Learning to Swim with Sharks

My Own Milky Way: Lasker Pool

A quiet pool before the lap swimmers arrive.

Lap swimming has become one of my favorite summer activities. I return to it every year at the end of June when the pool opens for the summer. However, to be honest, I think my attraction is largely influenced by the Olympic-size, outdoor pool in Central Park, near my apartment. There is something extraordinary about swimming in an area surrounded by trees in the middle of New York City.

I first began swimming laps when I was in graduate school and realized relatively quickly that I wasn’t a natural born swimmer. But I stuck with it anyway. I was drawn to the rhythmic aspect of the freestyle stroke. Coordinating the breath with the simultaneous and continual movement of the arms and legs was challenging and invigorating.

Admittedly, there is something strange about having your face submerged under water. It is not a natural position for mammals, at least not non-aquatic ones. And it took trial and error to synchronize the mechanics of the stroke, but little by little, I got the hang of it and actually began to enjoy it, as long as I was swimming in an empty lane.

The next challenge was to become comfortable swimming with other swimmers in the same lane. This proved to be tricky. There is a protocol to swimming laps that, like many rules of etiquette, lends itself to good behavior but not necessarily to being at ease, in this case with faster swimmers. Racing past me with their powerful strokes, more adept swimmers created wakes, making the water turbulent and difficult to swim. The choppy water also rattled me internally: my heart beat faster, my lungs tightened, and I felt a slight sense of panic. In those moments, it became impossible for me to maintain a consistent rhythm and a coordinated stroke, and any sense of joy and relaxation vanished. I dubbed these swimmers sharks.

Obviously, not all swimmers are tri-athlete material, nor do they want to be. One of the more attractive aspects of this sport is that it easily accommodates all ages, body types and levels. Over time, I learned to find my place — and a sense of peace — in the pool. I found like-minded swimmers who are dedicated to this exercise, but have a more moderate approach to swimming laps.

I also learned how to handle the disruptions when I ended up in a lane with swimmers going at a different pace. Initially, I found myself flustered. Should I speed up, slow down, move to the right, to the left? I had to really fight to maintain my own rhythm whenever I became too conscious of someone else’s. Eventually, though, I learned to stay focused on my own rhythm and pace. In fact that was my swimming goal for this past summer!

When I felt a swimmer at my toes, I moved to the right of the lane, but continued my swimming rhythm. If I came up behind another swimmer, I made the choice to pass them or swim a little slower. At the same time, I worked hard to keep my pace and to stay within my abilities on that particular day. This was not an automatic shift, something I just started doing from that point on. I had to remind myself frequently of my goal, but over time it became easier not to be distracted by the other swimmers and to keep my attention on myself, my movement, and my breath.

In the end, the experience proved to be extremely gratifying and grounding. I no longer found myself grumbling at the other swimmers for upsetting my swimming. I recognized that they were doing exactly what I was doing — getting exercise and trying to enjoy a swim. I even discovered at times that I could lose myself in the movement of the stroke, and that is satisfying!

By the end of the summer, I felt completely comfortable and unfazed by the other swimmers. When I came up to breathe, I could focus on the tree line surrounding the pool and the open sky above it, and on sunny days, I enjoyed the refracted sunlight dancing on the bottom of the pool. It was a much better state of mind. Of course, the sharks were still in the pool, but they didn’t bother me, and I didn’t bother them.

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