“He seemed to see, with a cartographer’s eye, that string of swimming pools, that quasi-subterranean stream that curved across the country.” John Cheever’s short story, The Swimmer.
Words and Images by Abigail Smith
I love swimming. I love propelling myself to the bottom of a pool, flipping onto my back, and staring up at the world through a glistening lens, the light streaming down through rippling water and reflecting off my too-tight goggles. There is something surreal about being underwater, where everything is quiet except the bubbles.
I can pretty much map out my life through swimming. As a child, I would spend summer holidays leaping into the pool, trying out my most daring dives and splashing unsuspecting holiday-makers. Any holiday we went on was defined by how much I liked the swimming pool. I couldn’t wait for school swimming lessons, and grew even more excited when a friend had a birthday party at a pool, which meant friction burns from plastic slides, and lukewarm chips to be eaten afterwards. In my mind, there was nothing better.
Then, as I entered my teens, I began swimming competitively. I trained 6 times a week, blearily waking up to get to a 6am training session, and trying to think of convincing lies to miss out a particularly tricky set (yes, my goggles are leaking again, why would you doubt me?) Sundays were spent in the hot, damp confines of leisure centres, waiting hours to race just a few lengths (a special shout-out here goes to my Mum for never missing a single race). I would leave either tired and happy with a new personal best, or disappointed and resentful at a bad swim. Either way, swimming still had that same emotional hold over me.
It was soon after that I discovered synchronised swimming. Combining gymnastics and swimming, it was everything I loved about sport and more; it was artistic, challenging, and a team sport. For the first time, swimming was no longer a solo pursuit; my underwater world had become filled with friends who were relying on me to get my moves exactly right. Synchronised swimming also requires a lot of trust: As one of the smallest members of the team, I was usually on top for the lift; this meant I was literally thrown out of the pool into the air by my teammates. There is a unique camaraderie that comes from being chucked around by your team-mates, trusting them to safely throw you up, while they trust you to avoid landing on them (this is not a sport without bruises).
Synchronised swimming is often unfairly maligned as an easy sport, due to the showmanship it requires. In fact, I have never done anything more physically challenging, nor more nerve-wracking. There is no feeling quite like waiting on the water’s edge, waiting for the music to start so you can dive in, praying your nose clip doesn’t fall off. Although I stopped synchro once I came to university, it will forever be my favourite sport.
This summer, I encountered open water swimming. My only prior experience was when a friend took me swimming in the Cam in mid March. I confidently leapt in, only to be met with a wall of ice; I gasped, unable to catch my breath, as the water seemed only to get colder around me. After managing a few paltry strokes, I pulled myself out, and swore I would steer clear from outdoor swimming as long as I could. However, I then spent my summer in Penzance, Cornwall. Here, there is the famous Jubilee Pool, a theatrical, art-deco lido, filled with freezing sea water. It juts out into the sea, like a beached cruise-liner, painted in shades of white and pastel blue. It is a wonderful place, combining the thrill of sea-swimming with the safety and beauty of swimming in a pool. It is triangular shaped, almost as if to defy you to try and swim lengths. Instead, I paddled around aimlessly, simply staring up at the sky, feeling the salt on my skin, and truly feeling at home.