10 mile swim

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


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On Deep Pools

Last week I went on a quick trip to visit my friend C in D.C. It was a very quick trip — up on Wednesday, back on Friday — so I wasn’t necessarily going to swim. But my friend C knows me, and she loves me, and she told me before I left home, “My pool is three miles from the house. Don’t worry about bringing a towel.”

C understands about towels. When I got there, she gave me a nice stripey one, and the next morning she gave me her pass, and I headed off to the Kennedy Shriver Aquatic Center, where I swam slowly, oh so slowly. I asked a woman who looked as if she were a regular how long the pool was, hoping that it was 25 meters instead of 25 yards, but no — it was 25 yards and I was just slow.

But although I was slow, I had a great time at the Kennedy Shriver pool, and that is because it was a deep pool. I have said before that when you’re swimming, it doesn’t matter how deep the water is; you always swim on the top. But there’s some fun you can only have in a deep pool.

"Montgomery Aquatic Center deep water pool 2" by Ben Schumin - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

So there’s a water polo practice happening in this photo, but you can see: it’s a very deep pool. “Montgomery Aquatic Center deep water pool 2” by Ben Schumin – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Kennedy Shriver pool is set up like the one C and I used to swim in back when we were swim team kids in Dallas: 50 meters divided into two 25 yard halves during the short course season. I, of course, chose to swim in the deeper half — 16 feet deep.

I don’t think I’d been in a pool that deep in thirty years. That depth is not for swimmers; it’s for divers: the Kennedy Shriver pool has 3, 5, 7.5, and 10 meter platforms. Our pool in Dallas has a 5 meter and a 10 meter. I remember getting to jump off the 5 meter once: you hit the water hard.

Here’s a photo of our old pool, emptied out for renovation in 2008. It’s deep.

Alfred J. Loos Pool, from  Dallas ISD 2008 Bond

Alfred J. Loos Pool, photo from Dallas ISD 2008 Bond

Swimming over 16 feet of water of clear water can be disorienting. Maybe it’s reorienting. You feel as if you are up very high, but you can’t fall; you just hang there, looking down, like an astronaut floating over the earth. I was a bit dizzy from it all. I guess that’s why I was so slow.

The best part of swimming in a deep pool, though, is diving in. Last year, Jane Greene Pettersson posted in the Guardian swim blog about “the incredible joy of jumping in.” A swim teacher, Pettersson notes that children jump in the water over and over, but adults rarely do. She tries jumping in herself, after one of her students describes how the water is “fizzy”:

It was a surprising sensation, one that I had almost forgotten. The change from air to water is so sudden. You feel and hear the splash as you enter the water and the noisy pool environment is instantly replaced by the muffled silence of the water. Just as my little pupil pointed out, I could feel the tiny bubbles bursting on my skin, and as I had my goggles on I could also see them sparkling around me.

I like the bubbles too; it’s like being the sugar cube in a champagne cocktail.

Diving in is even better than jumping in. I am not trained as a diver (I went off that 5 m platform once); I can’t do flips or twists. But I was drilled in starting off the block, in the old school flat dive, and I still do it. I love the sudden shock of impact, the jolt as you slice through the surface.

Nine months of the year I can’t dive; my home pool is too shallow. In the summer, though, when the outdoor pool is open, I start every workout by diving in, and I store up the memories of those dives for the long winter ahead. When I swim in a new pool, the first thing I find out is whether diving is permitted. I’ll ask the lifeguard if there’s any question. But I didn’t have to ask anyone if I could dive into the Kennedy Shriver pool: it is a pool for diving.

I don’t see any reason why children should get to have all the fun.

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On Travel Swimming

I love my pool. It’s not perfect. It’s not even close to perfect. But it’s my pool, and, you should be true to your pool, just like you would to your girl or guy.

Nonetheless, sometimes a person needs to go somewhere, and that means travel swimming. I mean, you could take a break from swimming when you travel. But you don’t stop eating just because you leave town, right? They have food in other places. They also have water in other places, and some of it is swimmable.

(I’m not talking about the travel that you do for the purpose of swimming — vacation or holiday swimming. I swam the Great North Swim in Lake Windermere as vacation swimming, although I piggybacked it on a work trip. Closer to home, I recently swam Swim the Loop in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina and made a fall weekend at the beach of it. Those were both great swims, though very different experiences. If I fell into a huge pile of money, I would book myself a trip with SwimVacation or SwimTrek.)

When I travel, I pack a swimsuit, goggles, a cap, a lock, maybe an old pair of flip flops, and my second-best towel. If you’re lucky, there will be a fluffy towel for you where you are going, but you might not be lucky. And you might have to abandon that towel if you need room in your bag on the trip back. So don’t bring your favorite towel (I have a favorite towel. Don’t you?).

As The Hitchhiker's Guide says, "A towel has immense psychological value."

As The Hitchhiker’s Guide says, “A towel has immense psychological value.”

I have swum laps in tiny hotel pools. It’s not much fun, but it’s better than nothing. Some years back I swam laps in this swank little Art Deco pool at the Millennium Biltmore in Los Angeles.

It was hot and nearly impossible to flip turn, but I bravely preserved.

With some preparation, you can find more swimmable pools. The best resource I know is Swimmers Guide. I have used it to find pools in the UK, Ireland, and all over the US. It’s easy to navigate and has reliable information.

It’s never a bad idea to check with the locals as well. I was staying at a hotel in Kalamazoo, Michigan and was prepared to truck across town to a public pool; the people at the hotel let me know that I could swim at a health club associated with the local hospital system just across the street.

What you’re looking for is a pool that will let you pay for one swim or buy a short-term pass. Some places that’s easier than others. Don’t neglect to check websites about the possibility of getting a free day pass. I don’t mind paying to swim, but there are private centers that admit members only, and it’s not possible to pay for one day.

You never know what you’ll find at a new pool. Sometimes they come in interesting lengths: the Stratford Leisure Centre pool in England is 33 1/3 meters, while Deep Eddy Pool in Austin, Texas is 33 1/3 yards. The first is indoors and warm (in my experience); the second is outside and 68° F all year round. Sometimes pools come with interesting people — or features. I swam at the Buckhead YMCA in Atlanta over Thanksgiving; the locker room was full of old women speaking Russian. The health club in Kalamazoo? There were signs in that locker room saying “Forget something?” and noting that you could buy underwear at the desk. I still think about the brilliance of that scheme: everybody forgets their underwear sometime, and when I do, I wish I were in Kalamazoo.

But while each pool is different, swimming is reassuringly the same. Travel is disorienting. Maybe you’re in some weird place with some weird people (they might be your own relatives). Maybe you’re jet-lagged. But you jump in a pool. The water is wet. You know what you’re doing. It doesn’t matter where you are; you are yourself again.