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I learned to swim as a child, but I never really liked to swim. What I loved was the water itself. In my 20s, I would go down to the beach at my family’s cottage on Lake Michigan after everyone else had come up. I’d dolphin through the water or just spin around, my hands skimming the surface. When I was pregnant, I proudly wore a bikini and floated in the lake, my belly a great white buoy, the water below holding me up, the way I’d soon be holding my baby. After my children were born, I’d hand an infant to my mother or a cousin or an aunt, run down to the water and steal a dive.
A few years later, a new friend invited me and my children to her swim club. I bobbed up and down in the shallow end with my water-winged 3-year-old while keeping one eye on my dog-paddling 6-year-old until a whistle blew and all the children scampered out. “Adult swim,” my friend explained. She sent her little one to the kiddie pool and her big one to the snack bar. I did the same with mine and was left with a lane in the pool and 15 minutes all to myself.
As I got into the rhythm, gliding just below the surface of the water, up for air, gliding again, up for air, gliding, I felt my heartbeat steady and my breathing even out and my mind go nicely blank. Then the whistle blew again, and children cannonballed into the pool. We had two more “adult swims” that afternoon. So what if my children had two Popsicles, two ice cream sandwiches and a hot pretzel between them? I had discovered a way to be alone in the water for 15 minutes every hour, a way to empty my mind of everything but my breath.
Two years later I am still swimming five days a week. I have swum in a wide river in Maine, the Atlantic Ocean, the Puget Sound, the Strait of Georgia off British Columbia and the Humboldt Current that runs through the Galapagos Islands. Yesterday I swam across a glacial lake off Washington state.
Swimming connected me to myself as a pregnant woman, full of possibility, and to myself as a new mother, fearful of never having freedom in the water, or anywhere else, ever again. And because I know it is something I will do as long as I am physically able, swimming connects me to my body as I get older. Most important, swimming brings me the present moment, giving me the feeling again and again of being truly in my body, relaxed and whole.
Today, when I get out of the lake my son asks me, “How many strokes?”
“Nine hundred and forty-five,” I answer.
I don’t know which is better—the loose feeling in my legs and arms, or the smile my 8-year-old son beams up at me as I emerge from the water.