Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Once a Swimmer Always a Runner

Last night, I jumped into a heated pool in my newly purchased 80s-style exercise swimsuit, slipped a black swimcap over my knotted bun, adjusted a fresh pair of goggles over the bridge of my nose, dunked myself and pushed off the wall. I unfolded into my first underwater pullout, noticing the calm, gentle fingers of the water stroking my arms and legs as I smoothly passed through its welcoming embrace. The last time I swam was three years ago during a triathlon in a cold mountain reservoir in southern China. The experience was so alarmingly unnerving - the chill, the fear of bacteria, the darkness and unknown depth - that I barely noticed not stepping back into a pool for so many years.

I'm a runner, and like most runners, it is the only sport I have ever excelled at. I had a brief stint in field hockey where I was varsity first-string as a freshman. The only reason for this, though, was that during pre-season tryouts, I could outrun the rest of the girls (most of whom didn't train during the summer). I'd just run up and down the field nonstop, enjoying the smell of freshly cut grass, and enjoying my little kilt flapping in the breeze. I also had a moment of success in college when I rowed for the varsity women's lightweight rowing team. I even got a scholarship. Again, I'm sure that this all came about because the coach was flabbergasted when I could run circles around the rest of the team when doing stadiums and hill workouts. The only other sport I spent much time with was swimming, and in this particular physical activity, no amount of running was going to get me anywhere. I was a flopping, water-hating, utter failure.

I was the kid who was always cold in the pool. I hated getting water up my nose. Having to dive into the pool from a block during swim meets brought me as close to paranoid episodes as a ten year-old can get. So many terrible, embarrassing things could happen - losing goggles, swimcaps flying off, bathing suits suddenly folding over and revealing a breast, brushing the floor of the pool, diving too deep and needing to shoot upwards to the skin of the water to gasp for air. No wonder I tended toward the backstroke; we got to start the race in the pool.

Luckily swimteam ended every August, and during the next nine months, I had the opportunity to prove to my parents that I need not swim - I could excel at other sports. I tried basketball, softball, lacrosse, soccer, even ballet. Nothing quite panned out. Defeated, I'd begin swimteam every summer once again, counting the days until it ended.

Realizing I was a runner eventually released me from the pool's grasp. I stayed a runner forever after that. Regardless of whether I was training with a team, living in Shanghai, China or simply doing a few loops around my San Francisco neighborhood.

So it was with trepidation that when I moved to Jerusalem a few weeks ago, I joined a gym focused primarily on its pool. Running is wonderful pretty much anywhere where there isn't traffic or religious zealots nearby. Unfortunately, Jerusalem has both of these problems, and I wasn't interested in taking them on by foot and spandex.  Nervous about swimming again, I made a big deal about buying appropriate and comfortable gear for the experience. I dragged my husband with me to the discount sports store where I spent an hour trying on strange bathing suits and goggles.

And when the time finally came to join the swimmers at Ramat Rachel, it was as if it was something I had always done and will always do. I swam for a half hour straight, enjoying the weightlessness of my body, moving every single muscle and bone that I have, practicing the old flip turns, and controlling my breathing. It was wonderful. I guess all those years of pain in the cold pool at the Westwood Club had some purpose.

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