What Can We Learn From Swimmers of a Certain Age?

We are all feeling lonelier these days. The Dolphin Club and its neighbor, the South End Rowing Club, closed early in the pandemic, as did most pools, though phased plans have allowed for limited reopening. But the open water remains open to us.

On the east side of the Bay, I’ve kept up with my swims at Keller Cove in Richmond. As I walk down the path to the beach, I glimpse an abbreviated span of the Golden Gate Bridge and the spires of Sutro Tower atop Twin Peaks, poking up like the tops of ship masts. I gauge the mood of the water, the weather: steely and gray one day, bluebird sky the next. I like the diverse range of beach denizens — walkers, waders, swimmers — and I go to take my place among them.

Among the swimmers are my friend Heather, 46, and her 71-year-old uncle Jim, a lifelong open-water aficionado who grew up swimming in Maine. As spring turns to summer, I’ve watched pool swimmers I know adapt themselves to the open water, donning wet suits, neoprene caps and inflatable buoys.

Heather’s wife, Krystel, is the de facto mayor of my pool — she knows everyone by name, as well as their swimming habits — but Krystel is the last person I’d expect to see out in this wild expanse, exposed to currents and marine mammals and seaweed tangles that ensnare you during low tide. She is fearful of sharks and other aquatic creatures approaching human size, but swimming is how she soldiers on, in good times and bad. And so she braves the waters of the Bay, fighting to be present in the moment, one morning at a time.

We keep our distance, but we swim together.

Resilience is about sticking your head in water every day, for an hour or more, year after year. That’s the challenge right now — not to put your head down and ignore the world, but to put your head down and absorb it. To remember how to float, in spite of the burdens you carry.

In “The Swimming Song,” Loudon Wainwright III, the musician and bard of swimming who has never forgotten to bring a swimsuit and goggles over his five decades of touring, wrote:

This summer I went swimming

This summer I might have drowned

But I held my breath and I kicked my feet

And I moved my arms around

His song reminds me that, even in the face of fear, one can aspire to buoyancy.

These days, at 73, he has been swimming exclusively in Gardiners Bay, off the East End of Long Island. “There’s a lovely cold snap when you jump in,” he told me recently. “I saw a man last week in a wet suit and felt highly superior until I watched him cover a very substantial distance, much further than I would have gone. It’s all relative, I guess.”

We all have our distance left to go. To get by, we get in. To get on with it. To get through, and come out — hopeful, and subtly altered — on the other side.

Bonnie Tsui is the author of “Why We Swim.”

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