The Swimmer

The man was there again today. He comes in the mid-morning when the gym and the pool are quiet. He’s gaunt, balding, and confined to a wheelchair. He may be my age or a few years older–it’s hard to tell. I’ve never heard him speak. He arrives with a young male caregiver who knows exactly what to do without any prompting from his client.

The man wears a vest that hugs his upper body, and the caregiver assists him with pulling protective sleeves onto his forearms and working his hands into webbed gloves. He uses a walker to ease himself from the wheelchair into the lift beside the pool which lowers him down into the water. He closes his eyes for a few minutes as his body adjusts to a pool warmed enough to keep the water aerobics crowd happy. His caregiver gets into the pool with him, and the man begins to swim.

Up and down the lane he goes, flat on his back. He lifts both arms high up into the air at the same time, spreads them the width of the lane and propels himself through the water, with, I suspect, little use of his legs. The young caregiver walks along on each lap but doesn’t appear to be assisting him. He’s just there as a sort of spotter. The man occasionally stops and rests at the ladder at the far end of the pool, but for the most part, swims continuously.

It is beautiful to watch. The man’s powerful arms move at the exact rhythm on each lap. Swimming in the adjacent lane, I find myself slowing down my own pace. Raucous splashing and kicking to hurry and finish my laps seems almost impolite. This man commands as much respect in the pool as the most talented of the young athletes who practice here in the late afternoon. He moves quietly and almost effortlessly through the water, although I cannot fathom the upper body strength it must require to swim that way. I’m not sure I could swim the stroke that he uses even with having the ability to kick. For a sixty-something, I am a strong swimmer, and the man often keeps up with me, using only his arms.

Today, another swimmer got into the pool and was about to swim in the same lane as the man and his caregiver. I leaned over and asked this person to share with me because I didn’t want anything to disturb or interrupt them. That lane was a sacred space that needed to be protected.

As I was leaving, I glanced over at the pool and the man was still swimming. His arms cut through the water like the wings of a giant raptor soaring through the sky, savoring the freedom of movement.

Pool Days

Welcome to the adult pool. A few of us long-time lap swimmers have become the self-appointed standing committee, the arbiters of pool ethics and acceptable behavior. We want to make sure everyone is familiar with the rules and offer a few insights on the best way to enjoy the pool.

First of all, you need to be old to swim here. The sign says, “over 18” and most of us are way past that. We’re happy to no longer be sitting vigil at the big family pool, making sure a child’s head is above the water or dragging screaming toddlers out to use the bathroom. But admission to the rarefied atmosphere of the adult pool comes with its own set of responsibilities.

The chairs stored on the wooden racks belong to members, and we do not look kindly on weekend guests who help themselves to one of our chairs, thinking they’re provided by the pool management. And while we’re speaking of chairs, the pool is like church where woe be to the person who unknowingly sits in the wrong pew. Lap swimmers are very territorial about their space at the one end of the pool. Cocktail party swimmers, those who come to the pool to socialize, (Don’t get me wrong, we love you, too.) usually gather along the sides or in the patio area at the far end. You need to decide if you’re a Swimmer or a Socializer and set up your chair accordingly. Umbrellas are in high demand and it is highly frowned upon to move an umbrella, or, as apparently happened recently, take one home with you.

Now, a word about the lanes. Several years ago, a sign-up system had to be instituted  due to (seriously) fights and arguments breaking out about people hogging the lap lanes. (Yes, this is an adult pool.) Some individuals would paddle for hours in a lane or there would be a secret relay system where as soon as one person finished, they would allow one of their friends to slide into the lane regardless of how long others were waiting. It was ugly.

We now have four lanes, two of which may be reserved for a half-hour of swimming alone and two which are “open” but you may have to share with another swimmer. For the most part, the violence has subsided. However, it is not appropriate to give a swimmer the stink-eye because you’re waiting for a lane and you refuse to share the open lanes or insist on always using the lane beside the wall. And if you’re wearing a visor and sunglasses and trying not to get your perfectly-coiffed hair wet—umm, sorry, but you don’t belong in a lap lane. Lap lanes are for swimming back and forth, not standing at one end to chat or practice water aerobics.

A few years ago, a sort of lagoon area was built at one entrance to the pool, with inflatable palm trees and Adirondack chairs in ankle-deep water. Recently a lap swimmer made the mistake of sitting in one of these chairs while waiting for a lane to open and was immediately told that chair was “reserved.” No one appeared to be making a beeline for that chair for at least the next hour, but regardless, lesson learned. The Adirondack chair folks also do not appreciate other swimmers using that entrance to access the pool and interrupting their conversations.

Insider tip—one of the best times to come to the adult pool is when it first opens in the morning (although the chlorine is strong) or in the late afternoon and early evening. You don’t have to walk a mile across the steaming parking lot, the French-fryers have been dialed down so you’re not breathing in greasy air as you swim and it’s not as hot and crowded. And you may see something in the off-hours that makes up for all the craziness.

Last week, one of my fellow lap-swimmers (affectionately known as “the mayor,” always willing to fish out the errant frog or mouse who strays into the pool) brought his elderly mother out for an evening swim. I hadn’t seen her in years and I remember her as a strong swimmer, cutting through the water in her striped seer-sucker bathing suit. She is now frail and bent over and clung fiercely to my friend’s arm as she shuffled along the pool deck. I thought perhaps they would just sit at the edge while she dangled her feet in the water to cool off.

But, no. He and another one of the lap swimmers got a giant innertube and gently, gently walked his mother down the steps into the water, (the Adirondack chairs were mercifully vacant)  and eased her withered body onto the float. Up and down the lanes they went. His mother laid her head against the plastic ring and closed her eyes while her son and the other swimmer pulled her through the water. For a half hour. Her feet, which barely moved on dry land, were kicking the whole time. Muscle memory, I suppose. But it was beautiful to watch and although this woman seldom speaks anymore, you could tell being in the water brought her comfort. For a brief time, she was back in her seersucker suit, swimming laps.

Welcome to the adult pool.