How To Get Back Into Swimming (When You Never Swam in the First Place)




All throughout middle school and high school, I was a musician, not an athlete.  I dabbled in rowing in 2010, and quit field hockey before the season even started in 2011.  After that, I resented sports a bit.  There was a sense of camaraderie I had never meshed well with; the fact that we all partook in the same activity was never a guarantee that we were going to be friends for me.  Plus, I was so busy playing cello in an orchestra and tuba in festivals that I put sports to the wayside.  Wayyy to the side.

In college, I tried the fencing team, but I ended up phasing out of it my sophomore year.  As a replacement, I tried the equestrian team, but after dropping $1000 in the first semester on lessons and shows alone, I decided I could not afford to go back.

So where did that leave me?  My junior year of college, recently back from a semester abroad, newly re-stuffed with American food (leaving me 10 pounds heavier than I had ever been,) and still resenting the sports world as a group of cool jocks who wanted nothing to do with me.

Of course, none of my problems could be my own fault, right? Time to blame the jocks for judging me.

This was the norm until a friend, the founder of the fencing club, asked me to come swimming with her one day.  Somewhat reluctantly, knowing I needed to get back into shape, I borrowed my friend’s ill-fitting full piece, tied up my hair and waddled into the gym, pretending to not be embarrassed of myself.  

Watching the swimmers shoot across the pool, I pulled the lifeguard aside to tell him that I was new to this, and I promised that just because I was flailing didn't mean I was drowning.  With that self-deprecating announcement, I hopped into the water.

That first day, between all the panting, pausing, wheezing, and nausea, I swam about 350 meters in an hour.  I left feeling winded, seasick, and self-conscious.  However, as anti-sports as I had always been, I went back a few days later.  Just because I was scared of the swimmers didn't mean I didn't want to get back into shape.

That second swim session, I got out of the water the moment another person got into the pool, having only done a few hundred meters, if that. It was a slow burn, building both the stamina and self confidence required to swim. But against all odds, I went out and bought a swim cap and goggles, I went to my grandma’s house to get some of my mom's old suits that would fit, and I started going to the pool every night at 9 p.m., when there were sure to be the fewest amount of “real” swimmers.

After about a week, I found it took less time to recover after swimming 25 meters.  Around then was when I started caring less about the other pool goers were thinking.  One day when I couldn't go in the evening, I went swimming at 4:30, right when half the swim team was practicing together.  I swam slowly as they zipped down their lanes, lap after lap alongside me.  Guess what? It ended up being fine.  "They're professionals," I thought to myself as they leapt off the starting blocks, splashing me while I hung onto the ledge, catching my breath.  "You just started doing this; they've been at it a while."  

In fact, I kind of realized that the athletes didn't really care one way or another if I was there.  They were there to get fit for the season, I was there to get fit in general.  Our goals weren't too different, it was just the execution and skill level that differed. 

Generally, most people experience a dissonance where we think the entire world is staring us down and critiquing us about everything: how our stomach bulges in a white one piece, how we gasp for air as our head bursts from beneath the water, how our arms thrash madly as we try to finish a full 50 meter dash. Eventually, you realize no one’s really looking.  

I haven't yet fully accepted this reality yet, but with every day I go to the pool, it dawns on me a little more.  We’re all just here to swim.