The five minutes leading up to lap swimming are always the worst part of my workout. Kids are screaming and running as their swim lessons come to a close. Parents are chatting on their phones or to each other. The old ladies arriving for water aerobics cluck about their vegetable gardens and grandchildren. Car engines and the continuous splashing of water into the walls rumble and slap in the background.
Whenever I work out, I listen to music. Loudly. I drown out life and thought behind a beat and do my thing. I think of nothing as I run. I count while lifting weights, but nothing substantial enters my head. It is a blissful escape from myself, despite the muscle soreness.
Lap swimming does not give me this escape. In these five minutes I am overwhelmed by noise. I slink over to my picnic table, the one by the corner of the pool where my lane begins. I’ve caught the cute college girls lifeguarding for the summer watching me before on this walk. I wish I had the confidence to wink at them while taking my shirt off. Instead, I angle myself behind the slide so no one can see me.
I continue stretching and loosening up my arms and shoulders. I slide the goggles over my eyes and adjust them until it’s uncomfortably tight around my eyes. That how you know that water won’t seep in, painful pressure in the soft patch of skin beneath the eyes. I slide the nose plugs for the backstroke into my cheek, hooked at the corner of my mouth. It is hot in the summer and the humidity has left me feeling grimy. The last thing I do before getting in the pool is stepping immediately behind the slide, blocking everything from sight, and slide out of my shorts. I wear a knee-length jammer, surprisingly modest for glorified skin. I’m at my most insecure in the fifteen second it takes to get into the cool shock of the pool.
The noise has died down at this point. The kids, their parents, and cars are gone. The old ladies are still talking over the sound of the water, but it’s duller. I stretch my neck first to the right, then to the left, one last time. I slap my arms around my chest, hitting the opposite shoulder blades. With a glance at the giant clock on the pool house, I inhale and drop underwater.
Immediate silence and the gentle pressure of the water greet me. I use my downward momentum to compress my body, rotate forward, and push off the wall. I instantly feel clean as I feel the smooth, gliding sensation over my skin. I rise to the surface and begin stroking, but not breathing yet. This is the best my form will be all afternoon. My shoulders unclench and the rhythm for the swim is decided. I cross the entire pool and breathe just before going into the flip turn. I dolphin kick off the wall and feel my back begin to loosen. I complete the first lap, stand-up and face the opposite side of the pool. I sigh as I stretch out my arms one last time because I know the next thirty-two laps will suck.
I have a routine of strokes I go through to help relieve monotony and to increase the muscles worked. I do four free, four breast, and then three back. I do this twice, and then reverse the order on the third set. Numerically, it looks like this: 4-4-3-4-4-6-4-4.
I’m only aware of the aerobics class or other swimmers through the motion of the water. I hear faint movements through the water at times, but all I really hear is my hand breaking the surface, my gasps for air, and my thoughts. You cannot escape yourself underwater. There is pressure, pressure, pressure in the silence and no musician can drown out the music of the deep.
When I switch from free to breast, my mind decides to think about everything I try to avoid. It’s the hours spent in frustrated disappointment at another fruitless job search that causes pain, not the stretching of my chest muscles. I speed up to escape these thoughts, but you can’t outswim yourself. I try to distract myself in ways I consider productive. I single-handedly solved all the problems my current “job” possesses every time I get in the pool, even if I never mention or implement them. I mentally reorganize my bookshelf. I come up with story plotlines I never write down.
I stop briefly to slide my nose plugs on before continuing into the backstroke. The sun bears down and illuminates all the flaws I see in myself physically. I’ve lost thirty pounds and it shows, but I only see the me I was then. I’ve never been tight or toned, but I feel potential when I swim. It’s part of the reason I hate getting out of the pool after a mile. I’ve felt the distance and done the work, yet nothing changes in three summers of swimming.
I’m one-third of the way there the next time I stop. I remove my nose plugs, clean my goggles, and stretch out. This is the last time I will stop or I’ll never make it past half a mile. I glance at the clock and figure out how long it’s taken me on average to swim a lap. My breath isn’t ragged yet, but I feel my chest rise and fall in the sun deeper than usual. I descend again, push off, and begin the series all over again.
Laps twelve through twenty-three are the worst part of any mile. My muscles begin to add their voice to the water’s tumultuous silence. My arms ache with every stroke, begging me to give up. The sun feels perfect on my back and all I want to do is crawl out of the pool and sleep. Every muscle in my body is tight. My mind begins to wonder if this is finally the day definition will begin to appear. The next flip turn reveals this is not the case. I swim harder in anger and frustration and my arms ache louder and I’m only on the second lap of the free style. I gasp back and forth down the pool for six more laps before switching to the backstroke.
The first three backstrokes are always awkward for me in this six lap segment. There are no lane markers to alert the swimmer when to begin the backstroke flip turn process, so it’s a trial and error moment that changes with every swim’s pace. Mine is somewhere between my elbow and hip passing the ladder. I’ve run into the wall more than I care to admit, and I’ve started turning ten feet before the wall by accident before, too.
The fourth lap of the six is my favorite lap of the entire mile. The flip turn in the shallow end is finally timed right and I feel a glimmer of good form. As I approach the deep end, I inhale the most air I possibly can, preparing for the first deep water turn. As I flip over mid-stroke and immediately do half of a front flip into the wall, bubbles stream from my mouth. I push off the wall and I go deeper than I have been all swim. The silence is immediate and my entire mind stops thinking to assess the change. I see clouds floating through the surface of the water as I dolphin kick as hard as possible away from the wall. I see my entire body undulate like a wave, propelling me towards the next wall. My lungs begin to ache from the exertion of this time underwater. I break the surface with a whale’s gasp and fly down the pool. I do this two more laps.
The final collection of breast strokes is a sheer battle of will against my mind. It tells me to give up with every single stroke. My muscles have loosened once more, but fatigue has set in and my ankles are sorer than I can explain. I am taunted by the closeness of the finish line, but my pace has dramatically slowed. Up and down the pool, twenty-five meters at a time. Up and down the pool, fifteen gasps of air at a time.
When I flip into the final set of free style strokes I begin to race every person in my life I am jealous of. I am mentally transported to an Olympic arena and my goal is to make everyone whose life is better than mine jealous of my skill in the pool. I have slaughtered the law students by the end of the first lap, and I pull away from the grad school students halfway through the next flip turn. The athletes are keeping pace, but I am biding my time. My pace rises, my breathing fights to get enough air into my system as my strokes rapidly increase. I pass the newly married and the new parents at the end of the third lap and I begin my final lap.
I sprint. My arms are crashing into the water. My fatigue is screaming louder. The star soccer player falls away to my right. I flip turn and head back to the final wall. Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have nothing on this dolphin kick. My stroke helps me pull away from everything. My wake is behind me and I have smooth water as I finish the last lap. I am finished.
I stand up and the wake wave crashes into my back. It’s refreshing as I pant in the sunlight. But everything else crashes back in as well. Thirty-five minutes later and I am back where I started. Nothing has change in any arena, except now I’m ravenously hungry. I’m exhausted, and for no visible result or reason why. I crawl out of the pool, walk to the picnic table, and lay across the top in the sun.
I can’t tell if life is a lot like lap swimming, but lap by lap I arrive at a mile. So, maybe one day by one day, I will arrive somewhere better than here. Or that if here is the final destination, that by the time I work myself away and back thirty three times I have changed enough to realize what here actually means.
Author’s Note: Written in 2013