When I was a child the locker rooms at the outdoor pool in my town were open to the air so that, we imagined, the occasional balloonist or low flying plane looking down could see us all changing in and out of our swimsuits. I was five or seven or nine and didn’t care or know to care, and neither did the old hippie ladies who walked around stark naked with sagging breasts and mounds of pubic hair. This was the early 80s, so they weren’t very old hippie ladies; they just seemed old to me, and certainly they were older than the teenagers who shrieked and wore bikinis and never seemed to get in the water.
I did not learn to swim until I was seven, at a camp in Maine far away from Iowa, in a cold clear sand bottomed lake, so my early experiences of the pool were just of splashing around in the shallow end. You’d go and put your clothes in a wire basket with a number on it, and they’d give you a pin with the same number that you’d pin to your swimsuit and use to retrieve your belongings when you were done swimming. The walls of the locker rooms were painted cement blocks, and the shower area was just a big communal square.
Later in my childhood the place was remodeled, and they put on a roof, and actual lockers, and some private stalls, but I’m grateful for that early experience of the open air and of seeing everyone’s bodies and knowing from an early age that swimming was not just a pleasure for the fit and thin.
These days I swim laps at the rec center in the city where I work, across the street from the junior high I would have gone to had I lived here in junior high, where one of my high school classmates now teaches. I swam many laps there while I was pregnant, as the water was the only place I felt good. Around seven or eight months the nurse midwives told me to go do handstands in the pool to flip my baby, who was breech. I’ve never known if handstands in the pool actually does anything to flip a baby or if it’s just something you tell pregnant women to do so they can feel they are doing something. At any rate, I’d waddle in my maternity suit under the panicked eye of the teenage lifeguard, who clearly thought I might be about to give birth at any moment. I’d get in the water and feel better again, immediately lithe and strong and all the things I didn’t feel on land. I’d swim down to the shallow end, do a few handstands, swim back, and repeat the whole exercise.
Junior high students all have to complete a swimming PE unit, and they walk across the street and huddle in the locker room, equally self-conscious about their own young bodies and somewhat frightened at the bodies of the rest of us in the locker room, where most of the other women are even older than I am. I used to be self-conscious around them, too, till I thought about the old hippie ladies of my youth and decided I was going to be one of them, too.
I am not a fast or particularly good swimmer. I do a lap of crawl and then a lap of breast stroke and then back to crawl, and most of the time when I swim crawl I don’t bother to kick. I’m not sure, therefore, how much exercise I actually get from swimming, but I think of it less as exercise and more as a meditation. It forces me to regulate my breathing, in and out in time with my arms and legs, and it forces me over the same ground again and again. I don’t wear my glasses when I swim, so all I can make out is the giant black line marking the lane of the pool, and even that is fuzzy and far away. The sounds around me fade away and I’m just a machine that swims back and forth and breathes. I don’t worry that the swimmers around me are faster (they usually are) or that the life guards are fitter (they always are). I just swim.
The pool where I swim now is also used for high school swim meets, and there’s a giant board with the record holders for each stroke and length, or however they divide up the races at swim meets. Until just a summer ago, two of those spots were held by a guy I went to grade school with and am friends with on Facebook now, and it always pleased me to see that his record still stood twenty years later. Last summer, though, his name came down, replaced by a new one. I was there the day a guy was painting over the sign. When I got out of the water I went over to him and said, “Hey, I knew the guy who’s name your painting over.” “Huh,” he said, not caring, because this was just his summer job, and he didn’t want to talk to middle aged women who’d just gotten out of swimming pools.
Now I know none of the names on the board, but I go back again and again, making my own sort of record, knowing that I am proud of my body as it swims, and no one can take that away from me.