Swimming Is My Key to Serenity

But scheduling a swim during pandemic is making me a nervous wreck

My index finger is poised in the middle of my computer’s mouse pad, my eyes glued to its clock. It is 7:59 a.m. and I have carefully positioned the cursor over the words ‘sign up.’ For the next 60 seconds, I hold my breath and fight the urge to blink, my eyes toggling between the clock and the cursor, which I will click right on the hour, in a desperate attempt to claim a lap lane for the next day’s 8 a.m. swim.

It didn’t use to be like this. Before COVID-19, I would mosey over to the pool at any time, on any day, plunge into the crisp clear water, and lose myself in an hour or more of lap swimming. I’d enjoy pre-swim locker room banter, a post-swim sauna, and leave feeling relaxed and ready to seize the day.

Now, anxiety seizes me as I vie not only for a measly 45-minute swim, three days a week, but also other forms of exercise, like hiking in state parks or on local wooded trails. These simple pleasures and the precious respite that they provide have become angst-ridden contests among hordes of people competing for the very limited access that social distancing allows.

No longer can my husband and I drive on a whim to our favorite hiking spots and expect to find a parking place, or the far away-from-civilization feeling that we crave. The most obscure parks and trails have become magnets for folks as desperate as we are for scenery change. Moreover, there’s no escaping the virus when you’re smelling your own stale breath inside a mask, instead of the sweet piney woods, or stepping on the heels of other hikers — despite six-feet-apart rules. Every outing, no matter how small, incites worry: Do I have my mask? Is there hand sanitizer in the car? Am I feeling well? Did tension cause this morning’s headache and nausea, or should I get a rapid test?

Especially fraught is swimming, or rather, to swim.

Swimming is the scaffolding of my life. It is my main form of exercise because double hip replacements, a partially fused spine, and arthritic knees limit what I can do. Since freshman year of college, it has been my anti-depressant and anti-anxiety drug. Nothing calms me like being immersed in water, hearing the gentle swish of my arms propelling me forward, and the hum of my breathing. During my nearly two-mile swim, I overcome writing blocks, put relationships into perspective, and attain a level of clarity and contentment that no other activity provides. My need to do so many laps is partly physiological: after nearly 40 years of conditioning, it takes this much for me to reach my swimmers’ high. It’s also obsessive; so obsessive that I have built family weekends and vacations around it. But my family tolerates it, knowing that even on my grumpiest days, I emerge a nicer human being.

Predictably, I was ecstatic when my pool reopened after lockdown, but crestfallen to find the lap swimming program truncated to meet social distancing and other public health restrictions: one swimmer per lane to minimize inhaling each other’s sputum; 45-minute swim sessions to give staff time to disinfect between each one; and, only three swims per week, per person, to accommodate as many members as possible.

To prevent throngs of swimmers from swarming the facility at once, the pool also instilled an online reservation system that in theory sounds simple but, in reality, makes riding a unicycle on a telephone wire look easy.

The system requires swimmers to sign up for their desired swim time exactly — and I mean — 24 hours in advance. So, if I want to swim at 8 a.m. on Sunday morning, then I must register at 8 a.m. on Saturday. This is no small feat, since hundreds of swimmers with faster fingers than mine are simultaneously trying for one of the pool’s six lanes. More often than not, I receive the “class full” message or, get pushed to the waiting list — if I’m lucky.

But I don’t quit. I try, trembling, for the next swim and the next, every 59 minutes, until I snag one, which tethers me to my computer (I cannot manage to register on my phone) for hours. I have actually set alarms to remind me to register. To minimize the chance of getting shut out, I joined a second pool whose online registration for next-day swims occurs at 2:30 daily. I’ve set alarms for this too. So, for much of every day, I obsess over swim registration.

The payoff is locking in a swim. Landing one on the first try is like discovering an extra $10K in my bank account. I can cruise through my day, knowing that the next day’s swim is secure. Although, I’m never truly carefree. I always worry that the algorithm will misfunction and cancel my reservation, and I’m constantly reviewing my confirmation email to see that it is intact. Then I relax, sort of, until the next morning, when sign up begins again.

Public health writer/editor and author of the memoir, “Salt on a Robin’s Tail: An Unlikely Jewish Journey Through Childhood, Forgiveness, and Hope.”

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