Every sport is unique. They each have their own rules, point systems and terrains which mark their individuality from one another. Each athlete, no matter their sport, faces different daily struggles and triumphs.
Swimmers have a particularly tricky time conveying the depth of our sport to people, however. A large part of this misunderstanding comes from our sport’s main defining feature: it takes place underwater. I can’t stress this enough; there are a lot of things that people simply don’t realize about underwater sports.
For starters, we do not have gills. Most of us actually have pretty average lung capacities. Somehow, though, breathing while submerged in water is something that becomes pretty natural to us. Speaking as a distance swimmer, you get into a certain rhythm while pushing through lap after lap. Unless it’s a particularly exhausting set, or one that has a hypoxic component, breathing isn’t typically one of my worries. Don’t get me wrong- swimming is cardio and it certainly gets you out of breath. But years of experience can make it so that turning your head from one side to another becomes so routine it feels like second nature.
There is an ongoing joke in the swimmer community about how we always have water in our ears – and it is completely true. Between shaking our heads from side to side, or hopping on one foot, we can look pretty silly trying to get it out. Nothing compares, though, to when you’re actually swimming. Being in the water can block out most noises, and can completely alter others. My team has a ‘Kat’, ‘Zach’, and ‘Matt’ and when my coach is calling to one of them, they all sound exactly the same from in the water. Seriously, I live in constant panic that my name is being called for a stroke correction, and have to lift my head a bit to check any time I hear yelling in my general area.
As if training for our sport while submerged in actual chemicals wasn’t enough, swimmers also have to deal with the complete lack of visual entertainment. Staring at a solid black line on the bottom of the pool can get old really quick. The closest we get to a change in scenery is tracking the ceiling when we swim backstroke. Still not the most thrilling, but we’ll take it.
In terms of amusement during particularly long sets, music can be a big help. Singing along to your favourite songs can really help pass the time. But even though the radio might be on, swimmers often have to sing along in a more “fill-in-the-blanks” fashion. Having our heads in the water means that we can only hear parts of it when we breathe or stop at the wall while waiting for our pace times. Unless you know the song relatively well and are up for the challenge of trying to sing along in your head, even listening to music can be frustrating.
It’s pretty clear that swimmers have a distinctive set of issues to deal with when training for our sport. Being underwater so often can be a nuisance (especially on days where the heaters aren’t on!), but it can also be really rewarding. Sometimes there is no better way to clear your head than a nice long swim in the quiet solace that the water offers. The pool has been so many things to me; an escape when I needed to be alone, powerful and resistant when I needed a reminder to push myself harder, and inviting when I was looking for some piece of mind. Whatever the day or occasion, underwater I have always been at home.