Dance Like No One Is Watching; Swim Like Everyone Is

The way my pool is set up, there are three benches along one long side of the lap pool. At certain times of day people sit there, waiting for the therapy pool to open to the public or for a class to begin. Directly in front of them, they have a view of the swimmers going back and forth, back and forth. Once upon a time I used to feel as if those people sitting there were watching me, but I would tell myself I was being silly. Just because they are facing the pool doesn’t mean they are watching me. Surely it is egotistical to think they even notice what I am doing.

Now I don’t feel as if they are watching me–I know they are. Several times, someone has asked me later about what I was doing. For example, not too long ago in the locker room:

Woman: What stroke are you doing when you go up and down?
Me: Um, breaststroke?
Woman: No, no! On your back! Your belly goes up and down!

This one took me a little while to figure out; there is no on-your-back-belly-goes-up-and-down-stroke. Eventually I realized she was talking about when I do dolphin kick on my back, like in this video. Apparently she found it bizarre. I imagine the conversation on the bench:

A: That woman is still swimming.
B: Shouldn’t she be at work?
A: You would think. And now her belly is going up and down.
B: Up and down?
A: Up and down. What the heck is she doing?

I’ve had other observers. Once a man in the next lane stood at one end of the pool, and every time I came to the wall for a turn, he went underwater to watch. He did this five or six times. I assume he wanted to learn how to do a flip turn. I posted something about it on Facebook, and the responses were interestingly split by gender: the men thought it was flattering; the women thought it was creepy. I was a little disturbed by it myself; he was hanging onto the lane rope to hold himself under, which meant he was right up against my lane, staring at me from close range. If we had spoken, I would have suggested that he go watch YouTube videos of flip turns rather than stare at strange women in pools.

But although I have had some odd encounters, there are also benefits to being observed. After all, what is a coach except someone to watch you swim? Without a coach, I am left to my own devices, and it can be nice to get a little feedback. Sometimes the people on the bench offer encouragement. One man walking by on his way to the therapy pool told me that I got a lot of power out of each stroke: now that is the kind of compliment a person can hold in her heart during a long cold swim, and it will keep her warm. Knowing you have an audience–maybe cheering for you?–can inspire you to keep swimming, even when you’re tired and everything hurts.

Like Mike Mulligan and his steam engine Mary Anne, I "work faster and better when someone is watching."
Like Mike Mulligan and his steam shovel, I “work faster and better when someone is watching.”

Of course, I am not just being watched. I’m watching other people, and there’s motivation in that too. I know the people in my pool, by swimsuit or cap, by the way a hand enters the water or the way a leg kicks. And we’re often racing. Racing other swimmers is a common practice. See Jason Gay’s 23rd rule in his 2012 New Year’s fitness article, “The 27 Rules of Conquering the Gym“:

23. Everyone sees you secretly racing the old people in the pool.

How do you know if we are racing? I made a flowchart:


One of the effects of my swim team years as a girl swimming in a lane with boys is that even now, thirty years later, I cannot let a man pass me. I mean, men do pass me (sometimes), but I can’t just ignore them: if there’s any chance I can take the guy, I will swim my hardest to catch him. I can’t help it; I’ve had years of conditioning. This is not something I’m proud of, by the way–it’s more than a little juvenile–but I am self-aware enough to realize it and use it as a motivational tool. If I put myself in a lane next to a man a little better than me, I will go like a dog after a rabbit. I don’t mind losing (much), but I can’t pass up a race.

It may be that we should dance like no one is watching, but we should swim like everyone is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s