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"My insecurities float away when I’m in the water."
Trying to define what swimming means to me is like looking at a shell sitting in a few feet of clear, still water. There it is in sharp focus, but once I reach for it, breaking the surface, the ripples refract the shell. It becomes five shells, twenty-five shells, some smaller, some larger, and I blindly feel for what I saw perfectly before trying to grasp it.
—Leanne Shapton, Swimming Studies
In March of 2020, public pools close—among other things. At first, I expect this to last a month or two (you already know how this part goes). The months stretch on, and the local college pool remains, in red letters, “CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC.” Every week, I check the website for updates, a projected time when they will reopen, any change at all. I do this for six months.
I don’t know what swimming means to me until it is gone. Throughout the first two months, when the sky is often gray, I find myself fantasizing about the next time I’ll get to jump into a body of water. Exhausted from being cooped up in my apartment for days on end, I want to feel the sensation of water supporting my limbs—that lightness and agility that water makes possible. I picture tracing the familiar black line back and forth, tallying up the yards in my head. I picture myself doing strong, graceful flipturns, torpedoing off the wall. I want to be buoyant again.
Rewind to January of 2019. Swimming has returned to me like a childhood friend, carrying with it a truckload of nostalgia and shame. When I start training for my first Olympic-distance triathlon, it has been at least ten years since I’ve been in the pool as an athlete. As I step out onto the deck, the smell of chlorine hits my nose, and a flood of painful and happy flashbacks come surging back into my memory. Thankfully, muscle memory comes back just as fast. I’m slower, weaker, and less flexible than I was as a kid, but the movement feels so familiar and easy that I’m quickly given over to a feeling of euphoria.
During my ten-year leave of absence from the pool, I’ve gone through puberty and struggled to come to terms with the way my body had filled out, fighting body dysmorphia, orthorexia, and amenorrhea. Eating and moving have become at once calculated and all-consuming. I’ve tried every fad diet YouTube has delivered to me. I’ve lost weight, gained weight, shuffled through phases of apathy and self-hatred. What started out as a purely aesthetic ambition eventually turned into a desire to prove my physical ability, a change which only makes it easier to convince myself that what I am doing is healthy. I learn how to frame it in ways that make me sound confident: “I’m lifting to make myself stronger, not thinner.” “I want to be fit for life.” I honestly enjoy the physical challenge, but no matter how satisfying the workout, the little idol I have fashioned demands more. By the time I graduate college, the gym is a more essential part of my day than Scripture, and I am afraid to consume whole milk and pizza. Body image has become an alluring false god, and I have become a decent little slave.
First John ends abruptly with the following command: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 Jn 5:21). At a glance, this seems like a kind of random note to end on for a book that’s all about loving God. But the thing about idols—the thing that one of my pastors helps me realize with a sermon on 1 John—is that idols maintain power by keeping us afraid. They capture our desires, but they cannot capture our love. We cannot give thanks to them out of love; we can only offer them sacrifices in hopes that they will bless us, and not punish us. My pastor proposes the question: “Why have you let your fears make idols of your affections?”
I have become afraid of what will happen to my body if I abandon the little sacrificial system I’ve created for myself. Fear has turned my body into a curse. Like an evil spell, it has transfigured God’s gifts of food and movement into ash, and the Spirit and the word are calling me to flee from it:
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.
1 John 4:18
It would be a lie to say that swimming saves me from this curse. The Lord saved me from it when He sent His Son to the cross as a ransom for my soul. It is not sport, but rather the wounds of Jesus that redeem my vision of the body. I confess my sin and ask the Father to show me what my body actually means. It’s around this same time that I jump back into the water.
My friend Courtney doesn’t know any of this when she invites me to register for a triathlon with her. She’s been in the sport for a couple of years and is already training for her first full Ironman. It’s her love—her sheer delight—that piques my interest, and I end up registering for three races in the summer of 2019.
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Jumping into a training plan that includes ten to twelve workouts a week is overkill, but I want to be prepared to race. Five days a week, I get up early in the morning for my first session, go to work, and do a second session before dinner. Sometimes I do three sessions in a day—you know, the kind of thing that professional athletes do. By the end of the summer, my hormones are so off-balance from the amount of stress that I’ve put on my body—and probably the lingering stress from years of restrictive eating—that I’ve been able to train for and complete three triathlons without losing a pound. I eventually realize that this is a sign that I need to rest, but I also know that taking weight loss out of the equation was exactly what I needed.
As it turns out, I’m slow. Slower than slow. I’m not a natural runner or cyclist. I have no mental toughness. I cry on more than one long ride, out there on the road all by myself. I end up walking most of the run portions of my races. I don’t know how to fuel or hydrate properly, and I finish most of my long runs with an upset stomach and shin splints. All of the fitness I thought I had in the gym doesn’t translate into the world of endurance sports. Everything is hard, and I’m not any good.
Swimming is the only thing that comes easily to me. My insecurities float away when I’m in the water. I’m definitely not clocking any impressive times, but the routine feels natural: the dance of getting into a new suit, the precarious walk through the wet locker room to the pool, the mind games I play to get myself in the water (“It’s going to be so warm!”). My form is mostly decent, and breathing is easy. During longer intervals, my mind flashes from childhood memories to the angle of my forearms to speculations about what the lifeguard is thinking. Sometimes I pray for my nieces and nephews. Sometimes I recite John Donne’s “Holy Sonnet 7” in my head. I keep track of my distance. I have nothing to prove to anyone.
Courtney and I do a few practice open water swims at the beginning of June. We go to a lake that was once a limestone mining operation. Peering through our goggles, we can see where the bottom cleanly drops off into the quarry. We try not to think about it. Courtney’s husband, Brian, canoes alongside us. We practice sighting—and this is really the main difference between pool swimming and open water swimming. There are, of course, no lane lines in the lake, and it’s easier to get off course than you’d think. We sight by fixing our eyes on a landmark on the shore and swimming in that direction. Every so often, we pull our heads out of the water to make sure we’re still on course. Sometimes our landmarks are particularly dark trees on the edge of the lake, or small peninsulas jutting out into the water.
I spend more time outside that summer than I have since I was a kid. Every day, I’m out in the sun. I learn the roads around my town and spend more time in the local lakes. I complete the longest run in my training cycle while on vacation with my family in the Leelanau Peninsula. My route takes me along Lake Michigan and through cherry orchards. My dad, a former marathoner, bikes alongside me and picks tart cherries from the trees that line the road, offering me a handful every so often.
These days are beautiful, and these sessions are so much more than workouts. Triathlon has drawn me into creation and shown me that I am small and have been given much. The sun is sweet, and the water is fresh. It’s as though the curse has been lifted, and my body is once again a good gift.
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Two months after Covid closes the pool, Courtney, Brian, and I are back at the lake. I’m six months pregnant with my son. As soon as the water temperature is tolerable, we start meeting up every week for morning swims. A new routine starts to form: I roll out of bed at 6:30, pull my suit over my growing belly, make a cup of coffee, and drive to the lake, this time one that’s only five minutes from my house. The sun is still below the trees by the time we step into the water. It’s always cold (freezing!), and we linger in the shallow parts for a while, taking more time than we need to tuck our hair into our caps and adjust our goggles. We wade out into the lake gingerly, sucking in our breath as the water line creeps higher and higher. At some point, one of us finally makes the plunge and then we’re off.
There won’t be any races this summer—not that I’d be racing anyway with a baby due in August. These swims aren’t workouts. We’re just here to enjoy the water and the sun, practice a bit of sighting, play. Courtney still struggles feeling comfortable in the lake sometimes. We pause when she needs a break to get her heart rate down. There is no pressure, no sense of urgency. The Lord has given us a lake to swim in, so we’re swimming.
Brian asks one day if the baby is buoyant. I can’t really tell, but sometimes I feel him do somersaults as I’m swimming.
In June, a single red-throated loon makes his way to our lake. Birders from nearby states amble alongside the lake while we swim, peering through their binoculars. The loon hangs out close to the shore in the early mornings. Four weeks later, it disappears.
It’s not always idyllic. The water is murky and sometimes we come across dead fish bobbing in the water. We always smell a little fishy afterwards. As the summer progresses and the lake warms up, the seaweed gets taller and taller, till it’s brushing up against our ankles even in the deepest parts of the lake. Halfway through the summer, we find a new lake that’s fed by a spring.
We swim here in the weeks leading up to my due date. On the day my son is supposed to come, my husband and I drive to the same beach where we got engaged and swim in Lake Michigan. The water is clear and cold. I’m able to do flips and somersaults with a full pregnant belly. It’s hard to pull myself out of the waves.
There is no fear now. My body has undergone a transformation over the past forty weeks—and not the kind of transformation I once idolized. I’ve never felt more at home in my body.
Swimming was what first made me conscious of the size and shape of my body—I still recall those moments in the locker room, noticing the slightest differences between my figure and the figures of the other little girls on my team. But by God’s grace, swimming is what makes me realize that my body is, and always has been, a means of grace. And it becomes an occasion for worship.
Lara Ryd is an editor for Perishable Goods. She lives (and swims) in Michigan with her family.
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