On Swimming Through

In winter, the water in my lake is blue. This was a surprise to me. Through the years I’ve been swimming there, April to October, I’ve spent hours considering the proportion of green to blue in the water, mulling over the color: cyan, seafoam, peacock, turquoise, aquamarine. But in the winter, when the trees around the lake are bare, the water is blue and nothing else, the blue of a child’s drawing of a lake. In the sun, the top level of water is the improbable blue of icebergs, and on a cloudy day, the very edge of the surface is outlined in white, and then the color shades slowly down through slate into midnight blue beneath you.

This is the first year I have swum open water through the winter. I never sat down and decided to do it. Back in March 2020, a few weeks before I would have started open water swimming, the state parks closed due to the pandemic, and with them public access to the lake. I was bereft. It had never occurred to me that my lake could be taken away. When the parks reopened, I went to swim as soon as I could, and I swam through the summer and then through the fall and then, somehow, through the winter. I never thought, “It’s time to stop for the year.” It’s only now that spring has come around that I realize what was in the back of my mind: I couldn’t bear to lose the lake again.

I have nothing inspirational to say about cold water. I may be the only cold water swimmer who doesn’t. All winter long I kept running across articles (mostly from British and Irish newspapers) about swimmers flinging themselves into icy waves; those people spoke of the joys of the cold — how it cured their illnesses, gave them life again. The articles were illustrated with photos of wet people emerging from lakes and oceans, smiling widely. But I have no photos like that, and my notes from my swimming log have sparse descriptions: “cold,” “freezing,” and “MUCH SHIVERING.”

But the lake carried me in ways I did not expect and could not have asked for. Because the sun was lower in the sky, sometimes as I looked straight down, I had the illusion that light was radiating up from the bottom instead of down from above, holding me up from below. And the blue of the water — it was a blue I did not know was possible. I am an unlikely cold water swimmer. But the unexpected light and the improbable blue sustained me through the winter.

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