It’s 6:00 pm on a beautiful sunny, summer night. The beach crowds are thinning, and the orange bubbled, colored capped open water swimmers are showing up. I meet up with my buddies, and we head right in. Although the water has warmed up this week, and wetsuits are no longer necessary, the initial plunge elicits a shriek from me. My initial strokes are brisk in an attempt to warm up. As we head straight out to the middle of the pond, my stroke settles into a more even rhythm. The water’s coolness feels exhilarating and refreshing. I relax but not too much as I try to keep pace with my faster fish friends. I am in my happy place. I look to the side with each breath and take in the beauty of Walden Pond. I see the orange buoys of other swimmers (fellow fish) but mostly see the expanse of clear water, the tall trees, and the bright blue sky over me. I love getting out to the middle of the pond, away from the stresses of my day and where I can ponder the great depths beneath me.
Swimming at Walden Pond is one of my greatest joys and is nothing short of Nirvana on a beautiful summer evening. I look forward to open-water swimming all winter and carefully plan my work schedule in the summer to ensure that I maximize my time out on the water.
The beauty of being an open-water fish is that its school can adapt. All are welcome and can be accommodated. There is a lane for everyone. When I swim with my regular school of fish, we know how to make it work so that we end up on the opposite side of the pond at the same time. Slower fish can swim a smaller arc; faster fish can swim wide. We have fun, share laughs, and are happy to bond over a common passion. Being a fish has also enabled me to open water swim with my daughter and niece (both former college swimmers), their friends, and my mother who is months from turning 90. (When my mother was at the ER two years ago, the ER doc became considerably less concerned about her presenting symptoms when he learned that she had swum across a lake the day before.) How amazing that swimmers can come together and joyfully support each other across the lifespan.
Though some might shudder, I sometimes also enjoy swimming without a school of fish (but with my bright orange buoy!) and heading directly across the pond (the state’s deepest body of fresh water) on my own.
What does it mean to be a fish? That is a loaded question to ask a former college swimmer who thirty-seven years later still braves cold pools in early morning winter hours and lives for the pure joy of open water swimming at Walden Pond every summer.
Even at my advanced age, I have a swim coach. Once when I stopped at the end of the pool to work out a cramp in my foot, she told me to keep swimming because I had to learn to swim through pain in case I ever cramped up in a race or in the middle of a pond. The metaphor “keep swimming” gets tossed around, but it takes on new meaning when it involves swimming while flexing and contorting one’s foot, willing oneself to relax as much as possible. While I initially scoffed at the idea, I knew it made sense and have learned to swim despite cramping feet or calves. I often ask my students to lean into the things that cause them anxiety or discomfort, and as with swimming, it is true that growth comes from challenging oneself and not shying away from difficulty.
Being a fish can be challenging at times. On a cold rainy morning at Walden Pond, getting into the water can be a torturous process. (The water is usually warmer than the air, so I am always glad once I get myself in.) Likewise, on frigid winter mornings when I venture to the pool, getting in the pool is usually the hardest part of my workout. I am buoyed by my fellow fish, and as much as I love the sport, I probably wouldn’t swim nearly as often if I didn’t have my pals by my side. (Recently I agreed to meet a friend for swim practice at 6:45 am on a Saturday and chuckled at 5:55 am when I received her early wake-up text “Time to make the donuts!”).
When I was a walk-on swimmer in college, I was cheerfully embraced by my team’s beloved coach Chet McPhee who soon began calling me Speedie Edie (even though the team had many speedier swimmers than me!). I swam regularly with the same group of second-tier freestylers in my assigned lane. As most athletes will attest, sports teach us all kinds of lessons that go way beyond the pool and athletic fields. Speaking from my own experience, I know that I loved being a member of a group and loved training hard and achieving goals that I never dreamed possible. I also learned that it was okay to train hard and come in second, third, or even last in a race and that the joy and meaning of college swimming (at least for me) was about working to improve my own times and achieve my own goals. (When my skinny little then seven year old daughter swam in her first YMCA swim meet in second grade years later, I remember being moved to tears because I was so happy for her to have joined the wonderful world of swimming.)
As a lifetime swimmer, I can’t help but sometimes speak with swim metaphors. My favorite is telling students (and my own adult children) to stay in their own lane. In a world where everyone is struggling to compare themselves to others and trying to figure out how to get ahead, I am reminded on a daily basis how important it is for students to follow their own paths and do what is best for them. We all do our best when we stay attuned to our own needs, taking the time to address issues and get support if needed, and grow and develop in our own time frame. While I have never been a swim champion, I have had a great time “staying in my lane” and pursuing a sport I love. I have made friends, swum in many triathlons, and continued to work on perfecting my stroke! My hope for my students is that they go through life staying in their own lanes and following their interests and passions regardless of what the swimmer in the next lane is doing.