The best part of being underwater is the quiet. Slip your head under, out of sight, float down here with me and listen to nothing. Jet planes, subwoofers, idiots playing water basketball, testosterone, everything fades.
Camp Lemonnier is loud. There’s always some noise: the rattle of air conditioners, jet fighters taking off to waste some couple at their wedding, people holding important discussions about PowerPoint slides. Everyone’s ears are atrophied through exposure to violence so the noise just spirals upwards and outwards. Replace the chatter with music, podcasts, go ahead, it’s still noise.
Swim til you want to die, then do it again.
Swim meets are loud. A lot of yelling, a lot of cheering. Have to compensate for the whole heads being in the water thing. You really only hear the roar when you breathe. Breaststroke is good for this. So is butterfly. Bullfrog whoops, high pitched screams. A nation of millions willing you to go!-
And then there’s the wall, and the turn, and now you’re back underwater, where it’s quiet. Just your heartbeat down there. Then you surface, because you have to breathe.
Everyone’s still there, that’s good. Thank god. I missed ya’ll.
I stopped swimming after high school. Didn’t want to even touch a pool for a long time. Didn’t see the point. I couldn’t turn off my obsessive need to make my time in the pool worth the time spent in the pool. It turns out thirteen years of counting will warp your mind. I couldn’t step up or step down, so I stepped out. Kudos to everyone who kept going.
I wasn’t a very competitive kid. Felt myself above it, probably; you get that a lot from smart kids who aren’t very confident. Humor as a shield, downplaying your intelligence, not wanting to put yourself out there because that’s where you get hurt. Maybe that’s why I stuck with swimming: I didn’t have to be competitive with people to be good. I just had to be competitive with myself and coolly watch the rest of the pieces fall in place. Nobody else mattered as long as I made my goals. Other people were useful points of contrast, measuring sticks, AI ghosts in a racing game. Helpful, but optional. I was a warrior-monk, endlessly cycling the same 25-yard prison, trying to reach nirvana. Conquer yourself to conquer the universe.
You can always hear your own breathing when you’re swimming. It’s a horrible noise: desperate and violent.
I’ll swim 10 miles this week, if I’m lucky, because that’s how distance is measured out here. Meters and miles, a beautiful duo. 40 more miles after that and I get a t-shirt. A workout with a reward, some peace and quiet, you have to ask: why did I ever leave the pool?
My physical decay was inevitable, maybe, probably not. Never really was a prize in my skinnier days though. You ever look at swimmers? Even at the high school level, there are a lot of sleek, T-shaped tallboys out there. Then there was me: five eight, kinda round, ill-defined. It was a fun visual, having all of us lined up in a row. A good reminder, too, that form doesn’t always fit function. Check out these curves y'all. On land, that’s on land. In here, in the pool, something else happens. Man returns to the sea.
Here’s a set I still remember from my old club days, when I was briefly doing two-a-days and swimming seven thousand yards, easy, a practice. Back when I was an athlete, which feels preposterous to call a 13-year-old. Swimmers, I feel, swap tales of masochism more than any other pursuit. Something to do with the standardization of pools, the homes of our greatest triumphs and suffering. There’s a precise mathematical pain to a set, something you can feel in your arms and legs and lungs just by reading it. Speed divides us, but the pain inflicted on us by coaches unites us.
We used to wear tights and two layers of suits for resistance training. I’m sure there were teams that trained with t-shirts and pants and parachutes. There’s always another layer of insanity to reach.
Oh right, the set:
5 x 1000 on 15:00.00
It felt comical at the time. It feels comical now. Not that it was particularly challenging, physically, but mentally, well, what a gorgeously simple set. Swim til you’re bored, then do it again.
I’m going to ensure my mythical future kids can swim, but I don’t know if they’ll gravitate to it the same way I did. I can only hope that they too will know the difference between chlorine and bromine by smell, and that they too will be too dumb and prideful to quit practice when their goggles fail and that they then won’t be able to see during dinner because their eyes are burning too much from the chlorine. I can only hope that they will angrily allow themselves to be dragged to practice everyday, even Saturdays. I can only hope that they will be one day described as "solid" and "coachable." I can only hope.
If you don’t pee in the pool, I’m forced to assume you’re trying to skip out on the set.
Finals time. 100 fly. Top 8. We get to walk out to music. Nice. This is why I started swimming all those years ago. They’re playing that Jimmy Eat World song about suicide. Double nice. I’m pumped up now. Suicide sucks, bro, don't do it. I got on my faux fur parka and a borrowed leg-length FastSkin, feeling simultaneously very snuggly and very lethal. I should crop the bungee cords on my goggles, but I like the way they dangle. Makes me feel like a Protoss zealot. No cap for me, no sir. Don’t like the way it throws off the balance of my head, or how it squeezes my scalp. Shaved my head instead. I cut my legs shaving those too. Does it have an effect? Head yes, legs no, but it’s the ritual and rituals are important. Made it to my block. Lots of slapping and stretching. Everyone has their own bit of choreo. Some people jump up and down, but I don’t bother. I’m afraid of slipping and falling, amusingly. Just a lot of shaking and wriggling instead. Mr. Announcer revs his engine, lists names, affiliations. Big cheers, lots of love. Long whistle blows. Swimmers, please step up. Onto the block we go, and we’re now the tallest people in the room.
Absolute silence, inside and out.
Breathe deep. Breathe in. Breathe out.
Take your mark.