I was on the swim team when I was in high school. At the time I hated it. It was better than contact sports where my gaunt wisp of a body was battered about like a rag doll. But swim season was in the dead of Winter, and our school, with its meager budget (late 1970's recession era) didn't warm the pool water up much at all. Every day after school I would dread jumping into that freezing water wearing nothing but a worn-out old Speedo™. And believe me, there is nothing more boring than lap swimming. We'd swim upwards of 6000 yards a day (240 lengths of a standard pool). When you're swimming, you can't chat with the guy beside you. You can't look at the scenery. All you can do is splash through the water, looking at the bottom of the pool, and listening to the bubbles. Every day was a marathon of survival and endurance.
But I have to admit that it was good for me. It was excellent exercise at a critical time when my body was still developing. It taught me about the team dynamic and fostered leadership skills. And it gave me the opportunity to hang around with a bunch of nearly naked skinny boys for a few hours every day. And when we had swimming for gym class, I could swim circles around all the muscle-bound jocks who roughed me up during ever other gym class.
After I graduated from college and strived to maintain a good physical condition, I generally turned to swimming. I still hated the cold water, and it was still intensely boring, but there's a certain satisfaction associated with slipping gracefully through the water. It's also damn good exercise. After I knock off 1000 yards, my body feels more worked then when I get out of the free weight room. And I experience an oddly sensual feeling after having been immersed in water for a half hour. It's a different feeling than after I run or bike. I just really feel like having sex.
Whenever I stumble upon competitive swimming on TV I always stop and watch it, but I have to confess that I don't really follow the sport too closely. One thing that I don't like about the direction it's taking is a discouraging trend away from the old-fashioned brief Speedo™ suit towards trunks or even full-body suits. Today's high-tech materials claim to be even more slippery than bare skin, so it's no longer an advantage to be as naked as possible. This bothers me on two levels. Part of it I have to admit is the homoerotic aspect of it all. I've always liked the fact that swimmers are the most naked of all athletes. Sport is about the achievement of the human body. Swimming puts that body on display, the way the ancient Greeks did, and I really like that for obvious reasons. But there's more to it than that. I like the fact that swimming has never employed technology to aid the performance of the athletes. Technology has long been used in the training of the athletes' body, and the development of the perfect stroke, but when the starter gun sounds and everyone dives in the water, it's just one body pitted against another. Or at least it used to be. Before the introduction of these suits, the person with the shortest time was the fastest swimmer. Period. Now the person with the shortest time might not be the fastest swimmer, but the one with the most high-tech body suit. To me, that diminishes the purity of the sport.
Having said all that, I would still love to watch swimming even if every square inch of the body was covered. It's really about the human animal mastering locomotion in a medium to which it was not born. We evolved from the water by natural selection. We return to it by deliberate human will. And as if by divine coincidence, the motions the body makes as it moves through that medium are some of the most beautiful and graceful motions that the body can make. It glides through the water as if flying through the air, freed from the earthbound forces of gravity. To me there is no more glorious sight than the underwater view of a human body performing the butterfly stroke. The oscillating motion of the torso, led by strong and brawny shoulders, rippling through the buttocks and legs to the feet, is what I call poetry in motion.
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