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by Lo Knapp

July 19, 2000

Hard swimming quiets the chatter in her head

I just spent two days interviewing applicants for admission into an academic program, which included a group interview. One interviewer asked the applicants, "What do you like best about yourself"? For the most part, we received introspective answers: the applicant felt he or she was non-judgmental, or focused, or determined.

Afterward, I wondered what I would say if the question had been asked of me. I pondered certain personality characteristics, which all seemed to possess positive—but also negative—attributes. Then, I realized the answer: my ability to swim. No, it's not a personality characteristic, but it does encompass much that I do like about my personality.

I like my ability to swim on several very different levels. First, I just like the feeling of being in the water. I like pushing off the wall, tight and streamlined, feeling the efficiency and speed. I also like to lie on the bottom of the pool—in the quiet—and blow "smoke rings" of bubbles and watch them dissipate as they rise to the surface. I delight in swimming in the outdoor long course pool when the water is smooth and I can see the shadows of my body and of the flying drops of water.

When I lived in the Caribbean, I would take a "sea bath" after work and float, vertically, with my head down and my nose plugged. The water had such a high salinity that my legs would be protruding from the water at mid-calf. I enjoyed the quiet stillness with the addition of fishes and palm trees on the beach and clouds turning pink from the tropical sunset if I looked toward my feet-through the water to the sky.

I like the challenge of swimming. My coach will give me a set with intervals so fast and pacing so crucial that I am unsure whether I am capable of making it. Or, he'll give me a substantial set at the end of a long practice when I am anticipating a few sprints.

I start negotiating with myself—an odd concept. Will I fully accept the challenge or do half the set? Do I make excuses for myself? (I'm do for a rest day... I haven't gotten enough sleep...) There is a battle that happens, and I am not sure if it takes place in my brain or in my muscles or in my lungs.

To complete the set on the required intervals gives me incredible satisfaction. Perhaps I feel this way because it's so definitive, not like wondering if my student appreciated the organization of my lecture or if my patient really got better because of my intervention. It is also so "here and now." It is one of the few times when the chatter in my head is quiet; usually, I am thinking about what I need to get done that day, who I need to call, books I need to remember to bring home.

When I am swimming hard and I see someone next to me who I believe is slower than me, the same negotiation takes place. Can I go faster? Maybe they are just having a superhuman workout. Then I start trying even harder, and I feel like all competitive swimmers do as my feet start feeling numb and as there isn't enough pull in my diaphragm to get air into my body.

But when I finish, I am so completely satisfied. I accomplished something. I pushed myself, mentally and physically, maximally. I have to think for five seconds to recall what day it is. And that is such the essence of swimming for me—to feel the water, to be completely and totally challenged.

I return to work with my hair wet, and a colleague will remark, "Oh, did you go swimming?" I did—and more: I also did what I like best about myself.

Originally published in Swim magazine, May-June 1998