Some mornings, I’m the only one in the water. Other days, I’m joined by two other men who, like me, have been doing it for too long to quit. A high school team, a university team, masters teams in three states. During the depths of winter, when sub-zero temperatures make my car difficult to start, habit is perhaps the only force strong enough to move me from my bed and through snowy dark to the pool. Each morning, from 5:30 to 7, I’m in the water. My knees creak in ways they never used to, especially when swimming breaststroke. If I push myself too hard, my shoulders ache for days. One morning, one of the guys in my lane felt his shoulder pop mid-stroke. He’d torn his longhead tendon, connecting his bicep to his shoulder, an injury that would require surgery and months of physical therapy. Rather than stop swimming, he let his injured arm hang limp and swam with the other. Only to a non-swimmer would this sound ridiculous.
Were I to lose my legs, I’d ask the lifeguard to wheel me to the side of the pool and dump me in. I’ve even tried to see how far I can swim with my eyes closed, in the event that I suddenly lose my eyesight—if I count my strokes correctly, I can make the flip turn without missing the wall. What is it about the water that keeps us coming back? What so entices us that we’ll offer up our shoulders and knees, not to mention sleep, a cup of coffee while we read the news, morning sex with our spouses?
The monotony and isolation that novice swimmers find so boring, and sometimes try to mitigate with goofy waterproof mp3 players clipped to their goggles, is the aspect of swimming I like best. When I was a junior in college, an English professor played a recording of Robert Lowell reading “Memories of West Street and Lepke.” I walked from the lecture hall to the pool, and two hours later, when I climbed out, I had the entire poem memorized. I can still recite every word. The water is like that: The z-axis that joins memory with imagination. Underwater, I only really see the tiled line along the bottom, only hear the water’s slosh and gurgle. Literary critic and swimming enthusiast Willard Spiegelman writes, “The swimmer becomes part of the element that supports him, part of an ever-changing geometry through which he slices and which then corrects itself as he moves past. The human body is 70 percent water: swimming returns us to ourselves.” Whenever I’m in the pool, I find myself reliving races, remembering friends, laughing at old jokes—alone in the water but surrounded by time.
One of my best races could hardly be called a race at all. I was a senior in high school, gunning to qualify for the USA Junior Nationals. Qualifying times are the benchmarks for college scholarships. The previous summer I’d missed the cut by less than a second in the mile, and just the day before, at the regional meet, I’d come within three-tenths of a second in the 500-yard freestyle—a third of a second in a four-and-a-half-minute swim. The next day, Sunday, I drove to the far side of Houston where a time trial was being held—an informal, unadvertised event thrown together at the last minute. The only races swum were those that swimmers requested; most were short, flapping sprints in which the contestants wanted to shave off a few hundredths of a second. I didn’t have the courage to face the mile. Since I’d struck out in the 500 the day before, I decided to swim the 1,000-yard freestyle—40 lengths of pool. It was a race I’d swum fast enough to believe that given the right circumstances—cold water, an aggressive heat, an energetic meet—I could make the cut. There was no concession stand, no heat sheet. The overhead lights were left off. Two officials and a timekeeper verified the results. If you were lucky, there would be other swimmers in your same event, someone to race against. I was not so lucky.
The top three finishers will hang around to collect their medals, while the other five—the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth fastest swimmers in the world—will leave the pool with no greater prize than their team warm-ups.
By the time I mounted the starting block, I was practically the only one in the natatorium. I needed to drop 15 seconds in order to qualify. I stood behind the block yawning, listening to water trickle into the gutters. The starter spoke through the microphone even though it was just the two of us. He said, “Take your marks,” in the plural. I bent, gripped the block, and the horn sounded. I was angry and disheartened at having missed the cut the day before. So I didn’t dream, I didn’t think. I swam. I sang George Harrison’s “Give Me Love”—I’d heard it in the car on the way down—and listened to water flood my ears, and felt my triceps stretch when I rolled, felt the seams between my fingers trap and move the water. I followed the tiled line along the bottom and I breathed in and out.
About 600 yards in, my coach started to pace. He walked back and forth at the end of the pool, two or three small steps when I swam by him. Then he went farther. Soon he was traveling the entire length of the deck, waving his clipboard and whistling. I stayed steady on, not about to get my hopes up. Then a boy from a rival high school, whom I hardly knew, climbed down from the bleachers and started to cheer. He squatted low to the water and pointed his finger toward the end of the pool, as if to say, that’s where you’re going, now hurry up. I thought, if he’s cheering, maybe I’m close.
I had spent more than a year training for this one swim. When it was finished the world would be no different. The swim was mine alone. But it mattered because it was the task before me now, the thing I wanted now. Swimming is a constant choice between the now and the later: exhaustion now, fitness later; all those Friday nights spent in the water in pursuit of an end that was always one step farther. But I was out of laters. This was the end, and I made my choice. I tucked my chin and cleared my nose. I cashed in the energy I’d kept reserved for the final dash to the wall as well as the energy I’d set aside for climbing out of the pool and unfolding my towel and tying my shoes. I’ve never sprinted harder in my life. I hit the wall and immediately barfed into the gutter. I knew by instinct, by the spasm of my muscles and the ache in my bones, before I turned toward the clock or heard my coach scream, that I’d made it.
Every four years, swimming emerges from its obscure den to stand beneath the bright lights of the world’s attention. For years, I tuned into the Olympics with a mixture of excitement and envy. Not only did I know the names of all the American swimmers, I’d raced against most of them, and as exciting as it was to see someone I knew—someone I had, once upon a time, gotten the better of—ascend to the pantheon of the sport, it was also painful to think about my own dreams.
But these days I’m free to watch the Games with nothing more than nostalgia. And while the sportscasters are busy parsing the odds of whether or not Michael Phelps will beat Ryan Lochte, or vice versa, I’m more drawn to the other swimmers in the race. The men and women whose names don’t incite thunderous applause. Who parade from the ready room to the deck with their heads pointed down, as if refusing to acknowledge that this short moment of pageantry is their reward for all those years of shoulder-tearing, skin-chapping, sleep-depriving, holiday-wrecking time in the water. Because it is. This is it. When it’s over, the race will be forgotten. The top three finishers will hang around to collect their medals, while the other five—the fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth fastest swimmers in the world—will leave the pool with no greater prize than their team warm-ups. Quite literally, the clothes on their backs. Michael Mandelbaum writes in The Meaning of Sports: “[T]he most successful team sports, groups selected purely on merit and drawn from different regions, different age groups (when the coaches are included), and different ethnic and racial backgrounds who cooperate for the successful achievement of a common goal, symbolize one of the highest American social ideals, which is expressed in the national motto: e pluribus unum.” But perhaps swimming symbolizes just the opposite: the importance of impractical ambitions of benefit to no one but ourselves. The fact that we’re not always ensconced within our group identities, not always defined by where we live or went to school or who we voted for. The possibility of setting out on our own for the distant shore, powered by nothing more than our bodies and our wits, islands of one.
This past Monday, I met my regular crowd at the pool at 5:30. The sun is just cresting the horizon. The lifeguard sweeps the leaves from the water’s surface and the sleepy teenagers on the club team rub their eyes and complain as they unspool the lane ropes. Scott and Peter say good morning but none of us waste much time talking. Talking is one thing we’re not here to do. We rinse our goggles, swing our arms around to loosen our shoulders, and dive in. Only at the end of the hour, after we’ve logged our yardage, does Peter finally bring it up. “So, did you guys see that 400 IM?” he asks. He means: Did you see Michael Phelps lose?
We nod, look down the lanes toward the far side of the pool. We’ve all been there, losing big—though, of course, never that big. Knowing Phelps is mortal makes me love him all the more.
“I thought he’d win it one last time,” Scott says. “At least medal.”
“Sooner or later, the magic runs out,” Peter says. “Happened to all of us.”
The difference between making it to the wall and coming up short is simply a matter of denying my instinct to breathe.
More nods, this time accompanied by assenting grumbles. I say, “You see how far those guys went underwater? All those dolphin kicks off the wall? Impressive.”
Scott turns to me, “You think you can swim 50 meters underwater? No breath?”
“Let’s see,” I say. I lower my goggles, suck in a few deep breaths, and say “I’ll be right back” before I slip beneath the water. The world goes silent. I glide until I feel my momentum slow, and then I start to pull, both hands making wide S’s as they pass my chest and stomach. Six pulls, I’m at the turn. I spin around. I feel my stomach tighten, but not enough to make me hurry. In fact, I feel better than I expected, so when I hit the 50-meter wall, I spin around again and head back down. Now the difference between making it to the wall and coming up short is simply a matter of denying my instinct to breathe. That I’m able to deny myself such a primal instinct for so long is one of my sport’s lasting legacies in me. I come up gasping, dizzy. “Good one!” Peter calls out.
“Your turn,” I call back.
“I’ll give it a shot,” Scott says. Scott’s in his mid-50s, bald on top, but still lean and strong. He’s swum almost every day for 45 years. He stands tall in the water and starts sucking in air, big gulping breaths that cause his ribs to retract against his lungs, his diaphragm to press down into his stomach. If there’s one thing swimmers have in abundance, it’s lung capacity. Scott goes under silently. The water barely ripples at the first turn. I wonder if he’ll quit at the 50-meter wall, but he turns and keeps going, one long silent underwater pull after another. “He’s going to make it,” I say. Peter nods.
We see Scott hit the wall at 75 meters, but we don’t see him come up. I look underwater and see, incredibly, Scott starting on his fourth length. “I’ve never seen anyone go this far,” Peter says. “Crazy.”
Two pulls and Scott’s head surfaces. He’s just past 80 meters. He comes up hollering. “That felt great,” he says. “I’ve still got it.”
“Amazing,” Peter says.
“You son of a bitch.”
“You think you can go farther?” Scott says, grinning.
“Man,” I say, rubbing my goggles clean, “I can always go farther. As long as you’re here, I’m not leaving.”