I decided to enroll in a swimming class this semester because it seemed like the optimal alternative to more torturous forms of cardiovascular exercise — particularly running. I swam often as a kid and I’d gotten to be pretty good at it too, but over the years my aversion to physical activity (and my intense fear of waterborne illnesses) pushed me out of the pool long enough to nullify all my previously mastered skills.
I figured it would be a shame if I left college with only a distant memory of how to swim. I might regret having never seized the opportunity to regain my underwater endurance if I were to find myself drowning in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean one day. Besides, swimming is one of the only forms of exercise which engages your entire body without straining your joints — a benefit which would likely come in handy once I age to the point everything hurts.
Blissfully ignoring the threat of E. coli, I gathered up my grocery list-sized inventory of swimming essentials and headed to the Aquatic & Fitness Center. There’s something inexplicably strange about gathering in a classroom with a sizeable group of people before a swim. The vulnerability of being barely clothed is palpable; people cling to their towels like armor. You get the same feeling of being judged for having your shirt on inside-out all day, only the feeling is magnified by your self-awareness of how ridiculous you look with your hair tucked into a silicone swim cap and goggles suctioned on your forehead like a malformed flower crown.
The palette of colors splattered across my legs, the convexity of my abdomen, the gelatinous consistency of my upper arms — all parts of me are exposed under the fluorescent classroom lights. But so are all the parts of everyone else, and I don’t find myself thinking much of it. We are all here for our own reasons, and none of mine include scrutinizing people for qualities distinguishing them as anatomically human.
Small talk, surprisingly, feels a lot less awkward when I don’t have to worry about how I look. Perhaps that’s why I found it liberating to attend my internship office’s holiday party decked out in full-on Christmas tree garb; outrageous outfits incite curiosity about the person on the inside. While I’m no stranger to self-consciousness in a typical setting, chatting with acquaintances by the poolside feels perfectly natural.
Invariably, the most difficult part of swimming class is jumping into the bone-chilling water. At this point we’re all just a line of bodiless heads chattering our teeth along the edge of the pool. Striking deviations from the social norm, such as our half-nakedness, don’t seem like such a big deal anymore. Male or female, toned or lanky, nervous or confident — all of our existence is reduced to one quality: cold.
As we trudge along, attempting to soften up our mechanical and closely-calculated freestyle movements, I think about how fascinating it is we all possess the ability to snap from land-dwelling mammal to buoyant sea creature right on cue. Though the sounds of heavy breathing and the burn of stiff quadriceps can be construed as signs of weakness, the laughter and resilience of the group says otherwise.
Leaving this class with only a rudimentary understanding of how to maintain a swimming routine would be enough for me to consider the experience worthwhile. But beyond that, getting the chance to expand my perspective of the human condition is a priceless gift in itself.