I never thought I would come to truly love swimming. Running is my thing. Running is what I’m good at (or used to be); it’s what my body is designed for.
Low-fat skinny bodies get hypothermic in water and I remember hating the swimming lessons my parents made me take as a child. I couldn’t pay attention to what the instructors were demonstrating because I was wholly wrapped in the misery of my shivering blue body. Things didn’t change much over the years. I took stroke improvement in PE regularly at my high school pool, but never earned a Bronze Medallion, mainly because I couldn’t focus on the lifesaving lessons while in the pool—teeth chattering as usual.
But there was another side of swimming—lake swimming. Every summer, my family and another family with kids the same ages as my brothers and me rented cottages on a lake near Parry Sound. Escaping from the heat and humidity of Toronto with its asphalt, brown grass, and pollution was heaven. As soon as we tumbled out of our car at Lake Shebeshekong, we could smell the fresh wild air. We couldn’t wait to get in the water.
Our annual trips to the lake were probably the reason why my parents insisted we take swimming lessons—even though we were not allowed to go in or near the lake without adult supervision until we were teenagers. For many years, what we did in the lake didn’t include much actual swimming.
There were lots of games, jumps, dives, running in and out of the water, and splashing around. As our swimming competence improved, we were able to join the adults for the “long distance” (200m?) swim to a rock ledge where you could stand up, surrounded by the deep water.
For us kids, the lake was all about having fun and cooling off. Swimming was incidental. The idea was to play in the lake until you were blue with cold, come out, lie on a rock until you were burning hot, then run back in again… and so on, over and over again, until one of the adults said, “It’s time for lunch,” or “I’d better go up and start dinner.”
So now, when I go to Sasamat Lake, although I do swim, my main reasons for being there are to cool off, relax, and have fun. I’m not there to do a workout, unless it’s one of my few “mini-triathlon” days or a 10-minute swim in the middle of a hard bike ride to and from the lake. No, what I find at Sasamat Lake is a reminder of childhood’s carefree days, a quick escape from work, heat, and stress. I can lie on my towel, close my eyes, and be lulled by the happy background sounds of the beach: children’s excited cries, gossiping girls, teenagers’ boom boxes, and sometimes the sweet strains of a guitar player’s strumming.
This summer, during a prolonged heat wave the likes of which Vancouver’s never seen before, I’m at the lake simply to COOL OFF. I have to escape the stifling evening heat of my northwest-facing apartment. I’m usually at the lake after 6 p.m. because in this weather, I don’t want to feel the sun’s heat even after swimming. Evening is a lovely and peaceful time to be there; the crowds are gone, the water is warm and calm, and the low sun makes a glimmering trail of light over the water.
When I plunge in, it’s an instantaneous shock that takes me to another state of consciousness. Delicious coolness surrounds my heat-exhausted body. The water caresses my face and my leg muscles that are often sore or tired from one workout or another.
I never thought my enjoyment of swimming could be anywhere near my enjoyment of running, but now I have found bliss in water. It’s different from running bliss. It’s easier, with a delicious weightlessness.
I like the rhythmicity of swimming just as I like the rhythmicity of running. In both kinds of motion, breathing becomes deep, automatic, and efficient when one has mastered the sport. The breathing in swimming is more disciplined than it is during running; swim breathing has to be more exact. I like the way my body automatically switches to 2-stroke breathing rather than 4-stroke when I’m swimming hard. Or I do a mixture of the two without thinking about it. I’m thankful for my deep lungs . They do their job so well—they have never failed me in either running or swimming.
Running will always be my favourite sport, but now, because of my damaged knee, I feel more whole swimming than running. In the water, I can still be perfectly graceful—at least I imagine myself to be so. I’m sure my front crawl is as flawed technically as it’s always been, but that doesn’t matter. I can swim any way I want to.
I can sprint in the water just as I do on land, feeling the same joy of explosive effort when both muscles and lungs are pushed to their limit. My arms and shoulders are powerful as they cut through the water. Or, I can swim steadily, letting myself be hypnotized into a state of deep relaxation. When I turn my head to breathe I see everything at once, the line of water separating the dark underwater world from the bowl of sky, trees, and beach whose beauty pierces me.
Sometimes I swim a slow head-up breaststroke, following the sparkly lights the setting sun makes on the water. Sometimes I lie on my back, fluttering my hands and feet just enough to stay afloat.
I’m suspended there in the water, my cool Nirvana. It’s the centre of the world and there is nothing else at that moment.
A few nights ago while swimming I thought about all the summers I’ve been coming to the lake. There was the terrible summer of 2009. I had dislocated my shoulder at the beginning of June in a bike accident; that summer I had to swim with one arm. My torn ACL had not yet been repaired. My marriage was over, though I was still living with my husband. Our son was about to leave for Japan to begin his Japanese-immersion university studies. I reflected how much more whole I am now than I was six years ago. I’m strong in body and strong in spirit. I lost a lot, but I could never have imagined how much I could start anew at the age of 50.