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Swimming is Not a Solitary Sport

Participation in school sports was not exactly a confidence booster for me. I was a B meet swimmer in the summer and only made the high school team because they didn’t cut. Same with tennis, where I was particularly talented at beating myself. From a family of athletes, I was unremarkable.

After childhood sports, I never thought I would want someone else to decide the time and amount of my workouts again. But now I’ll get up at 5:15 am to swim a coached practice. I’ve flipped from “don’t tell me what to do” to “let somebody else figure it out,” a different kind of lazy. But if I don’t like a set, I do my own thing ’cause there’s nothing on the line; no making the team, no parents to please, nothing riding on it. I don’t swim for anyone but myself so it really is just for fun.

I tripped into the team I swim with, on a July 4th when the pool was about to close and the only space left to swim was with them. After years of lap swimming I naively thought I was a pretty good swimmer, but I just kept up. A few months later when Alicia had Bill and I swim a 20-lap race side-by-side, on the birthday that we share, she said with no offense intended and none taken, imagine how good Kathy would be if she was in shape! After my first practice in July, all were accommodating and encouraging, saying I could swim with them anytime, especially Alicia, who I immediately connected with when we chatted in the Y parking lot afterwards, the first of many post-swim chats and the start of a wonderful, long-standing friendship.

There weren’t lots of women with us then, happily there are more on our team now, but occasionally I’m the only woman at a practice. I call those ”Bob practices” because it’s like when I was on a case with several other lawyers and I was the only lawyer on the case who was not a white man named Bob. The other swimmers are always friendly even if not fully awake, and it doesn’t matter who’s experienced and quick, and who’s not.

Despite thinking when I started that I‘d only swim with the team once a week and I’d certainly never compete in a swim meet, at 50 years old I swam in my first meet in 35 years. It was fun, not nerve-wracking like when I was a kid. People genuinely root for each other, everyone cheers for everyone. Clapping is reserved for the oldest swimmers who finish last, results are secondary.

Every swimmer has a story but one of the most memorable was Wolfgang’s story. We met him at a party held for the team by my friend, Kathy. She invited Wolfgang to the party to get him to swim with us since he was always urging the start of a team at their neighborhood pool, and was still a strong swimmer at age 70. Turns out Wolfgang was from East Germany and had been on the East German Olympic swim team for the 1960 Olympics. Before the games, Wolfgang, then 17, was pulled from the team because the East German government feared he would defect. Their fears were legitimate.

Wolfgang told us that he defected by swimming from an East German beach on the North Sea to rendezvous with a ship. He described hiding from the spotlights roving across the beach from towers where guards patrolled with machine guns to stop would-be defectors. Then, at midnight one July, with a sad goodbye to his father in the darkness on the beach, Wolfgang dove into the sea and swam to freedom. He swam all night and missed his ship before being picked up by another ship, after swimming an extra three hours in the frigid sea; it was not his turn. Instead, he would die suddenly at age 72 of a massive heart attack, and we never had a chance to swim with him.

I swim with people of all ages from recent college grads to great grandparents, from elite swimmers to novices. From Tim who was a college swimmer, a cop in Chicago for 30 years, speaks fluent German and is married to Svetlana from Russia. To Juan from Guatemala, the youngest of 12 children, who, in his mid-20s, learned to swim with us. To Anna and Jim, both who swam in Olympic trials, Jim alongside Mark Spitz, and Anna 30 years later. Most downplay their swimming ability like a valedictorian who tells you they didn’t study that much for the test.

While we see each other regularly, we might go months or years without knowing each other’s last name, it usually doesn’t matter. Until one day when Alicia asked me to see if anyone knew who John Moore was since he had signed up for a meet as a member of our team and she needed to know for relays. The next morning, standing in a lane with Chris, who I swam with several times, I call loudly across the entire pool, does anybody know who John Moore is? And Chris, ever quiet, says, that’s me. From there on out, I‘ve called him Chris-John, a nickname that's stuck.

In the end, we see each other regularly and personalities emerge. From Chris-John, who I’ve dubbed the happiest grump I know to Sam who is always upbeat to Cosmo who is never serious to Celia, whose love of swimming as both a swimmer and a coach, is contagious. The common thread is the role swimming plays in our lives, a sport you can go in and out of, some with breaks of months, others returning after years off, where you‘re accepted, where you can be yourself. As fellow swimmer and coach Earl said to me when I was out for awhile, “the pool will be here when you’re ready to come back.”

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