10 mile swim

It isn't far to swim when you have friends waiting at the end.


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Four Places to Swim Before You Die

I don’t like bucket lists. And when I get sucked into a bucket list about swimming (14 Places to Swim Before You Die is a typical example), I am invariably disappointed. Some of the places listed are good places to float, especially to float while drinking a cocktail, but they are not places to swim.

I think I can do a better bucket list. I offer you four places to swim before you die:

1) Across a lake

You don’t necessarily have to swim across a lake. You could swim across a channel or a strait, or you could swim from an island to the shore. What’s important here is that you swim across. Start on land and head out into deep water; swim and swim until you get to the other side, using nothing but your own body to get there.

You don’t have to swim a huge distance; you want to be able to see where you came from at the end. Then you can stand on the land and look back across the water and think, “I got here all by myself.”

You feel like you’ve gotten somewhere when you swim across a lake.

2) In the rain

Swimming in the rain is among the great joys of life. There is some voice inside you that says responsible, grown-up things like “Go to work” and “Don’t eat that cookie” and “Come in out of the rain.” When you swim in the rain, you can tell that voice to shut the hell up. Swimming in the rain feels like Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day. It feels like Jeans Day.

When you swim in the rain, you feel the raindrops on your shoulders. You feel them on your arms when you lift them out of the water and on your face when you breathe. It doesn’t matter if you get wet, because you’re already wet — you’re swimming.

All rules are suspended, all debts are forgiven when you swim in the rain.

3) In the nude

If you swim a lot and you think about swimming a lot, eventually you’re going to come around to one inescapable conclusion: wearing clothes in water is weird. All the research into fabrics, all the fancy swimsuit technology — it is all to make swimming in clothes more like swimming naked.

For long distance swimmers, especially women, swimsuits cause as many problems as they solve. Lynne Cox notes in her Open Water Swimming Manual, “Because of problems with chafing, there were top female open water swimmers in the 1920s and ’30s who swam naked. Today there are women who wear two-piece swimsuits until they get in the water, and then they ditch their tops, hand them over to their escort paddlers, and when they finish their workout, they put their tops back on and head to shore.” When I’m swimming long distances — in a pool as well as in open water — I use Body Glide on my shoulders, neck, and arms to prevent chafing where my swimsuit rubs against skin.

It is important that we respect the conventions of the communities in which we swim. In other words, you can’t just show up to the pool naked. And goodness knows I have no more desire to be the only nude swimmer at a pool or beach full of clothed people than I do to be the only person in pajamas at the next faculty meeting.

But before you die, you should get yourself to a place — a physical location and a social space — where you can take off your clothes and swim. Wreck Beach in Vancouver is a good choice.

On this side of the sign, you can swim naked. On the other side, you have to wear clothes. Which side are you on? My photo. June 2015.

On this side of the sign, you can swim naked. On the other side, you have to wear clothes. Which side are you on? My photo. June 2015.

In the life I lead, I don’t get to swim naked often, but each time I do, I remember, “Oh, yeah, this is what swimming is supposed to feel like.”

You can approximate the feeling of swimming in the nude by swimming in a full wetsuit and then later in just a regular swimsuit. I do this in the spring sometimes, swimming in the lake in a wetsuit one day and in the pool the next. When you push off the wall the second day, all the nerve receptors in your bare arms and legs light up like the midway at the state fair. It’s as if you feel the water for the first time.

4) In the same place you swam yesterday, and the day before, and the day before.

If I had one last swim, I would want to swim in the same place I swim every day — my home pool.

The key thing about your home pool is that it’s yours. You know how far it is from the T at the end of the lane to the wall, so you always hit the flip turns. You know the best lane and the worst lane. You know all the lifeguards and all the regulars, and they know you. You know your pool.

Before you die, swim at some place long enough and often enough so that it becomes your home. Make it yours.

I like to see new places, and I like to swim in new bodies of water. But when it comes down to it, the best place to swim is the place you’re in, in the body you have. Go swim there.

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On Nakedness

Last month, ESPN The Magazine‘s annual Body issue came out. I didn’t know ESPN The Magazine had an annual Body issue (I was only vaguely aware there was an ESPN The Magazine), but I heard about this one weeks in advance. Every year, the Body issue features tasteful, artistically nude photographs of athletes from a variety of sports, most of them people I’ve never heard of. But this year, among them, is Michael Phelps:

Michael Phelps. Photo by Carlos Serrao. Image from ESPN.

Michael Phelps. Photo by Carlos Serrao. Image from ESPN.

I’m enthusiastic about the Body issue; it seems to me that it is the perfect response to the decades-old Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, which is all about sex and not at all about sports. While SI features models in swimsuits, ESPN features athletes without them. These are not photos of women as objects; these images portray people, male and female, who use their bodies to do amazing things.

In addition, any positive media portrayal of Michael Phelps is good for American swimming. Swimming in the United States gets very little attention in between Olympic games. USA Swimming and US Masters Swimming are trying to attract more people to the sport with a new campaign called SwimToday (slogan: The Funnest Sport), and when Phelps talks, as he does at the end of this ESPN video (lots more nude Phelps there), about how much fun it is to swim, it’s good for all of us.

And yet, when I learned that Michael Phelps was being featured tastefully nude in ESPN The Magazine, my first thought was, Why? Is there any athlete we need naked photos of less than Michael Phelps? We all know what Phelps looks like almost naked. The difference between Michael Phelps in a swimsuit and Michael Phelps with no clothes is very very small: if you squint at any of the ESPN images, you can imagine that he’s posing in a little white speedo.

(If you follow British news, you could argue that we need photos of a naked Tom Daley even less than a naked Michael Phelps. I’m really amused by this Daily Mail article about Daley “posing topless.” He’s topless all the time. He lives his life topless. He’s a diver: they don’t wear clothes.)

My point is, while we might see something new when we see an athlete like Venus Williams or Prince Fielder with no clothes, the swimmer is already naked. It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from David McGlynn’s “Skin,” an essay about bodies and nakedness and what it means to be a swimmer:

[In swimming] there are no shoes, no pads or bats, no accoutrements except for the goggles–nothing, in other words but the body. The swimmer symbolizes an essential athletic truth, that every physical contest begins this way, with the body, and one sport separates from another by the equipment and apparel it heaps onto the arms and legs, the shoulders and back and head. Bareness also keeps swimming obscure. Without jerseys or ball caps to sell in the mall, it’s hard for kids to imitate professional swimmers by dressing like them. The only way to do that is to exchange your clothes for a Speedo and go to the water. The only way to imitate a swimmer, in other words, is actually to swim. (267-68)

Swimming requires very little equipment and almost no clothes; it is sport stripped down. McGlynn states that the nakedness of swimming paradoxically keeps it hidden: you can’t put on an outfit and pose as a swimmer. On Sundays in the fall, I see whole families shopping at Costco kitted out in the uniforms of their favorite players, men, women, and children in varying sizes of the same jersey, “Roethlisberger” or another famous name written across their narrow shoulders. But you can’t put on a swimmer’s uniform. A swimmer has no uniform. A swimmer has a body.

The photos of Michael Phelps in the nude are beautiful, but they are hardly revelatory. Phelps takes off his clothes to swim, each day, every day. That is what swimmers do: not just the top swimmers, but all of us. You “exchange your clothes for a Speedo and go to the water. The only way to imitate a swimmer . . . is actually to swim.”


McGlynn, David. “Skin.” Southwest Review 95 (2010): 262-75.