The water isn’t as cold as I imagine it will be. I’ve been bracing myself since I walked into the change room for the bone chilling temperature that makes you wonder if this is even a good idea because don’t people get sick from cold water? The water might not be cold but the lanes are full and that’s not something I planned on. It takes me awhile before I’m comfortable, before I’ve stopped wondering if I’m taking up too much space or if they’re shaking their heads at how out of practice I am, how I’ve swallowed pool water instead of breathing twice now, stopping completely to snort chlorinated water out of my nose in a fashion I’m sure is considered ridiculously attractive and try to clear my head.
I still remember how I used to practice my front crawl, over and over and over again, after I failed my level five swimming lessons. I was annoyed because not only had I failed, but it meant my sister and I were in the same level together and as much as I loved her, it wasn’t something I was looking forward to. It stayed that way until we entered high school and I, once again, failed because I couldn’t do the endurance tests. I gave up on lessons and she continued. Now she’s a life guard, she’s my life guard. She’s the one who opens the pool for us to arrive at 7:00 am during the summer and sits with her legs wrapped in blankets and her face lost in the shadow of her hoodie as she watches my mother and me.
There, the water is freezing. Getting into the pool is an act of bravery you wonder if you’re insane to attempt. The secret is to dive in and swim, none of this stepping in bit by bit and waiting for your body to adjust. That doesn’t work. So I grit my teeth and dive and let my body warm up, stroke after stroke and count out my laps by sets of twos and groups of six. Front crawl. Breast stroke. Back stroke. Repeat. By the time 7:45 has arrived, I’ve done 40 laps and I’m no longer cold. I’ve learned it’s actually possible to sweat while swimming, something I’d never thought about before but now I’m almost wishing I had that cold pool to jump back into to cool down. My muscles ache and pulling myself out of the pool to walk to my towel has my legs shaking, threatening to buckle underneath me before I give in and sit down for a few seconds, chest heaving.
My mom, she’s a champ. She’s the one who wakes me up at quarter to seven so that I can sleepily dress myself in my bathing suit and poke myself in the eye while putting in my contacts before we drive down the quiet streets to the pool. She’s the one who taught me to dive into the freezing water, teasing me as I stood ankle deep on the steps those first few days, not quite sure why I was there.
It’s more than exercise, for me. More than staying in a straight line as you swim on your back. More than trying to up how many laps I can do in 45 minutes, though that does have a competitive appeal. It’s even more than watching the sunrise and turn the sky pink and purple and light blue. It’s where I do my best thinking. Where I solve problems by not thinking about them, too busy with counting out laps and breathing in and out, pushing myself for just one more set. The way the light plays out patterns on the floor when your head is underwater and the sound goes away. The way there’s an eerie stillness to everything below surface and time can just stop and you just float and for a moment, everything’s going to be okay.