The Strange Things Swimming Has Taught Me

Water works in weird ways

Mark Starmach
Human Parts

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Images by author

On a crisp autumn morning, Sydney’s Prince Alfred Park Pool is shivering with life.

Chlorine rises in the air, and the iconic yellow umbrellas which flank the pool catch the dark orange sunlight piercing the white-grey dawn above.

Even today these umbrellas spread summer, like an outcrop of sunflowers.

An Elvis-esque, aquaerobics instructor talks through an ear-mic over Zumba music from the edge of the pool, about the hat factory fire up the road that had gripped the national news cycle the previous night.

“Property developers did it, y’know! We gotta turn that rubble into green space. That’ll teach ’em. And dove kicks, ladies!”

His groupies oblige.

Beneath the Zogg bunting the water is a luminous blue, a hiding spot from the sharp breeze, inside of which one feels invincible. I slip into Lane 7, a medium-speed lane this morning. Sometimes it’s a slow lane, if 9 is booked for Learn To Swim classes.

Despite the splashing of neighbouring swimmers, and the Zumba in the far corner of the pool, it is quiet. I watch as sparrows kiss the glassy surface. Then, I swim.

Water is reflective. And swimming too, for me, has always been a reflective process. Each stroke, a meditation. Each lap, a minor enlightening. There are many things the pool, throughout my life, has taught me.

Including, how I haven’t really been swimming at all.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve swum. When I was 4, my family moved out from Sydney’s cramped Inner West to its outer suburbs, where a huge house on a huge lot went for just $300k.

There was space for a rumpus. Space for two cars. Space for two boys. And importantly, space for a pool.

“It’s like a resort,” mum would say for the first few years.

Swimming has a special spot in the Australian imagination. Most of our best athletes are swimmers — Ariarne Titmus, Ian Thorpe, Leisel Jones, Michael Klim, Dawn Fraser, and on it goes. Chalk it up to the whole ‘girt by sea’ thing, or simply the promulgation of the idea that we’re an outdoorsy people (who therefore ‘belong’ on this stolen land, implies the subtext), the short of it is there’s a lot of pools that dot Australia’s suburbs.

Our backyard swimming pool was 10m long, saltwater, in-ground, and looked like a jellybean or a kidney, depending on how dark your humour is. It was forever aquamarine, surrounded by a sun-storing slab of red terracotta bricks and a mix of tropical ferns and European firs, colonial in its confusion. A young palm sprouted by the deep end.

In this pool, mum taught me how to swim after I had very nearly become — according to the ABS data — the 65th infant to die of drowning in Australia in 1994. In doing so, I joined the ranks of another statistic, the minority of the world’s population who can swim.

The bulky styrofoam life-vest designed to keep me afloat was more an impediment to my learning than an aid. I’d roll around on the surface like a helium-less balloon.

“Kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick, kick!” Mum would yell from the hot brick rim.

Slowly I kicked. From dog paddle, to freestyle. From bellyflops, to dives.

I was happy the first day I did a lap sans sumo suit. I was happy the day I emerged from the pool, cloudy-eyed and fingers wrinkly, plunged into a bag of Burger Men. I was happy the days it stormed, the days my older brother and I recreated The Matrix bullet dodge underwater, the days the 4pm sunlight cut through the water in a beam, its hexagons aglow and warbling on the pool floor.

But there’s a sadness too captured in that pool.

For all my upbringing, I was a very shy boy.
Inside me, an unease.

“Why are you afraid?” mum asked outside the pre-school.

I was too afraid to answer.

“Just try for me,” she pleaded.

My fear had nowhere to go.

At night, in the dark of my bedroom, I would chew my mouth, with images of mugshots from that evening’s Crimestoppers haunting my mind’s eye. Better screams eaten than let out.

One morning, by the pool, my brother and I were playing. The sun was low and I was in my undies. My brother drew X’s with a black Sharpie all over my young body. We were giggling.

When mum came out to ask what we were doing. My brother said you draw X’s on parcels you want to return in the post.

During his Hunt For Red October phase, my brother etched a soviet star into the base of the young palm by the deep end of the pool. As I swam over the years, that palm tree grew taller, but that star stayed etched at its base. Trees grow from the top.

As I grew taller, over the years, my brother’s X’s stayed etched too, somewhere in the base of me. People also, grow from the top.

At 22, I found myself afraid to jump into the world.

“What are you doing today?” my mum would ask.

“Nothing,” I’d say, afraid of that answer.

The pool is what pulled me out of that malaise. I swam every day, from summer to winter. As the water got icier, the red rim became a spiritual precipice, an ever harder threshold to overcome.

The water will always be cold, I learned. Your body will always warm.

The water that day was like a thousand needles. I got out in split seconds and dropped in a hypothermic heap. Having thought I’d felt everything I was ever going to feel, that felt pretty fucking different.

Winter at Prince Alfred Park Pool. The air was cold. The trees, dark. In the faint purple sky a few stars still lingered. The umbrellas by the pool, still yellow.

That day, Lane 7 was a slow. In Lane 9, I overheard a swimming instructor teach freestyle to bobbing adults.

“Now, you don’t want to cross your arms across your body. Imagine they’re on separate train tracks.” She demonstrates in the air. “They should never cross your body.”

They should never cross your body? I thought.

But my arms always cross my body...

I realised in that moment, all my life, I’d been swimming wrong.

Why have I been swimming like this all these years?

Why didn’t anyone show me another way?

Consciously, over the next few months, I corrected my stroke.

A friend told me to imagine holding an invisible kickboard in front of me, only taking one arm off it at a time.

Another piece of foam. At least this time it was imaginary.

Slowly my technique improved. Rest, my arm like a spear-tip. Scoop, it back like a back-hoe. Breathe. Mechanical became spiritual.

Only then could I feel how before I’d been a submerged semi-trailer tumbling through self-made drag. And how now, I pierced through the poolwater like a Shinkansen through butter. I never knew how easy this could be.

The water took on an amniotic quality. I could feel something new being born in me. I wondered, what else from my childhood could I relearn?

In the water, memories are fluid. They can be revisited and reinterpreted. I found my younger self on that lowly sunlit morning, covered in X’s by my childhood pool. Beside him stood my brother, giggling.

“Say sorry,” I said. He kept giggling.

“You’ve made him upset.” Still, giggling.

“How would you feel?” I took the Sharpie and slashed an X across his chest. The giggling stopped.

“You don’t feel good, right?!” I paused. “You don’t feel loved. You want the world back before your little brother was born. You feel like you’re not enough.”

My brother looked down at his toes.

“But you are enough.”

I took them both to the pool and we washed the X’s off.

In anger, there is always truth.
In meanness, there is always fear.

New lap.

In the darkness of my bedroom, I found my younger self, chewing his mouth, eating his screams.

“Are you afraid?” I asked him.

He nodded.

“Do you want to let out your scream?”

I can’t, his eyes said.

“I know where we can.”

In the black underwater I watched my younger self scream, and scream, and scream, the bubbles unending. When he was done we sat on the rim and he cried and cried in my arms.

“I know how alone you feel,” I told him. “Your fears are not too big for me. You are never too much for me.”

After sadness there is lightness.
When fear is felt, it passes.

We drew pictures of all the things that scared him, and burned them — watched the embers float up. And we drew new pictures, of green and pink and purple flowers, and placed them inside his head.

“You are doing so well,” I said.

New lap.

The things I’d learned in childhood worked well in a 10 metre pool. But as we grow we find ourselves in Olympic-length waters, and we need new techniques to reach the end.

Now I’m learning to swim, and live, in quiet grace. While I may never be Ian Thorpe or Bronte Campbell or a Prince named Alfred, I am learning to be what I never was. Vocal. Spoken. Kinder to myself. I’ve learnt that when you splash and splash just right, you can, for a moment, forget you’re anywhere, or that you’re anything — that what I learned was never wrong, it was just right enough.

I’m learning to rewrite the words carved in my bark.

At the start of the year, I returned to my childhood home for the first time in a while and swam in that jellybean pool. I thrashed each lap like a thousand horses. I felt my heart beat and my muscles strong. Resting against the rim, I looked up at the pale pink sky and felt as big.

Aren’t we all just adjusting to larger pools?

There are no divisions at Prince Alfred Park Pool, besides the lane markers. Resting at the end of Lane 7, I strike a chat with the man beside me — an elderly Australian-born Chinese guy named Ben. He tells me about the Chinese Masonic Temple in Surry Hills.

“There was a huge Chinese population here, for a long time! The neighbourhood used to be so poor. Now it’s too rich.”

On the next lap, an oncoming swimmer creeps into my side of the lane and gashes my hand with his Apple Watch. I wait at the other end, assessing the pain, and seeing him cause an older woman to crash into the lane marker, speak up.

“Mate! You gashed my hand! And you almost crushed her!”

“She was swimming too slow!”

After some back and forth, he apologises.

“Look, I’m sorry, mate. I’ll slow down.”

The woman behind thanks me. Again the water is quiet.

The tall palms outside Prince Alfred Park Pool applaud me as I leave. Their thousand dark fronds clap in the crisp winter breeze. The night is the darkest shade of purple before black, and the crickets chirp slowly in the dark green dew.

New lap.

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