Monday, August 14, 2006


If, as your body twists in the water, you turn your head too far, you will slow down. If you turn it less than is necessary, the water will fail to clear your airway, and you will drown. If you take too many breaths in the length of the pool, you will slow down. If you take too few your muscles will find themselves without oxygen and you will slow down, or, you will drown.

It all operates along a very fine line.

The pool is fifty meters long. The fastest swimmers can cross this in about twenty or twenty-one seconds. In dead-out sprint, as in, the fifty-meter freestyle, even less. This is not just because they can give their absolute all in this situation, retaining no reserves for even a return trip, but because there is no turn required they need not convert the energy from their forward motion into the complex somersault required to change direction.

Changing direction slows you down. This is true in everything I know. Though kicking off the end of the pool speeds you up. Maximizing the use of mechanical advantage has allowed the human race to prosper.

I am shivering. I sit on a tile bench near the windows wanting the sunlight which floats through to warm me but it is either insufficient at this moment or I am chilled beyond redemption. It doesn't matter. I have tried to dry off and I have put sweats on, big gray old sweats instead of the blue and yellow warm-up suits that do not warm me up, especially when my crotch is wrapped in wet spandex and all of my caloric intake has been expended in the three races I have swum. Coach V. has placed a towel round my neck and two giant size Cadbury Fruit and Nut bars, my favorites, on the tile next to me and has spoken positive things, but none of that has helped either. I am cold. I am tired. I have no particular appetite. In the 4x200 relay that is coming up I am, right now, quite sure that I will drown. In the back of my eye I see this happening seventeen meters into my second return trip.

I will not make it back to the wall to touch. Johnny will not get to swim his anchor leg. He will either be angry, or be bitterly disappointed, or he will leap into the water, forfeiting the race by false start, and try to save me. I am not sure which. Without warning a phantom newspaper leaps into my vision, falling with a hallucinatory thud on the damp tile by my feet. "Swimmer Sweeps Championships, Drowns," a headline screams in the elegant Bodoni font of mid-twentieth century journalism. The newspaper is one that has ceased to exist decades before though I cannot tell if it is from here or somewhere far away.

Of course Coach V. has said positive things to me. I have won both my individual events and blew away the field on my leg of the 4x100. He wants one more star turn out of me today. So he is nice. If I were to help win the next one, or if I were to blow it, will not matter. He will have no reason to be positive an hour from now. Though I think he will be forced to be at least pleasant during the TV interview when I drown.

"He wasn't the brightest kid," he will say, "and he sure caused me grief," I imagine him giving just the hint of a chuckle here, "but put him in the pool and point him the right way and he was fast." It won't be much, but it will be the best Coach V. is capable of and I should be appreciative.

It is hard to say whether timing or angle is more important when you start. Getting off just as the gun sounds is vital but if your angle is too steep you slow down on the path of too deep a curve, something related to both physics and calculus, which are subjects that lie outside my realm of knowledge. If your angle is too shallow you will slow down in the friction of the rough water by the surface. There are so many ways to slow down and so few that will keep you moving at top speed.

Outside the window people are moving along a broad walkway of the kind that suggests a university campus. They are smart and beautiful people, dressed as if it is significantly warmer than it is. They are engaged in intense conversation, or stare with determination, or they glide by with the pride of those sure about their future.

I would prefer to walk more slowly. I would prefer to swim more slowly. I believe that by moving too fast I am shortening my life, though this would probably seem counter-intuitive to most. The best swimming in the world, for me, is a slow paddle off of a beloved shore. Parallel to the sand at Long Beach, from the Forty Foot down to Killiney, in the icy chop beyond Portstewart. No somersault turns either. As I approach the end of my path through the sea, I drift instead into a dead man's float, the sun on my back, the world essentially silent, my vision nothing but murky green streaked with light. This is the way I like water.

The race begins in thirty-six minutes. And despite all of my intentions, I am waiting.

copyright 2004-2006 by Ira Socol
image is from "how to turn"


Brenda said...

This is a manual on how to win, on a relationship with a coach, what goes on in a swimmer's mind before a race, on careful techniques, psychological readiness, and it is full of unbearable tension. Ready to drown, huh. Through it all you have this ongoing stream on being or not being... each strand of the theme somehow remaining untangled. It's an amazing piece of writing. I hope he won the race.

Anonymous said...

I like how it's prefaced by saying that at every level, turning burns time and energy, and kicking off is the same as all of human ingenuity. It makes the rest of the piece about everything it possibly could be about.


Fromage de Merde said...

I never learned how to swim, too damn cold where I grew up. Now a serious dogpaddler when I do venture into water. Got breaststroke envy. Knew a woman that could swan dive off a barstool. Gave her mouth to mouth when she drank too much.