I Hate Swimming, But I’ll Never Stop

The Welles Park pool in Chicago where I swim. In the summer, the walls slide aside to the open air. On winter mornings, sunlight streams in.

I hate swimming. The act itself is unnatural. Humans are just not built to spend long periods of time submerged in water, holding their breath. Think about the position a person takes in the water: Stretched out, windmilling arms, wiggling legs back and forth. There is no elegance, nothing attractive about it. When a person gets out of the water, their skin is pruny and tender, with hair a complete mess. They’re likely out of breath from holding it for so long.

And yet, I do it three times a week. I don’t think I’ll ever stop swimming if I can help it.

Swimming has changed my life. Since I started going regularly last January, I’ve lost weight, gained energy and for the first time in my life, managed to do something that requires long-term discipline.

Early in the morning I walk three blocks to my local park district pool. I change into my swimsuit, sharing the showers with a pair of very clean homeless men that shower there every morning. I push open the heavy metal door dividing the men’s showers from the pool, drop my ID on the table by the door and plop my towel on the metal bleachers to the right.

Then, I pad to the middle lane – the fast one with people doing freestyle or breast stroke rather than the crawl – and jump in the pool. I take a deep breath, and dive in. Twenty laps on weekdays, thirty seven, one mile, on weekends.

I get into the pool and start swimming as soon as possible. Some people hang out at the shallow end and talk a bit, or psych themselves up. I just go. Waiting is my enemy. If I wait, I’ll think. And when I think, I imagine other things I’d like to do instead of swimming. Instead, I just plunge in, forcing my body to do something it would much rather not.

Now that I’ve been swimming for a while, I’ve gotten to know the characters of my pool. The lifeguards are all interchangable and almost never interact with the lap swimmers. They do set the music on the boombox, which echoes throughout the room and fills your ears when you stop at the end of a lap. Mostly they choose pop stations, but one guy sometimes punches in the classical station, sublime on an early, cold morning. I wish he worked more often.

The swimmers however, are all very different. The first lesson you learn about lap swimmers is: Body type and age is not an indicator of swimming ability. Of course you can imagine some muscle-bound, trim guy or woman splashing uselessly in the pool. But your mind gets bent when a rotund woman in her mid-60’s does a flip-kick off the end, then a dolphin kick into a breast stroke, lapping you twice in five minutes. These are the people who intimidate me.

One of them, a woman I call “blue suit” (I have names for everyone in my mind) is blindingly fast and well into retirement. Sometimes a buddy of hers shows up in a black suit. Together they dominate the fast lane, setting a pace for everyone, so we all go faster, rushing not to keep up with blue and black suits, but to avoid the thing that silently creeps up on you in the pool: The overtake.

The overtake can be a delicate thing during lap swim. Either the person being overtaken stays politely to the right, or they flail arms everywhere, swerving back and forth so the faster swimmer needs to knock them about a bit. When someone like blue suit attempts to overtake Mr. Crawl, then everything goes nuts.

Mr. Crawl is a guy I just hate. He’s probably in his late 50’s, balding, wears a black volley shorts suit. And he does the fucking crawl, a stroke where your arms and legs go as wide as possible, in the fast lane. In my mind, this is an offense of the highest order. The fast lane is where you go fast. So, the crawl? He’s taking so much space, it’s almost impossible to pass. Basically, Mr. Crawl is saying “fuck you” to everyone in the pool, since he’s throwing himself into the pool as a monkey wrench to all of our attempts to keep a rhythm.

Don’t be Mr. Crawl. Go to the slow or medium lanes if you’re doing the crawl.

Now, just because I have strong opinions about my exercise doesn’t mean I’m some kind of pool nut. In reality, I’m a very mediocre swimmer. I swim five laps at a time, because I really start to run out of breath after that. Five laps, break, five laps, break, and so on. I don’t bring a water bottle or use any kind of swimming aide. Just googles, because swimming without them is plain dumb.

Eventually, after my twenty or thirty-seven laps, I pull myself out. Grab my towel and my ID card, rinse off in the shower, change clothes, go outside and walk home three blocks. I’m always super hot and sweaty. I pull out my phone and type my distance into Swimtivity, an app that allows you to enter exercise into the iPhone/Apple Watch activity tracker. I close my exercise circles for another day.

I managed to do it one more time. Even though I hate it.