this (lap lane) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Pene­lope Hayter

I AM not a strong swim­mer. Nor am I a par­tic­u­larly fast one. But I have been swim­ming laps for more than 30 years.

I didn’t start out as a schoolkid get­ting up at the crack of dawn, with a sleepy par­ent driv­ing me to the pool, in the hope of an Olympic ca­reer. Like most Aus­tralian chil­dren, I learned to swim but I had an unco-or­di­nated style and lacked con­fi­dence to move ef­fi­ciently through the wa­ter, be­com­ing breath­less af­ter a short time.

As a young adult, I craved a re­lax­ing ex­er­cise I could fit around my shift work, and swim­ming seemed to fit the bill. I sought out stroke cor­rec­tion and learned I could in­hale on ei­ther side and slowly ex­hale un­der­wa­ter, while mov­ing my arms and legs. I was no Shane Gould, but I achieved a sense of mas­tery such that I was able to swim with­out ex­haus­tion.

My com­mit­ment to swim­ming has con­tin­ued across three cities, out­door and in­door pools of vary­ing lengths, many jobs, a long mar­riage and two preg­nan­cies.

In re­cent years I have had a twice-weekly com­mit­ment with two good friends. Our reg­u­lar swim ful­fils our need for com­pan­ion­ship and ex­er­cise. Out­side in sum­mer, in­doors for the rest of the year, then a con­ve­nient lo­ca­tion where we can share cof­fee and con­ver­sa­tion.

De­spite var­i­ous other de­mands on our time, from work and ma­tur­ing chil­dren to busy hus­bands and age­ing par­ents, on most weeks we man­age a re­spectable num­ber of laps. On a good morn­ing, it usu­ally means 1km, maybe more — or some­what less if tired­ness or mi­nor ail­ments in­ter­fere.

Many peo­ple find the act of swim­ming laps bor­ing or even mind­less. Yet th­ese rep­e­ti­tious ac­tions are sooth­ing, re­lax­ing and mind­ful. All the senses are stim­u­lated while im­mersed in cool, chlo­ri­nated wa­ter (and oc­ca­sion­ally swal­low­ing it), amid the sur­pris­ingly loud un­der­wa­ter sounds of splashing and ex­hal­ing, and the vi­bra­tions caused by all the swim­mers. The sun­light breaks into a wave-like pat­tern and the bub­bles dance. Time seems sus­pended as the arms stroke rhyth­mi­cally. Th­ese pe­cu­liar sen­sa­tions el­e­vate the ex­pe­ri­ence to some­thing more than mere ex­er­cise.

In sum­mer the out­door pool is sur­rounded by na­tive veg­e­ta­tion, with tall gums and car­olling birdlife. The cool-sea­son in­door pool has a north-fac­ing win­dow and sun­light streams in, warm­ing the near­est lanes, im­part­ing an al­most womb-like ex­pe­ri­ence to the swim.

This am­bi­ence al­lows un­wanted dis­trac­tions and stresses to fade into the back­ground while the fo­cus is to swim to the left of the black line (lane eti­quette) and com­plete a pre­de­ter­mined dis­tance, in­ter­mit­tently chat­ting be­tween laps.

There are some down­sides but th­ese are mi­nor. My nails are soft and split eas­ily, and hair when coloured can ac­quire an un­wanted or­ange tinge. It’s a chal­lenge to find bathers that sur­vive months of chlo­rine. And I sus­pect I had a dose of blas­to­cys­to­sis once when many lo­cal pools were con­tam­i­nated with a gut par­a­site.

In my 50s, I feel as fit as ever and have avoided much of the mid­dle-age weight gain I had been ex­pect­ing. I stand straight and don’t seem to get many coughs and colds. I seek out other ex­er­cise and have good en­ergy lev­els.

I love the way swim­ming an­chors my life. I’m not sure what is most im­por­tant about it — the ex­er­cise, the in­tense sen­sa­tions, the re­lax­ation, or the ca­ma­raderie. But one thing is cer­tain. I will con­tinue to swim laps as long as I can breathe.

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