On swimming and vulnerability

Lap swimming is an activity conducted within a regulatory system of rules and conventions (lane etiquette, uniform dress, constant surveillance by lifeguards and CCTV cameras) designed to protect participants, preserve order and anonymity. It’s also an instance of rigid discipline butting up against something wilder or undisciplined. Even in that ordered, controlled setting, the nearly-naked form of the swimmer, moving through the elemental form of water, calls to mind some baser state or instinct; as Roger Deakin puts it: “When you swim, you feel your body for what it mostly is – water – and it begins to move with the water around it. No wonder we feel such sympathy for beached whales; we are beached at birth ourselves. To swim is to experience how it was before you were born.”

Deakin was writing primarily about wild swimming, outdoors and in nature, but his sentiments can also, I think, be applied to the more confined environment of the pool; swimming in a pool, the researcher Thomas A P Van Leeuwen points out, is “a complex and curious activity, one that oscillates between joy and fear, between domination and submission”. It’s an activity uniquely suited to highlighting both the abilities and inabilities of the human body, for the swimmer is both transcending and slave to his own limitations, floating and breathing but constantly aware of the unnaturalness of swimming, the need, for instance, to move the mouth out of water in order to breathe, to move the body in such a particular way in order to float - these things require conscious effort, as if the body is overcoming a natural inclination to sink, to drown.

“Breathing is hampered as we swim,” writes Damon Young:

"water compresses the chest, making it more difficult to inhale… blood pools in the lungs, leaving less room for oxygen…in a matter of minutes we suffer what researchers call “inspiratory fatigue”…our muscles become weaker or slower, and have more trouble co-ordinating. And when swimming, we are also using more muscle groups…Stomach, chest, upper and lower back, shoulders, biceps and triceps, and the upper and lower legs, including the feet: all working in a co-ordinated and continuous way to keep the swimmer from stopping and sinking. Put simply, even the local pool can suggest danger, by highlighting the continual effort required simply to keep our head above water. Swimming, whether in salt water or chlorine, evokes the sublime by revealing just how vulnerable we are."