Swimming Taught Me This: Early Morning Reflections

I’ve taken a four-month break from swimming; launching a project, traveling, and other interests have put my swimming adventures on the back burner recently. For several reasons: A) I’m not super-human, and therefore, B) I can’t do everything at once. Yet I’m getting the itch, again, and feeling the need to be swimming. The glorious (albeit strange) sunny mornings in the Bay have me standing at the waters’ edge, wishing I were back in the ocean, navigating the waves. And it’s apparent in my writings: I’m writing, dreaming, imagining, planning about swimming. Here’s a story I wrote about a race last summer, and what I was thinking about before driving to the start line. 

Also, if you’re in San Francisco next week, I’ll be giving a talk about endurance swimming and telling the story of the 9 mile prison-to-prison swim on Thursday, February 16th, 7 PM along with five other endurance athletes. Come join! 

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The morning of the race, I drive slowly through the foggy air on the 101 highway, meandering my small hatchback Toyota Matrix along the winding highways and through the tunnel. The golden gate bridge arches gracefully, simply, silently across the mountainous opening to the vast terrain of the flat Bay waters. To the east, the sun still hides beyond the tangent of the earth’s curved surface, darkness enveloping the city. The black water sprawls out eastward, north, and south, tendrils circling around bay towns, creating a flat plane of water connecting and separating each of the communities in the area.

The drive across the bridge in my car is same rhythm; a sweep under the poised arches, the swoop from the long linear cables supporting the vast planes of concrete. Despite crossing the bridge back and forth most every day of my San Francisco life, I still marvel at the towers with each crossing. Like a patron at a church, I bow gracefully in my mind to the relics of humanity; to the strength and impressiveness of architecture and engineering. Together, we built this. We created this. Somewhere in our collective history, we did something together to build, piece by piece, the metal structures and spans that stand, today, as the icon of the city and gateway to the bay area.

My car, my mechanical lump of plastic and steel, zooms quickly across the bridge, hugging tightly against the center lane. The bridge is divided split down the middle, barely a drop of traffic this early in the morning. At certain times of the day, the bridge lanes change direction in response to the disproportionate volumes of traffic headed in and out of the city. Small round holes with 2’ high yellow pegs indicate the lane change, a single white line separating the two lanes of high speed traffic. Why there are not more head-on collisions is beyond me.

The beauty of the bridge, in my mind, is tempered by the sadness of the deaths associated with it. Each year, 40-odd individuals stand at the height of the towers, looking out from the rust red metal railings, and stare into the open air. At over 300 feet high, in the center of the small opening to the bay, wind whips around the bridges’ struts, a sense of extreme brevity and tenuousness alighting any lone soul on the bridge. Loneliness, emptiness, and fatigue with life are exacerbated by the conditions at hand: extreme distance, crisp air quality, a stunning visual 360-degree view of the entire Bay’s waters and the history embedded in the waterfront shorelines. San Francisco, home to the gold rush, to the container ships from China, to a massive amount of trade; the heart of the northern California area. In the center of the Bay, Angel Island; south of that, Alcatraz. Below and above the bridge, fog runs in and out, slowly engulfing the bridge and releasing it in a temperamental dance.

But my mind flickers to the dark side of the bridge; the stories untold and unreported by the media. Despite the beauty, despite its grace, the bridge offers a sinister promise to humanity. The ideal of death, the promise of ending, the temptation of suicide flashes into the minds of those haunted by their own psychology, plagued by the torturous thoughts that inhabit their psyche.

And, slowly, people step up the rails, arch their arms, lean forward, and drop with the heavy weight of gravity to the watery world below, ending their brief and seemingly inconsequential reign on this planet. That people can get to this place, the darkness of isolation, the sadness of mental confusion – this flashes through my head as I drive. Every day, I pay homage both to the brilliant architects and engineers, and to the lost people who didn’t make it to their next day, for reasons unknown fully beyond even their own mental capacity. And yet, I understand them both. I am them both. We are all here, together, and sadness – it is not a unique condition. I feel it when I swim, I escape from it when I run, I hear it when I play, I taste it when I breathe. I know. Deeply, intuitively, living it – I know the depth of darkness and sadness, and I feel the lone harmonicas and haunting harps play when the mind starts to bend in maladaptive ways to become our own worst enemy, to work against ourselves by worrying, by thinking, by being.

And swimming, swimming, swimming – the beautiful sport of being by yourself, the act of understanding how your mind plays with your body, and how your body can overcome your mind, and how you can move beyond something by steadily practicing it each day, bending your physical and mental capabilities into new territories – it is a marvel to me. My mind is a joy, my being an art, my ability to negotiate the two terrains a brilliance I try to dumbfoundedly enjoy. Swimming taught me this, I know it. I feel it. I reach my arms out and pull invisibly, feeling the weight of the air and the lightness of the world, knowing that this practice has somehow made me able to see this. The good side. The beauty in it all.

I love swimming. 

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