Aug 162020

Occasionally in the past, I’ve had vague disturbing thoughts of reaching such an advanced age that I’d be sent to an elder care center where swimming would no longer be available to me. What would life be like, I wondered? Would I feel tired all the time, lose the will to go on? Months later, I found myself out of the water at age 57 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

We’d returned from our Mexico residence (where I could swim daily in the Sea of Cortez) to our Tucson home (where every public pool was closed). Ironically, we’d recently moved from a house that had a backyard pool to a home without a pool since dealing with all that maintenance seemed unnecessary when we could go to local pools or our beach place to swim any time.

I tried running and continued yoga and soon found myself feeling anxious, creaky in the joints, and depressed. I felt uncoordinated and incompetent running and most of the time more exhausted than refreshed afterward. I dreamed of swimming every night and fantasized about rushing back down to Mexico where seawater was readily available. But it wasn’t what my husband, my mother, or my nurse daughter wanted me to do.

My mood plummeted day by day. Finally, I called my ex-husband and begged him to let me swim in his backyard pool. We are on reasonably good terms most of the time and he kindly agreed. I got in the car right away to rush over. I didn’t care that it was 50 degrees or would only be 8 strokes to the other end. I’d soon be suspended in water and have a chance to feel like myself again.

The swim, despite it’s limitations, was a wonderful experience. I wept I was so grateful to swim. And I went back again and again, buying him pool chemicals and foods I knew he liked to show how much I appreciated his generosity.

It’s an odd phenomenon-recognizing you’re so dependent on water. I’ve known it for years but never so profoundly as during this pandemic. Maybe I was supposed to be a dolphin. And there was some kind of miscommunication between the divine powers that be and I ended up human. I’m not designed to move on land and I crave water submersion like some people crave chocolate.  I simply feel like I’m missing part of myself when I’m away from water for long.

During that nearly two month stint we spent in Tucson from March 25 to May 15, my husband and I once drove two hours to Parker Canyon Lake. It felt amazing to swim continuously again, not reaching the other end just when I’d started to take a stroke. But it was a long drive and my husband didn’t want to swim. I never went again because it was a nuisance to him.

On May 15, we returned to Mexico, finally figuring “safety” during the crisis was more related to personal behavior than a place. We would return to where swimming was readily available. It felt like heaven to return to daily swims in the Sea of Cortez, where I could swim as long as I wanted and stop to interact with the bottlenose dolphins whenever they passed by. My swimming life returned to normal for a while.

In July, the seawater crept up to nearly 90 degrees F. My husband said he couldn’t swim in the sea anymore. The water was too hot for him. We’d heard a limited number of pools in Tucson had opened. You simply had to sign up online. On July 14th, we returned to Tucson and the pool signup system. I now sign up online two days ahead of time and wear a mask in and out of the facility. It works okay. But it’s stressful. I have to get up early every day to sign up for a lane before they’re all taken. And when I go, I only have a limited time to swim. I can’t stop and chat with a person in a neighboring lane unless I want to sacrifice finishing my 3000 yards during the 55-minute interval. And once, I accidentally signed up for one Oro Valley swimming location and inadvertently went to the other one and wasted half of my hour rushing from one pool to the other.

Despite the inconvenience of this system, I’m amazingly grateful to be able to swim. Each day I’m swimming, I don’t think so much about yardage or completing certain sets and intervals. I mostly enter the water for the experience – simply to feel the sheer joy of swimming. It’s a celebration, a validation, a recognition that despite all the chaos and the worries and the statistical predictions revolving around this pandemic, I’m still a swimmer. I get to be in my place – in the water. I appreciate the pool employees that work hard to keep the facility open for us and that the pool managers and staff that devised a system that would allow us to swim while keeping us relatively safe.

We went to Ruidoso, New Mexico for a week recently. I’d made some calls and learned that every pool in the state was closed. The pandemic is taken seriously there and they’ve had way fewer cases compared to Arizona or Mexico. I planned on not swimming but on the odd chance something worked out, I tossed a swimsuit and goggles into my bag. I Googled New Mexico lakes upon arrival and it turned out Grindstone Lake – a 20-minute drive from where we were staying – allowed swimming. We were soon in the car on our way.

As we drove through the entrance (masked up of course), I asked if swimming was okay, almost like I expected her to say “no” because being denied opportunities to swim had been such a frequent reality in recent months. When she said “yes,” a burst of elation surged through me. I’d be in the water within minutes. And soon I was stroking my way through chilly mountain water, surrounded by mountains and ponderosa pines and an azure sky filled with puffy clouds. It was sheer heaven swimming backstroke, feeling the chill of the water bring sharpness to my thoughts.

We returned to Tucson two days ago. We’ll be here until mid-September when we plan to return to Mexico. Then most days, I’ll be able to swim any time for as long as I want. I won’t need to sign up or leave at a certain time. My only limitations will be tropical storms in the area or rains that sometimes cause the Portuguese Man of Wars to proliferate.

In the past, I’ve taken swimming for granted. I imagined that no matter where I traveled and under any circumstance, the water would be there for me. Now I know that having a place to swim is a privilege. And I’ll always feel a profound sense of gratitude every time my face meets the water.