And so, after several years of doing it regularly, at least a few times a week, usually more, I didn’t swim for two months. I did this on the advice of doctors, and there wasn’t really any way it could have been avoided, and it wasn’t, in the grand scheme of things, an especially uncomfortable time: but still, it was sudden, and surprising, and with surprisingly wide-reaching ramifications.
Before I stopped, I was probably the fittest I’d ever been, except maybe the year I played volleyball in college, not only because of swimming but also because I was, in an admittedly lackadaisical way, training for a half marathon. So it was, at first, primarily a physical struggle. I did not sleep as well, eat as well, during this time of not swimming; I continued to run for a little while, and then, during a longer period of physical recovery, I walked - long, slow walks at the very edge of dusk, through parks and quiet suburban neighbourhoods.
I was mostly, if I’m honest, uncomfortable with the idea of what would happen to my body if I couldn’t swim. It was accustomed to its morning exercise, and its abilities as well as its appearance reflected that. I didn’t want to un-do what I’d done to my body over the last few years and months. A large part of this is vanity: I liked the way my body looked, and I knew that it would start to look subtly different - even if just to me - with each day or week that passed without a swim. I tried to keep up a regular practice of writing fieldnotes, even though I was not really in the field anymore: you cannot go to the pool just to watch without attracting the wrong kind of attention, and I wouldn’t have wanted to anyway; as long as I didn’t have to see swimmers it was easy enough to pretend that swimming was only an abstract activity. So at one point I wrote in my hiatus fieldnotes: “I was looking through photos from the summer earlier this week and you can really actually see the muscles in my shoulders. Now, not so much. This bothers me more on a personal than a cosmetic level, but I also liked what the visual said to other people, or what I imagined it said, anyway.”
Gradually, though, the body, which is capable of almost alarming resilience sometimes, adjusts to whatever new routine it must; and so, towards the end, the whole thing became more of a mental struggle: I was angry or despairing because something had been so disrupted, because one of the things that would ordinarily have helped me cope with a difficult time had been forbidden; I did not know what to do with myself. I worried, too, that I would overcompensate - that in my effort to readjust to current circumstances, I would float too far the other way and become indifferent; that, even when I could swim again, I wouldn’t particularly want to.
From my fieldnotes, 21st November:
"I have grown patient by necessity. I take gentle walks. On Sunday I saw the girl with the pink cap in the pub, in my pub, my local. I mean, maybe her local too; I used to fairly often see her cycling down my road, so perhaps she lives nearby…It was funny to see her out of context and it reminded me, again, that these people are people outside the context of the pool. The same people but different people, too. As am I. So where does the other part go when it has no place to go?”
I guess the thing I felt about this really was that this was both a discomfiting and a soothing thing: that even something you think of as being so integral to your own self-identity isn’t necessarily, or always, essential to continue being. My life, after all, marched on and on during this time; I was busy, I had doctor’s appointments and meetings and deadlines, and I wrote and read, though maybe less than I should have, and had dinner with my partner and talked about what was going on his life, his work, and we planned our wedding a little, and dealt with the rats that had moved into our kitchen, and the broken boiler, and slept late on Saturday mornings because we could. It was not a great time, all in all, but it was still a period of time, and things were still fundamentally okay. And about this period of enforced, but also learned, patience, I also wrote:
"I occasionally check the tri club Facebook page, or see updates from an old swimming coach, and yes, I sometimes feel a little pang of – jealousy? Not quite the right word, but something like it; desire, perhaps? I look through the list of times from a 400m time trial, for instance, and wonder how much I, too, could have improved by now…But then the desire or whatever it is fades: I’m here now, and actually maybe I’m a little relieved that I’m not sweating away in a pool right now. On Wednesday nights, during the long club swims, I used to go up and down and up and down and up and down and think, quite often, that this was such a weird thing to be doing voluntarily, as an adult, on an evening. (When I was in high school and participation in sports was mandatory, I always used to think, why would you make yourself this uncomfortable if you didn’t have to?) It’s not that I don’t miss it, but I think I’ve effectively sequestered the part of me that actively misses it, turned it into something abstract. Anyway there’s plenty going on these days, physically, emotionally, and so there isn’t really that much space for my body or my mind to miss something else. The calendar is a kind of enemy: reminding me of things, the facts of things… the length of time for which, after years of regular practice, I have been, effectively, a non-swimmer…I think I place undue importance on getting the go-ahead to start swimming again, as if it will definitely mark the moment that everything else gets easier, too. When really – like all places, because this is just a place, a place in my life I’m at at the moment – it’s all just a process.”
Even our house was decorated differently; for so long my towel had its place on a particular section of banister upstairs, the swimsuit and goggles and cap and hair tie laid out carefully on the towel to dry, and that place on the bannister was empty for awhile.
The funny thing is now that I’m back into it, and have been for over a week, all that time out of the water, which seemed so prolonged at the time, seems to have shrunk in my memory. The calendar does not seem like an enemy but a record. True I am not very fit, and true I am probably not as efficient as I have been in the past, but it’s not as if I don’t know how to swim anymore. The first length after the two month hiatus was strange, disorienting; I was almost a little dizzy for a moment, though not unpleasantly so. But then I reached the wall and flipped and it felt like it always feels, more or less, which is to say, sometimes great, and sometimes a great struggle. I guess this is what they talk about when they talk about “muscle memory”, even though in this case some of the muscles had diminished or maybe disappeared completely.
From my fieldnotes, 7th December:
"A better swim today, felt more like the old habit. I still felt tired and out of shape at points but I also felt my form returning a little. It actually feels good to do hard work, even if my definition of hard work has shifted. Funny to think of fitness as potential: where does it go when you lose it? Because you don’t necessarily lose the potential.
I’ve been thinking to a lot about this idea of recreation/re-creation, and it feels highly relevant in a way I maybe hadn’t been thinking about before: my body, in the Bale sense, was actually re-created by lack of exercise over the last few months (the thing he writes is that exercise done to “keep fit” is “used as a form of re-creation. The body is re-created so that it works better” (Bale 2003: 8)). And now I’m swimming again for recreation: and trying to let it be recreation in the conventional sense (a relaxed activity, done for pleasure), for as long as I can, because to enjoy it was always the main purpose, for me, and I sometimes lose sight of that. But the one thing I am trying to take from the experience of missing this from my life is that it’s a thing to be appreciated, not abused, and also that I do enjoy it but also that I enjoy other things. In a sense I was able to separate my identity a little from it: it’s nice to think that if instead of an evening swim I want to go for a walk and have a beer, that’s a thing I can do. Discipline is all well and good but only so long as I control the discipline, rather than being perpetually disciplined by my own practice. What a balance to strike! And on the other hand I do also want to swim for re-creation, to regain the fitness I had, the muscles, the ability.
So yes: it’s all a process of continual re(-)creation.”
Bale, J. (2003) Sports Geography, London: Routledge