In the weeks before the coronavirus hit, I was often awake well before dawn to dive into the University of Minnesota’s 50-meter pool by 6 a.m., where I swam a hard workout through crystal-clear water that invigorated my body and nourished my spirit.
Such early morning swims were nothing new to me. I’ve done them for more than four decades, several times a week. I am no different from the scores of lap swimmers you’ve passed while heading to your spin classes or treadmill workouts, if you noticed us at all. We just kept swimming – at masters’ groups, informal group sets or solo workouts, in every city, small town or rural setting, at YMCAs, municipal pools, colleges or rented public school facilities.
We stopped, of course, when the pools in Minnesota closed in March. Under Wednesday’s guidance from the governor, it remains unclear when gyms and pools will reopen.
A difficult withdrawal
For those of us who consistently swam year after year, losing access to pools during the COVID-19 shutdown has not been trivial. It has been a difficult withdrawal for our bodies, our psyches, our souls.
We know the closure of pools is not even close to the highest priority of this moment. Amid all the dire impacts on the economy and social welfare, no one wants to hear anyone whine about the lack of lap lanes.
What people don’t understand, though, is that diehard lap swimmers don’t swim because it’s “fun” or “a nice form of exercise,” although both are true. We swim because, for us, it is essential to our physical and mental health.
We swim for endurance and resilience – or, for those afflicted by chronic arthritis or anxiety disorders, to make it through one more day a little more easily. Many of us have been swimming through long lives. We are at the age when COVID-19 fatality risk becomes higher. We believe our years of vigorous swimming have helped stave off compromising medical conditions such as hypertension or diabetes, decreasing our risk of complications from the virus. Each day that passes without pool access makes us feel more vulnerable to it, not less.
The loss has also had a spiritual dimension. To us, nothing can replace immersion into a pool, the flow over our limbs, the motion in tranquility that goes far beyond just total-body aerobic exercise. During stay-at-home orders, we have tried to substitute swims with long walks. We do dryland training. Some of us work while listening to water sounds. But we can’t replace what swimming offers every time we push off the wall into the full nothingness of the water, where our rhythmic strokes bring meditative release from the overwhelming thoughts and emotions life presents.
We swim for our sanity.
Now, we watch, frustrated, as elite swimmers elsewhere in the country are given access to pools via highly coordinated distanced workouts. Some of us are now asking gym administrators to consider similar arrangements for lap swimmers here when gyms reopen. After all, we argue, chlorine kills the virus. Lap swimmers are compliant and rule-bound exercise cohorts who can collaborate to keep safe-swimming rules.
But who are we kidding?
Although gym managers are privately sympathetic to our plight, they so far lack clear direction from policymakers about how to manage the reopening of pools. We’d love a voice in this, but let’s face it: Lap swimmers have never held much power in the gym hierarchy. Our status falls somewhere above afternoon diving and definitely below group water exercise. We’ve long learned to stay quiet and just swim where and when we can.
So now that the lakes have unfrozen, we are quietly moving out in force.
Bent on reclaiming our strokes
I’m not oblivious to the risks, but even so, I am looking thoughtfully at the ink-black lakes around me. My swim friends and I are buying wetsuits and planning steadily and carefully to wade into the wild waters of the state. We are bent – somewhat hell-bent, I would say – on reclaiming our strokes and our kicks to gain some sense of sanity and solitude.
We know it won’t be easy to confront the weeds and the fish and the disorientation of open-water swim. We would much prefer the safety of chlorinated water. But we will walk, masked, to the shore. We will unmask, goggle up, buoys at our backs with wetsuits zipped, and set out for even a small taste of what remains essential for our health and well-being – separated, of course, by at least 6 feet.
Gayle Golden is a senior lecturer and Morse Alumni Distinguished University Teacher at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota and a freelance writer in the Twin Cities.
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