Why do we wear clothes? I’m no cultural anthropologist, but I’d say clothes serve two main purposes: they protect us from our environment, and they allow us to communicate information about ourselves to others. And when we are not wearing very much clothing, the few clothes we are wearing have to do a lot of communicating.
Which brings us to the swim cap. Most of the time, when you’re swimming, you aren’t wearing much clothing. And though a swimmer communicates information about herself with her swimsuit and her gear, the most efficient means by which a swimmer can assert her identity is through the swim cap.
I’ve been thinking a lot about swim caps lately. I’m frustrated. Back in early November, I reached my 500-mile Go the Distance goal for 2015, and I have been trying ever since — that’s two-and-half months — to buy a 500-mile cap from US Masters Swimming. Just to be clear, I don’t want them to give me a cap; I want the opportunity to pay them money for a cap. They are updating their online store. I made some quaint 20th-century suggestions — could I call someone on the phone with a credit card number? could I mail someone a check? — but to no avail. I have had plenty of time to think about why I want this 500-mile cap.
It’s not to protect my hair from the environment. Non-swimmers are sometimes surprised to learn that a cap does not keep your hair dry. Caps are like wetsuits; they let the water in. A cap will, however, keep your hair out of your eyes when you swim. And it will keep your hair out of your pool’s filters. That’s why some places require caps — to protect the pool, not you.
Just as important, swimmers wear caps that tell other swimmers about themselves. You can proclaim your love of breaststroke or Brazil or breakfast. You can declare your allegiance to a team or other group. A little while ago, a student gave me a couple of caps from the university’s club swim team. I usually bring one with me when I travel. When I wear it, I feel I am a representative of the institution, and I make a special effort to behave myself. Last summer I wore it when I swam at the gaspingly beautiful Kitsilano pool in Vancouver, my purple university cap in that huge blue pool.
When I swim at my regular pool, I usually wear a cap from an open water swim. At every open water race I’ve ever done, I’ve received a race cap. Swimmers are required to wear the cap for the event. During a race, it makes it easier for safety personnel to find and identify you. It usually has your race number written on it in Sharpie.
After the race you take your cap home and wear it in the pool, and you have on your head the physical reminder of your fabulous swim. Sometimes a cap will have some super cool race logo, and people can look at your head and think, “Look at that super cool person with the super cool race cap.” At least, you can imagine that’s what they’re doing.
People take caps seriously. I swam a race one year that gave out caps that said something about a Virginia triathlon series on them. It was not a triathlon, and it was not in Virginia; the race organizers must have gotten them cheap in bulk. When I wore my race cap to the pool later, one of my friends confronted me. “When have you done a triathlon?” he demanded. I’m not interested in triathlons, and he knows it. He felt I was wearing the cap under false pretenses. A cap must serve two purposes, and while that cap did a fine job keeping the hair out of my face, it communicated inaccurate information about me. It was not a wholly successful cap.
You can’t get sentimental about caps. They don’t last forever. And there’s always some point in the spring before race season starts when all my caps seem to be stretched out and start to rip, and I start wondering if I’ll make it to the first race of the year without having to buy a cap. I don’t want to buy a regular cap. I want a race cap.
My caps aren’t ripping yet, but they will be. And, as I said, I don’t want to buy a regular cap. I want that 500-mile Go the Distance cap. If I ever get one, I’ll post a photo. Sure, it will keep the hair out of my eyes. But more important, it will say, truthfully, “This is a person who has swum a long, long way.”