Jennifer J, a 14-year old swimmer at Crawfish Aquatics in Louisiana, wanted to enter a local writing contest, and she could think of no better topic than the sport that she lives and loves. She put together the following piece where her goal is to explain to an outsider this sport that we’re crazy about and still drives us crazy.
What is water? Some people say we can’t live without it. We need it for survival. It is their enemy. It is their friend. It is unpredictable and wild, yet it is tame and inviting. Water… so undefinable. But to me, the pool is my home, the water is my best friend, hard work is my passion, and swimming is my life. An outsider to the sport would call us insane for staring at a black line for hours on end, but really it’s much more than that.
I began swimming two years ago. I thought it would be fun and great exercise, little did I know that I would soon be addicted to it and never turn away. I was definitely not a natural, I slowly worked my way up the list, and I am now on an exclusive community team that is the defending state champions. I’ve been through everything you can imagine- injuries, losses, wins, friendships, enemies, sickness- yet I would never trade the lessons I learned from that for the world. Truly, swimming is a great sport. At one meet you might be ranked number one, then at the next you may finish last. It is such a fast-moving sport.
Every true swimmer has the will to work hard and get better every single day. It’s this that pushes you through those grueling practices where you just want to pass out; it’s what makes you spend an unfathomable amount of time in the pool just to shave off a millisecond in your next race; it’s what consumes your thoughts every second of the day to just achieve that unimaginable goal time. This is why swimming is not for the feeble-minded. It is the most mentally challenging thing I have ever done. You must train your hardest to overcome your fastest enemy who may as well be your best friend in the lane next to you. Swimming is simply unbelievable.
I never knew I had such a strong passion for swimming until this summer. I spent more than 100 hours in the pool this summer and made some of the best memories of my life. It was worth getting up at 6:00 AM to train for hours a day instead of having tons of sleepovers with my friends. It was worth spending my summer going to two practices a day instead of going on fancy, luxury vacations all over the world. I made friendships that will last a life time and have discovered more things about myself than I ever thought was possible. This summer I found the will to succeed and never give up. I found it in the water.
I can apply this to any aspect of my life which is the amazing thing about swimming. When you are swimming a long set and feel like you are going to drown, this is where the champions are made.
Beneath the water is a different, complete world. It’s almost impossible to describe every aspect of it. I feel alive under the water. I feel free. I feel at home. I feel like myself. But most importantly I feel that my desire for success is greater than my fear of failure.
I've written around the subject of swimming without talking much about the doing of it, perhaps because writing is so at odds with what swimming is. But I like a challenge – I swim in cold water, of course I like a challenge – so I'm going to plunge in.
Before that, let's stand at the side of the pool in our swimming costumes; it's as near naked in front of strangers as most of us will ever get. (I've taken advice and am saying no more.) I understand that for some people even putting on a costume is difficult, too revealing. The only thing I have to offer here is my limited and anecdotal experience, and for me it's key to the whole thing. It's this: nobody is judging. Or if they are, they're doing so silently (and then hopefully drowning in their own bile). Pools feel egalitarian. It doesn't seem to matter what your costume is like; it doesn't seem to matter if you're old or young, big or small, if bits hang off oddly, or you don't have all of them. It doesn't matter what the past [flubbles lips] years have done to you. It doesn't matter what you've done or not done during those years. There will be nobody chasing you up and down yelling "but your legs are fat and your head's too small and you look …". Unless you pay them to do so, in which case you probably need help.
So I shove my costume on, stick my chin up and stand there, the same as everyone. And yes, OK, we mostly do all have our arms crossed. But here is my body out in the air, and no one is falling over laughing or turning away in disgust. We are all equal in a swimming cap, as I've been known to say.
I like the "c" word. Community. I'm part of a community defined by this one thing and nothing else. I swim with people I've known for ages, but I don't know much about them outside of this one thing. Identity is irrelevant. That can feel quite liberating. Am I a mother, a partner, a success or failure? Who knows. In the pool, we all just do what we're capable of, whatever that is. And once you're swimming, no one else is counting, no one muttering "she didn't do much" or "she's slow". We're all here, is what counts.
The first bit of a swim is my favourite: the glide. I put my shoulders under and ready myself, lift my feet behind me to connect with the wall and push off, arms arrowed ahead and body … for a few seconds … suspended. Even in the thinking, I can feel the wall under my foot, really trying to get this bit right because it's so satisfying, a good glide. In my mind I'm a line, aerodynamic and forceful. Then engage. Pull the first arm back, kick a foot, start the clockwork, head still down before the first breath is needed. As I do the first length, my body starts to wake up, realising what is required; my immediate feelings are about how everything is today, the mechanics of me and it. At the start I'm a little slow. If I was a car, I'd still be in first gear.
At the end of the first length I stop, hold on to the bar for a minute and look back to the start. I'm here, I'm in, I'm doing this thing. My breathing has shifted into the right place; any slight cold-water heart-race or panting has calmed down. I'm deciding again what's already decided: shall we swim? Yes, let's. I'm ready. Let's go.
Then I'm conscious swimming. My head engaged, fixed on what my body is doing. Finding the flow, the catch, spearing my arm in. A physical mindfulness, and for a person who still hides behind the bike sheds for most "organised sports", it's a revelation. Whatever I feel about my body, right now it'll do nicely. I can start to stretch out and enjoy how clever I'm being. Imagine being able to do this – how ridiculous! It's like I can fly! How on earth did it happen? I'm in a rhythm, held by the water. I could go and go, swim to Birmingham in this state. I start to really pull back as my catch drops, and give it some power. I roll consciously into each reach, going for the next rung on the ladder. Then I'm in fifth gear.
And I start to notice and enjoy little visuals. Tilting my head as I breathe, getting that view right across the water's horizontal. The sun, if there is one, glancing off my wet arching arm. The rain, flicking and pinging the surface.
Then comes the real mindful stuff. Maybe "mindless" is a more apt word: when my body's cruising and my head goes elsewhere, solving, chuckling to itself, thinking – or actually not. Nothing. Like dreaming or being nowhere. Suddenly a leaf hitting my goggles wakes me, reminds me to invent windscreen wipers for outdoor swimmers. And then I'm back and I'm done and I get out, water runs off me and I pad to the shower, conscious of my physical self again.
When I'm swimming, I'm in the moment fully, purely experiencing. I float free of all the shit I carry around (I'm tempted to say "literally" at this point, though of course not exactly). I'm entirely, elementally myself. Let the day chuck everything it has at me. I'm right in it, alive. I'll make time to feel alive again tomorrow.
Now how about you? What are the things that pull you back to the pool time and again?