this (lap lane) life
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.