and my bombarding thoughts have been put on hold for awhile. I’ve kept away from smoking for over 25 years since I started w/ regular laps, undoubtedly my lungs are glad. Something about that chlorinated turquoise water….. and that chemical smell, Yup. Part of the story, too.