A joyful return to the water

“A new heart I will give you and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” Ezekiel 26:36

All four years of high school, I set my alarm for 4:21 a.m. Monday through Friday. I’d snooze for 9 minutes, be out the door by 4:40 a.m., and in the pool by 5:00 a.m. sharp. After an hour and a half practice, I’d shower and get ready for school in the locker room with my teammates, swing by Hardee’s for a chicken biscuit (I think it’s called Carl Jr.’s in this part of the world. Regardless, the number of chicken biscuits I’ve consumed in my lifetime is… impressive), and head to school for the day. After school, it was back to the pool from 4:00-6:30 p.m. for more water time. Not surprisingly, I was in bed on most nights by 9:00 p.m. and I started drinking coffee at a much younger age than most of my peers.

If you know a serious swimmer, this schedule probably doesn’t sound unfamiliar. Because swimming is such a low-impact sport, it’s much easier to log huge amounts of time in the pool compared to other sports. And so I did. I attribute much of my type-A tendencies to the swimmer’s schedule I kept as a teenager. When I finally stopped swimming after trying it out for a year in college, I vowed to never jump in the pool again “because I had to.”

I don’t think I ever lost my love for swimming, but I was ready for it to stop controlling my life and my schedule. I took a leave of absence from the water for about two years, and when I finally did return, I realized that the sport that was once completely dictated by sets, intervals, practice times, and early mornings was now completely my own. Once the structure fell away, my joy of being in the water returned.

I just recently joined the YMCA in Berkeley — I picked the gym because it has a pool. These days, when I swim, I make sure it’s a workout with a different ethos than my other workouts. When I run, I keep track of my pace and distance; when I lift, I’m constantly trying to up my weight and reps; the Insanity workout DVDs are as much of a mental game as physical. But swimming is a thing set apart for me now.

I allow myself to just enjoy the water, to swim without worrying about how long or how fast I am going. What was once a great cause of stress in my life is now quiet and meditative. Sometimes I just swim for 45 minutes without stopping, without engaging with anyone else, letting my mind wander and rest where it will. Given the framework of living in intentional Christian community this year (where we look for meaning in everything), I am beginning to realize that swimming is a spiritual practice. The quiet of the water is a peace I cannot find anywhere else.

If you’ve never been a swimmer, the thought of swimming for 45 minutes without stopping might sound insurmountable. Like anything, I suggest starting small. As I said earlier, swimming is an extremely low-impact sport, making it accessible for people will all levels of fitness. However, I wouldn’t suggest just jumping in the water and “going for it” if you’ve never learned the strokes before. Adult classes are offered through most gyms with pools and I would highly recommend getting some technique training under your belt if you’ve never learned the strokes before. Otherwise, I recommend fins and/or a kickboard. Fins will give you added propulsion and will help you sit higher in the water. Starting on a kickboard is easier for those who find the breathing patterns of swimming difficult.

I’ve taught adult and children’s swimming lessons for years and the goal I always set for people is that they should be able to swim comfortably and continuously for 10 minutes without stopping. I try not to let people worry about speed — that will come later — and being comfortable in the water is the first step to improving as a swimmer.

If you’re an ex-swimmer like me, I invite you to return to the water with joy. Swimming will never be what it was for me. I’ll never be as fast and surely I’ll never be up at 4:21 a.m. to train ever again. But I am thankful for that, and I am thankful for the sport’s transformation in my life — from stressful training to peaceful practice.