When I was a kid, I pretty much preferred a good book and a big chair to any outdoor activity at all. I liked fewer, not more stimuli. We traveled a lot when I was little, and I found travel and sightseeing exhausting. A whole day of it was all just too much information. I’d work my way to a quiet room and a novel as fast as my legs would carry me.
Unless there was a pool nearby.
Or a lake, or an ocean.
Water always drew me. I think it worked for me in much the way a quiet room and a novel works for me. It gave me an activity in an environment where my senses of sight and sound are altered. Under water is a quiet place with unusual sounds. I didn’t have to listen. I didn’t have to speak. A pool teeming with people still offers privacy and room for introspection, if that’s the way you want it.
Or you can pick your head up and play Marco Polo until your voice gives out.
Or you can investigate a very different ecology and mind-bending plants and animals.
My father, one of the most graceful swimmers I’ve ever seen, taught me a very elegant crawl. I could do laps forever.
So swimming was my exercise as a kid. I spent entire days and evenings in the neighborhood pool. My chlorine-soaked eyes would be so shriveled that I saw rainbows around every light source. My hair was a slick green with chemicals. My favorite aunt called me a fish.
I was a fish.
And then, you know, I grew up and out of my watery childhood. I married. I worked. I stopped moving. I put on weight. I’d try in spurts to become more active, joining gyms, walking, running. But nothing really grabbed me. As my body became less strong, and I felt more and more awkward, I shied away from gyms and tried videos at home, walking in the woods. I usually hurt myself. And then I stopped.
Hurting myself by walking? Sure. When I reached my top weight, I had a hip that would become so inflamed I looked like a woman twice my age when getting out of chairs. My feet would become so swollen I couldn’t wear my shoes. The facia tender to the touch.
I walked around with economy-sized Ibuprofen bottles rattling in my handbag.
But still somewhere in my head I thought I should be able to finish a Karen Voight video without pausing for breath. I was incredulous and angry and humiliated and scared when I couldn’t, and so I would just shut down.
When I first sat in a room with other very heavy people I worked with to finally lose my weight, our fitness counselors suggested walking as a good entry activity for us. I’m usually in control, but I couldn’t keep the tears away. I couldn’t walk, and I knew it. Before I had to admit this to the group, someone else beat me to it. “It hurts to walk,” said one man, angrily. “I won’t do it.” The counselor suggested getting in the water. Go to a pool.
Well that little suggestion invited a surge of positive feelings. Memories of long sunny days and rainbow-lighted nights. I wiped up my tears. I remembered a new community swimming pool not far from where I lived. I vowed to go there.
And then it hit me: a.) I did not have the same body as I did when I last enjoyed being in the water, b.) I did not have a suit that would fit, and c.) my suited body wasn’t something I wanted to share with the world.
So I thought about it for a few weeks while counselors kept asking what sort of work I was doing on starting an exercise program. Finally my husband helped me by walking through the front door of the pool with me just to look around. What I saw there helped a lot. There were people of every age and size at the pool. The water aerobics classes mainly attract people 20 – 30 years older than I am. Therapy pools help people recover from joint injuries and manage joint pain. And all that blue water.
It may sound silly, but it took actual courage to joined that pool. And then I went looking for a swimsuit that would be big enough for me.
The swimsuit was the hardest part. Swimsuits for large women are rarely pool-worthy. I have a source below. The choices are few and expensive. Sorry about that.
So I got in the pool. I felt the grace that water gives everyone regardless of size or age.
But I couldn’t swim a single length. My face was hot with effort and embarrassment, but there were people in the pool with bigger problems than I had, so I kept at it. I used the kickboards so I could just kick gently back and forth without snorting water. I worked to get back the crawl my pop had given me. It took awhile before I could breathe in the water again. But it came back after a few weeks. And then I swam a length, a lap, two.
Inside of three months I could swim a half mile. By five months I put in a mile-long swim 4 times a week. Then I started swimming “sets” with some real swimmers who landed in the pool the same time I did. A great group of folks who are far better swimmers than I will ever be, but who took me under their wings and were kind and patient, willing to teach, and wanting me to succeed.
But I knew I wasn’t swimming really well. So of course I went looking on the Net for instruction. There I found Terry Laughlin’s elegant essays on swimming, his books, videos, training guides. His Total Immersion group teaches “fish-like” swimming to beginners, triathletes, and top-performing swimmers. I found a nearby Total Immersion coach and started working with him on form. I learned. I got better.
I’m a fish.
The pool gave me back my body.
Today I can handle walking, running, elliptical machines, yoga, ballet class, Pilates and belly dancing. I can even almost make it through a Karen Voight workout video. I don’t swim as often as I used to simply because I have more options now. But I will never give it up again.
Consider life as a fish, friends, and all it can give you,