Monday, June 22, 2009

Swimming Up Amsterdam Avenue

As I've noted recently on this blog, I've returned to running and cycling in these past few weeks, and my body is feeling their effects--my legs twitch in my sleep (a disconcerting habit of mine that occurs when I begin cycling hard again after a break) and my core is regaining some of its prior strength (it tends to be much stronger when I run regularly, which seems counter-intuitive to me). But I don't think I've paid proper blog tribute to the activity that maintained my sanity and sense of self over the last six months, and I hope to rectify that oversight now. Swimming saw me through dark, early February evenings and cold March weekend afternoons, and it was the sport through which I first celebrated spring's arrival, by swimming through the sunshine pouring into the JCC Natatorium on April and May mornings. 

The Presidio YMCA Pool (San Francisco, CA)
My mother first took me to swim lessons at the San Francisco JCC when I was six months old, and it was in that same pool that my sister and I competed on a swim team throughout middle school. To be honest, my nostalgia for that pool is so strong that I have yet to visit the new JCC on California Street; due to poor retrofitting, the beautiful old JCC building and pool were demolished seven years ago, and a sleek edifice arose in its place. By all accounts the new pool is stunning, but I can't bring myself to part--yet--with my imagistic memories of the old one; it was the first pool in which I saw an Olympic swimmer effortlessly glide out of a flip turn, the first locker room in which I procrastinated with my friends while our parents impatiently waited outside, and the first funky sauna in which I fought for space with very old and very naked women (but not the last). 
Clockwise from top left: Fall Creek Gorge (Ithaca, NY); Bethany Beach (DE); The Connecticut River (Hanover, NH); The Russian River (CA)
As I've racked up hours and miles swimming at this "other" JCC pool these last several months, I've had plenty of time to reflect upon all sorts of things; when the black line on the bottom of the pool becomes annoying rather than soothing, and I'm really desperate for mental distraction, I'll occasionally make myself do something like name all the airports I've ever been to (it actually works when one is in need of serious mental diversion because it's so inane). One of my favorite mental pastimes, however, has been to think of all the pools or bodies of water in which I've swum. While similar to the airport exercise in terms of its categorical nature, the pool/body of water listing instead sparks a flood of memories, some of which I haven't consciously thought of in years.

The Stanford Aquatic Center
And so I remember swimming to Fannette Island in Tahoe's Emerald Bay from BM's boat, and seeing porpoises while swimming as a child off of Bethany Beach in Delaware, and swimming from The Point on the Connecticut River in Hanover, NH, when I needed a break from studying for my A-exam. I remember racing in the Presidio YMCA pool as a twelve year-old, and swimming in that same pool last year for my physical therapy before I moved to New York. The sky over Upper Angora Lake filled with shooting stars in the summer of 1997, and AAH and I slept on the beach to watch them before swimming in the cold water when the sun rose over Echo Peak.  I often "bathed" by swimming off the boat docks at Fallen Leaf Lake in the summer of 2000, and after long summer bike rides in Ithaca I would jump into the Fall Creek Gorge, cycling clothes and all, just to float under the waterfall for half an hour before my growling stomach forced me out. The memories continue to rise to the surface: sporadic childhood swims in the Russian River in Sonoma County; laps in my high school swimming pool; endless summer days at my grandparents' pool in Marin County; bone-chilling swims in Cascade and Donner Lakes in the High Sierra; swimming under Fourth of July fireworks in Chevy Chase, MD; a post-cycling swim at a pool nestled high in the medieval village of le Poet-Laval in France; lunch swimming at Stanford's aquatic center in brilliant sunshine, and inner tube movie night in the water polo pool; night swimming and lazy afternoon floating at the pool in Carmel Valley. 

Sierra Nevada lakes, clockwise from top left: Cascade Lake; Donner Lake; Upper Angora Lake; Emerald Bay (Lake Tahoe) 
Perhaps it's because swimming feels more elemental than other sports that I enjoy running through all of these memories while I'm in the pool. One of the greatest corporal sensations anyone can experience, in my belief, is that moment after pushing off of the wall when one's body feels both suspended and pulled along by a watery slipstream. That and the rolling, slow twisting and turning engendered by a steady crawl across the water's surface, as well as the rolling over to float on one's back to look at the rafters, or the sunlight, or the stars. 

Fallen Leaf Lake (Desolation Wilderness, CA)
I haven't been swimming as much in these last few weeks, but like John Cheever's Swimmer or William Least-Heat Moon's River-Horse, I find the visceral experience of charting my passage from water to water to be more complex than I would have expected. Fortunately, I've always like complexity, and good memories, and, last but not least, swimming. 

The Carmel Valley Pool

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