If you’re a swimmer, every once in a while you see these Buzzfeedy lists going around, “Ten things only a swimmer will understand” or “Five things I learned from swimming,” and they’re about your hair turning silver or your skin smelling like bleach or how many gallons of frozen yogurt you can eat or whatever, and your swimmer friends repost and retweet them with exclamations of identification and joy.

Probably anyone who’s ever been a ___________ has seen at least one Buzzfeedy “Ten things only a ___________ will understand” list, with similar reactions from their ___________ friends.

If you’re anything like me, these lists strike you as fatuous and hokey, like maybe Garrison Keillor wrote them about the Lake Woebegone Racing Walleye, and entirely beside the point.

For some reason, I got on a kick about this on a recent drive home. Et voilà, Prichard’s contribution to the What-I-Learned-From-Swimming meme.

Some people learned different lessons from these, from some of the same teachers. Some were good lessons, some were bad, some are complicated still.

  1. Swimming taught me to get out of bed early and do work no matter what. Things like “want to” and “feel like” are N/A.
  2. Swimming is not a sport you play. Swimming is what you do. Swimming is what you are. You either become it or you quit (or you might as well).
  3. I never loved swimming. I rarely “had fun,” at practice or at meets. It was rewarding, but it wasn’t fun. I liked competing okay. I fucking loved winning.
  4. Swimming taught me that you can do whatever you want the night before, but (see #1) there’s always a coach waiting, with a watch around his neck, a kickboard to throw, a water bottle to kick, invective to spew—a workout to rewrite. In life, we call this, “You can do whatever you want as long as you’re willing to pay the man at the door.” I understand this intrinsically.
  5. Swimming teaches you that some sets are designed for you to fail. It teaches you to do them anyway. You do them and you fail. You do them again and you fail again. Do, fail, do, fail, do, fail, do, ad nauseum. Literally, nauseum. Eventually, some years down the road, swimming will tell you, in kind of an offhand way, when you’re discussing something else, that the lesson was as long as you do another do, you don’t really fail. (Some of us take longer to learn this than others.)
  6. Swimming teaches you, “That’s only good until the next time you do it” and, “That’s only fast until the next time you swim it.” Swimming trains you to believe these things.
  7. Swimming is mostly workouts, mostly the long, hard, incessant grind of thirty to forty hours at the pool. Except, the only thing that matters is how you do twice a year in meets.
  8. I was better in workouts than I was in meets. All that meant then was that I wasn’t good enough in meets. I don’t know what it means now. Now that I don’t have meets.
  9. For a time, I was in the second tier of American distance swimming. I didn’t love that feeling. I wanted to be in the top tier.
  10. For a brief moment, it looked like maybe I was in the top tier. I liked that better, but I wanted to be the best.
  11. Swimming was what I did best, and it was all I did. Everything else was marginal, and I was marginal at it. To this day, I don’t mind being marginal at most things, but what I do best, I want to be best at.
  12. Swimming taught me to believe that there weren’t many people who were doing what I was doing, that there were fewer people capable of doing what I was doing at the level I was doing it, and even fewer still that actually were.
  13. Swimming tried to teach me how to shrink that “even fewer”—down to zero. For a long time, I couldn’t figure out what I did wrong. Then I stopped thinking about it. Then it came to me: it’s called “getting in your own way.”
  14. If I substitute writing for swimming—which I have—it’s difficult to determine what “level” I’m doing it at, and how few or how many are above or below me. Some would say it’s impossible to gauge things like few, betterbest in writing. Or at least silly. (I don’t believe them.) Either way, that attitude has seen me through two years of rejection letters and five years of a project I’ve wanted to quit more often than not.
  15. I wanted to quit swimming more often than not.
  16. For a while, after I stopped* swimming, I did quit—eve-ry-thing. I thought about swimming every day and how I shouldn’t be quitting, and in the next breath I’d curse swimming and its anti-quittingness as a burden, as an inflictor of guilt. (Society, man! Society!) But when I decided to come back to the land of the living, I remembered swimming, and thanked it.
  17. I still thank swimming. I rarely talk about it and I hardly ever bring it up, but I think about it and I thank it every day.
  18. In that last sentence, when I say “swimming,” I mean a very specific set of things. I mean eight particular people, two groups of people, three concepts, and one feeling inside my chest.
  • I mean Mark Warkentin, Dan DeMarco, Bo Greenwood, and Luke Wagner; I mean Rob Mirande and Bill Smyth; I mean Mark Bernardino; I mean Fran Crippen.
  • I mean all my various teammates, and the men whose feet I chased.
  • I mean that thing about doing and failing, that “it’s always zero-zero,” and that nothing worth doing ever gets done without copious amounts of physical and emotional pain.
  • I mean all that stuff combined and shoved inside your ribcage with what little air you pulled in just before the final turn and the knowledge, as the lanes on either side come into view, that there’s not space enough in all the pools in all the world for anyone to catch you.


And you?

What does your “swimming” mean to you?


*Some hands may shoot up here: “Objection! Semantics!” But it was a planned retirement, and a clean break. The timing was natural. It was at the end of a cycle. I still argue with myself about it.


Header: London pool, addfunny

Writer, reader, runner, surfer. Buddhist, humanist, baker of bread.

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