I have arm muscles now. I guess I have always had arm muscles, but I mean visible arm muscles; when I flex, something happens. It’s hilarious. I think of the story in the Book of Genesis when the visitors come and tell Sarah that she is going to have a child, and she laughs. Sarah is 99, Abraham is 100, and I’m 45 next week. And yet, Sarah and Abraham have a son! And I have biceps!
I shouldn’t be so surprised. It’s not as if this is a miracle. But these muscles are completely unintentional. They are an accidental by-product of my swimming. I don’t swim to reshape my body. I swim to reshape my mind.
Not long ago, I had a conversation with a friend who referred to me as an athlete, and I told her, I don’t think of myself as an athlete. I think of myself as a person with some mental health issues that can be controlled by swimming.
Swimming calms me when I am anxious; it makes me happy when I am depressed. When I am crazy and I can’t think, swimming gives me my mind back. The effectiveness of swimming (and other aerobic exercise) as treatment against depression is well established. Bonnie Tsui celebrates the emotional and mental benefits of swimming in a recent Sunday New York Times opinion piece:
We enter the meditative state induced by counting laps, and observe the subtle play of light as the sun moves across the lanes. We sing songs, or make to-do lists, or fantasize about what we’re going to eat for breakfast. Submersion creates the space to be free, to stretch, without having to contend with constant external chatter. It creates internal quiet, too . . .
You don’t have to be a great swimmer to appreciate the benefits of sensory solitude and the equilibrium the water can bring.
But this perception of swimming as a solitary mental phenomenon contrasts with another, one that views swimming as physical, muscular, even exhibitionist. Consider this passage, the opening from Andrew Palmer and Brian Platzer’s If I Were Built, I’d Swim Laps (from the Shouts & Murmurs humor column in the New Yorker):
If I were built, I’d swim laps. I’d swim freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke, butterfly, sidestroke, doggy paddle, and the little-known turtle stroke, to work my obliques. I’d wear bright red Speedos with flames rising from the crotch, an American flag swim cap, and Swedish goggles, and I’d shave my body from head to toe to gain a competitive advantage. I wouldn’t be a competitive swimmer if I were built, but as I swam laps at the local Y I’d pretend I was.
This guy is hilarious, just like my implausible arm muscles. I don’t have a bright red Speedo with flames rising from the crotch, but I do have sparkly goggles with gold stars, and I am (as my friend K points out) the envy of all the 10-and-unders when I wear them. Our narrator, the would-be swimmer, imagines himself “built,” confidently working on his obliques, but from my perspective he’s got it all backwards:
If I were built, I’d stay at the beach till sunset with my dogs, swimming at top speed in the darkening ocean. I wouldn’t fear the ocean if I were built—its obliterating vastness and perpetual thrashing, how it hides a whole shadow world of pre-human creatures who bite or sting or haunt us with their indifference. I wouldn’t think of any of that if I were built. I’d love how it felt to swim in the ocean, my arms pulling hard through the salty water, my body bobbing in the waves. I’d feel connected to something deep out there. If I were built, I’d be at one with the universe.
The narrator thinks that having muscles would make him happy and unafraid, but that’s the wrong way around: it is through the swimming itself that you lose your fear and start to feel “at one with the universe.” Maybe along the way, when you weren’t thinking about it, you develop arm muscles, and you’re built — kind of, for a certain limited definition of “built.”
At the same time, ever since my friend referred to me as an athlete, I’ve been reassessing: I am swimming around 15 miles a week. If I’m not an athlete, then who is? And what is an athlete, anyway? Mrs Swim Write Run introduced me to this quotation from Bill Bowerman, legendary track coach and co-founder of Nike, and I’ve been thinking about it: