I’ve never considered myself particularly athletic, and I recently began to wonder if that was an unusual assessment, since I spend about five hours a week at the gym on top of daily dog walks and the occasional yoga practice (and this summer, a few paddleboarding trips). Those seem like the pursuits of an athletic person, but I don’t particularly enjoy sports, and the “athletic” body type has certainly never applied to me.
Maybe I’m not very good at assessing my own characteristics though, because even though I enjoy baking, it never occurred to me that it was one of my favorite hobbies until a couple years ago (after the failed baking blog, mind you) when I was baking cupcakes while watching old reruns of the Great British Bake Off on my laptop and scrolling through Instagram liking bread pictures. So there is a certain lack of self-awareness.
I have always been aware that I am overweight, but I’ve also always known that I’m pretty strong, especially with that dreadful qualifier, “for a girl.” I remember in fourth grade being slightly offended when a teacher asked for a few boys to move a table because I knew I was just as strong as any of those boys (regardless of what the stupid Presidential Physical Fitness test said), and I could move that table by myself if they’d let me.
I remember, too, when we were told about Little Olympics (a grandiose name for an elementary age track meet) and for a few weeks all the fourth and fifth graders spent recess not on the swings or monkeybars but trying out for various events for the P.E. teacher. I wasn’t naturally a runner; the day we ran the mile each year was my least favorite day. I wasn’t surprised, then, that I wasn’t assigned to any of the distance events. There was no denying I could not jump as far or as high as my classmates either. But I still involuntarily wrinkle my nose when I remember finding out I’d been assigned to shot put.
I have nothing against actual shot putters, but as a bookish ten-year-old, my only knowledge of the shot put was its association with the Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda. Oof.
I also had a brief dalliance with softball, but it didn’t hold my interest. My grandfather continued to ask me for several years how softball was going, despite my reminding him that I wasn’t playing anymore. Eventually, I told him I had joined the Quidditch team instead, and when I explained that it was played on broomsticks in the air, he became angry at me for “lying” to him. (This was, of course, long before anyone actually formed run-around-on-the-ground Quidditch teams, now Quadball.) In a rare moment (for mild-mannered me) of actualized teenage sass, I told him that I wouldn’t have had to lie if he had actually listened for the past three years when I told him I wasn’t playing softball anymore. It wasn’t a particularly kind response, but it worked; he hasn’t asked me about softball since.
So I’m definitely not going to be telling him that I helped out with Kalen’s company softball tournament last weekend, subbing in when the other women on the team needed a break. It felt weird to be on the field again after more than twenty years, and I didn’t aid any spectacular plays, but I had fun and even hit a couple singles, and I especially enjoyed playing catcher, the position my mom played in her youth.
But my favorite athletic pursuit (I really had to fight myself not to put the quotation marks on that, because even with all that preamble, I don’t consider myself athletic) is probably swimming. I’m not particularly fast, and I never swam competitively. I’m sure my form leaves a lot to be desired, and I can’t do any of the fancy strokes. Even so, I have always loved swimming.
I remember going to formal swimming lessons, but even then I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to basically propel myself through the water without drowning. Even so, swimming was saved for summer and special occasions, like a once-a-year-hotel stay. Hotels were such a rarity for us that I thought that the sign at the Holiday Inn that said “Ice By Swimming Pool” was a descriptor of how cold the water was: not quite frozen, but very close; not ice but ice-by. It didn’t occur to me that it was literal directions to the ice machine. Even though the water was cold, I wanted to spend every waking moment in the pool.
But around puberty, swimming became a little less fun. My friends and I didn’t splash around and play games in the pool as much anymore, and we all became self-conscious about our changing bodies as the media told us looking a certain way was a prerequisite for wearing a bathing suit. Even with the negative messages, I still loved the way the water felt on my skin. And, being overweight meant I was naturally buoyant. I can tread water for a long time, but if I had to, I could float all day.
A few years ago, I had to take a break from running (an activity I had worked very hard to cultivate in this heavy, short-legged body) as I recovered from plantar fasciitis and discovered that swimming laps was almost as enjoyable as all the chaotic splashing I had loved as a child. I was still self-conscious in a bathing suit and around more experienced lap swimmers, but the water was so enjoyable that it was worth the judgement. Eventually, I got back to running, and stopped swimming again.
But, of course, the plantar fasciitis came back too, and I again tried swimming. I was swimming pretty regularly from about October last year until April. I had purchased a couple good swim suits, and even waged an inner battle with vanity and purchased a swim cap that could accommodate my long hair, and some pretty good goggles. I stopped swimming, though, when I quit the library, because the only time I had been able to reliably get a lap lane was right when the Y opened, which required me to get out of bed at 4:30 a.m. Even being a morning person, I must admit that hour is obscene.
The pool at our Y is…. not ideal. It has three lap lanes. That’s all. Most pools may have only a few lap lanes roped off, but more swimmers could, in theory, swim the length of the pool outside the ropes. This pool makes no such allowances. The whole pool is vaguely U shaped, with one arm of the U being the three lap lanes and the other being a beach-style sloping entrance designed for kids and families playing. The bottom of the U where they join is about 4 feet deep, so even when there are no kids playing, it can’t be used for additional lap swimming. So the odds of getting a lap lane and not having to share are pretty slim, and I’m not fond of sharing my lap lane.
It’s easy to say it’s because I’m an only child and never learned to share, but the best part of a long swim is that it’s almost meditative with the controlled breathing and muffled sounds, and nothing pulls you out of that zone like dodging a kick to the face. I don’t have research to back it up, but I’m pretty sure that’s why you don’t usually see people practicing yoga in the middle of most soccer matches.
And even before there was a nationwide lifeguard shortage, the Y either couldn’t or didn’t think it was necessary to keep the pool open all day, so the mid-afternoon when I prefer to go to the gym (because it’s the least crowded) is also the exact hours that the pool is just closed.
But I tried on Friday, because Friday doesn’t have any aquatics classes to dodge, and I actually got to swim for the first time since early April! For a whole hour! And I didn’t have to share until the last three minutes!
And best of all, even though I felt like I was going pretty slowly at first, when I looked at my statistics afterward, I really hadn’t lost much speed. I had been averaging between 90 and 100 laps per hour this spring and winter, and landed squarely at 96 laps this time, so I was pretty pleased with myself. I think I’m going to try and make this a weekly thing, and if I’m only going once a week, hopefully the chlorine won’t destroy my hair and nails like it did when I was going four or five times a week.
So maybe I’m not quite athletic, but I’m not not athletic. But please don’t infringe on my swimming meditation, because I might kick you in the face, and I might not feel bad about it.
What are some of your favorite ways to get moving, even if you consider yourself a decidedly not athletic person? Have you ever been surprised by a new activity?