Set Myself Free

‘Swimming is simply moving meditation.’
Cesar N. Caharian

I am not a superstitious person, but I have my rituals. It is a safe thing to fall back to in an ever-changing world. One such ritual I have is when it comes to swimming.

Swimming and I go a long way back.

When I was nineteen years old, I was part of a performing arts group in Pretoria. I didn’t yet know what to do with my life, so I did my gap year at 13thFLOOR. There were over 150 young people staying on campus – I included. It was compulsory for each of us to take a special psychology test; this test would determine if we each needed therapy lessons. I did the test, and it was recommended that I do just that.

I had a great therapist; I can’t remember her name but she had long, black hair, with a petite shape and had a gentle demeanor. I enjoyed our weekly sessions and it really helped me to understand myself better.

One advice that she gave me early on was to take up swimming and horse riding.

‘It will be good for your emotional well-being,’ she told me.

I was surprised by that because I had done it before – horse riding lessons in high school, as well as swimming lessons with Simon at SuperSport at the Waterfront (he also previously coached Olympic Gold Medalist Ryk Neethling and his sister, Jean-Marie).

Now I lived on a plot, an estate, with other 149 people. I didn’t have a car with me, and the campus was far from town. Where and how was I going to take up horse-riding again, much less swimming?

So I kept that advice she gave me in the back of my mind.

The trainer that one gets has a huge influence on how much you enjoy the sport. My first horse-riding trainer was on a small farm outside Worcester, but she always seemed to be in a crummy mood. I couldn’t figure that out, but then I met her boyfriend and understood. It seemed that the farm belonged to him and she desperately wanted to marry him. No matter what she did, he just didn’t seem interested in marriage. I only took lessons from her a couple of times, then stopped.

Then we moved to Bloem, and I took up lessons once again. This time it was a much better trainer, but boy, he was expensive. His horses were fabulous and I thoroughly wished I could have his white horse.

I then switched over to another horse trainer that was much cheaper, but her horses were unpredictable. The last time I was on a horse, he almost threw me off (thankfully, I held onto the saddle). The trainer simply shook her head and said, ‘I can’t understand why that horse did what he did.’

That was the last time I got on a horse.

I have the greatest respect for horses but I refuse to just get on any horse.

As for swimming, Simon trained me. He taught me the basics of swimming, as well as the freestyle, breaststroke, and backstroke. It was a half an hour lesson twice a week, but every time I got out of the pool, my body would feel like jelly. But it was a good feeling. I enjoyed my classes with him.

As for my ritual with swimming, this is how it goes:

I swim on the days I have to wash my hair. My hair is long, curly and thick, so it can be a headache to comb out. So I try to kill two birds with one stone: swimming and washing my hair afterward.

I tend to only swim in the summer days, but this year I will try (really hard!) to swim in the winter as well. I put on my swimming costume at home already, and simply wear a summer dress over it. It’s easy to take off, as well as put on again. I wear flip-flops, the same ones that I will wear when I shower. I always, always shower with flip-flops in public showers.

I have a certain backpack that I use: the one that I got after receiving my latest cochlear hearing aid upgrade. It is grey, has a certain type of material that dries quickly, and it’s just the right size.

In my backpack are my towel, swimming cap, goggles, makeup bag, my shower bag and a bottle of water. In the front of my backpack is my gym card used for swiping in, and I also put my hearing aids in there.

In the past, I used to put my backpack in a locker and then lock it up, but there have been thefts as of late, so I don’t do that anymore. My hearing aids aren’t insured (one hearing aid costs R250 000 alone), so now I take my backpack with me to the swimming pool, where I can see it at all times.

On my way to the gym, I always listen to music in my car.

Lately, it’s been Dido all over again.

Her music is soothing and relaxing, which puts me in a perfect mood for swimming.

When I arrive at the gym, I leave my handbag and cell phone in a special hiding place in my car. I’m not going to say where, for safety reasons, but it’s a major relief to just not have my cell phone with me. Lately, I’ve noticed just how many people are on their phones all the time, so it’s a welcome distraction to rub off technology.

As I enter the gym, I swipe in my card. I first head over to the swimming pool to check if there are any lanes open. There usually is, as I swim late in the mornings. In the afternoons the pool is filled with schoolchildren, so then it’s best to steer clear of the pool.

I head over to the changing room. I twist my hair in a low bun, pin it with hair clips, and pull my swim cap over. This has to be done a couple of times because of the thickness of my hair, so it slips off easily. Then I put my goggles on, but not yet over my eyes. It’s planted firmly atop my head.

Since I got my first cochlear implant in 2013, I’ve been having trouble with the water entering my one ear. So now I use Prestick in both ears, and it works like a charm.

I take off my dress, put it in my backpack, and I wrap my towel over my hips. I already have my swimming costume on, a navy one-piece, so I’m good to go. With my backpack over my shoulder, I head off to the pool.

Already, my whole world is quiet. I no longer have my hearing aids on.

I enter the pool area and find an empty lane. This gym offers free paddling boards, so I take one for myself. I sit by the pool, with only my legs in the water. The water is cold, but soon my body will acclimate. I splash a bit of water over my arms and shoulders, then jump into the water. I find that it’s much better to just get into the pool, rather than waiting and thinking about it. I don’t like cold water, but as soon as I warm up, I can no longer feel the water.

I check the clock: 11h05. That’s perfect. I set a goal for myself: 30 lanes of swimming within 35 minutes. I know I can do it; I’ve done it before. Back when I was still swimming with Simon, I swam 40 lanes under 30 minutes. But after years of not swimming, I am getting fit again. It will take some time.

I put on my goggles, then make a mental note that I need to buy new ones. The ones that I have are foggy and old. I will also need a new swimming costume soon.

I go under the water, and everything goes even quieter.

I love this specific moment when time and space seem to come together.

I get to leave the world behind, swim off the stress and anxiety of the week.

I first swim ten lanes with the paddleboard and take sips of water in-between. I can feel my legs warming up as I kick, kick, kick. I think of my dad, and how he was a great swimmer. He had a swimmer’s body, broad shoulders, and perfect height. I also have broad shoulders, and I am the tallest woman in my family. My brother was a good swimmer as well, and like my father, he swam the 1st team in the water polo at Grey College.

My father also swam the butterfly beautifully, and I wished once again that Simon had taught me to do the butterfly. ‘It’s really difficult,’ he told me one day, but I am used to doing – and excelling – in the difficult things.

I swim another ten lanes doing the freestyle. I think of a school friend that I had, who was obsessed with swimming. She swam every morning just before school, as well as some afternoons. I remember how she would get to school with a wet head and a shivering and tired body. It didn’t look like fun back then. I was serious about ballet, and in the afternoons my ballet classes took place just above the pool at the gym where my friend swam. I would look down on her swimming, and it looked so repetitive and, well, tedious.

I remember one specific afternoon. She had just finished her swimming lesson, and I was coming down the stairs from the ballet class. She cornered me and told me excitedly, ‘Did you see on the television?! South Africa won the gold medal at the Olympics!’

When I got home, my father was watching the highlights of this swim meet as well. I sat down, watched it, and was proud of the three guys who brought home the Gold Medal (Ryk Neethling was one of them).

Back in the pool, I am having a ball of a time. After every two lanes or so, I take sips of water. My heart is pounding, but it is a great feeling.

My body feels as light as a feather.

One lady who swims next to me gets out of the pool and says to me, ‘I hate swimming.’

I am shocked when she says that. Why does she swim then…? She is tall, with broad shoulders. A good, strong swimmer. Swimming should be fun.

I swim another 5 lanes, this time the backstroke. The backstroke is the easiest one to do. Once, I swam the backstroke but forgot to pay attention when I was getting to the end of the pool. I slammed my head hard against the side of the pool. That really hurt. So now I am extra careful to pay attention when I get to the end of the pool.

I take a couple of sips, and I notice my water is nearly finished. I check the time and see that I am going to make my goal.

I swim a couple of lengths doing the breaststroke. I can see the pool clearly now. I chuckle underwater and think of my wild imagination. When I am alone in the pool, I’m a bit scared and think there’s a shark in the water with me (!). But of course, that is not even remotely possible.

I think of a time when my family and I visited uShaka World in Durban. My father and I went snorkeling, and a couple of meters deep into the water, my father got my attention, and told me, ‘Vicki, do not be scared. There are baby sharks in the water but they won’t harm you.’ I held my father’s hand all the way; I was petrified.

I have immense respect for water.

I do not swim in the ocean anymore, because the last couple of times I went in, the current almost took me away and the waves are incredibly strong. I will not simply jump into a body of water to save someone, either.

Water is dangerous.

By now my bottle water is finished, as is my 30 lanes of swimming under 35 minutes. I think of my dad again, who used to always ask me how many lanes I had swum every time I came back from the gym.

I am done, and I hang around a bit in the water. I notice a sign by the side of the pool that says, ‘Parents, do not look at cell phones when your child is in the water.’ I shake my head.

Times really have changed.

I take off my goggles, my swim cap and take out the Prestick in my ears. I get out of the water and shake off some of the water in my hair. My body no longer feels like jelly; this is a good sign, a sign of fitness.

I don’t use my towel to dry myself. Otherwise, my towel will be wet when I get out of the shower.

I put my flip-flops on, and head off to the showers and changing rooms. There are two doors I have to enter, and every time I get confused by the PULL and PUSH signs. I think it has to do with the Afrikaans and English translations.

On my way to the changing room, there are two warm pools and two sauna rooms. I’ve done the sauna before, but it dehydrates me and then I am tired the rest of the day.

After showering, I get dressed. I blow-dry my hair a bit on the sides so I can put my hearing aids on.
I am back in the world, once again.

As I exit the gym, I notice that it’s starting to rain.

This is what it feels like to be free.

My body is floating as if I am still in the water.

Water is good for my soul, good for my body. I thirst for it. 

It is like a cleansing, a baptism.

I get in the car, check my phone. No urgent messages from my mom.

I blast the music to Dido.

Next week, I will do this all over again.

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