What Can We Learn From Swimmers of a Certain Age?

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This article is part of a series on resilience in troubled times — what we can learn about it from history and personal experiences.

Swimming, at its most basic level, is an act of perseverance.

For us humans, swimming is essentially a constant state of not drowning. Unlike most terrestrial mammals, we are not born with instinctive swimming abilities. We have to be taught. We spend hours at the beach or pool passing on that knowledge; in between blowing bubbles and the dead-man’s float, we tell of the porousness between states. To be a swimmer, then, is to always be aware of danger. It is to be acquainted with fear, but not to give in to it.

I’ve spent the last several years writing a book about swimming. In it, I share stories of survival, well-being, community: An Icelandic fishermen swims six hours through 41-degree waters to safety. A New Zealand woman begins swimming to rehab a leg she almost lost to amputation, and ends up a world record-holding marathon swimmer. A mini-United Nations of a swim club forms in Saddam Hussein’s former palace pool, in the middle of a combat zone. In Japan, I discover samurai swimming, or Nihon eiho, the centuries-old swimming martial art. I learn how submergence leads to patience, how diving fosters bravery, how the mastery of rescue and resuscitation is a sign of wholehearted benevolence.

Lately, in these times of protest and pandemic, I’ve been thinking a lot about what our bodies are capable of, and about the ways we work through fear and pain. Swimming is one of those ways.

Over the last months, I have desperately missed my community at the local pool, where the locker room is a tableau on aging: bodies and bottoms of every sort on display. The arc of fitness is long here, and it bends toward seniors. There is wisdom and kinship on tap, because it’s the older swimmers who truly have resilience. What can we learn from them? That swimming can be about survival of a different kind. For many of us, it can ease the struggle through an uncertain time.

As we get older, we all face the prospect of our bodies eroding out from under us. Swimming is the rare sport that you can keep doing, and do well, deep into your later years. It is a kind of bulwark against illness and aging. In fact, it was because of an 80-year-old named Mimi that I finally got up the nerve to swim in San Francisco Bay without a wet suit — after all, Mimi did it every day. A cold open-water swim involves pushing through discomfort to get to something great. It is also about longevity.

One morning at the Dolphin Club, the open-water swimming and boating club in San Francisco, I had a brisk, invigorating winter swim in the Bay with Kim Chambers, the champion marathon swimmer I got to know over the course of writing my book. In 2015, she became the first woman to swim solo from the Farallon Islands to the Golden Gate Bridge, a treacherous 30-mile journey through shark-occupied waters. The two of us perched in the sauna and listened to the gossip being spun around us, in part by that older group: boyfriend troubles, upcoming races, looming surgeries. Kim told me about a group of senior men at the club who call themselves the “Old Goats” — they meet once a week to swim and then socialize afterward.

“I love that for them,” she said. “Oftentimes they’re told, ‘Oh, you might slip and fall, you shouldn’t do that.’ But when you don’t use it, you lose it. For the women, this swim club is a henhouse. Mimi has her spot in the sauna and it’s seniority — she’s 80. Nancy has a citrus farm and she leaves oranges for anyone to take. How can you feel lonely when you have that?”

We are all feeling lonelier these days. The Dolphin Club and its neighbor, the South End Rowing Club, closed early in the pandemic, as did most pools, though phased plans have allowed for limited reopening. But the open water remains open to us.

On the east side of the Bay, I’ve kept up with my swims at Keller Cove in Richmond. As I walk down the path to the beach, I glimpse an abbreviated span of the Golden Gate Bridge and the spires of Sutro Tower atop Twin Peaks, poking up like the tops of ship masts. I gauge the mood of the water, the weather: steely and gray one day, bluebird sky the next. I like the diverse range of beach denizens — walkers, waders, swimmers — and I go to take my place among them.

Among the swimmers are my friend Heather, 46, and her 71-year-old uncle Jim, a lifelong open-water aficionado who grew up swimming in Maine. As spring turns to summer, I’ve watched pool swimmers I know adapt themselves to the open water, donning wet suits, neoprene caps and inflatable buoys.

Heather’s wife, Krystel, is the de facto mayor of my pool — she knows everyone by name, as well as their swimming habits — but Krystel is the last person I’d expect to see out in this wild expanse, exposed to currents and marine mammals and seaweed tangles that ensnare you during low tide. She is fearful of sharks and other aquatic creatures approaching human size, but swimming is how she soldiers on, in good times and bad. And so she braves the waters of the Bay, fighting to be present in the moment, one morning at a time.

We keep our distance, but we swim together.

Resilience is about sticking your head in water every day, for an hour or more, year after year. That’s the challenge right now — not to put your head down and ignore the world, but to put your head down and absorb it. To remember how to float, in spite of the burdens you carry.

In “The Swimming Song,” Loudon Wainwright III, the musician and bard of swimming who has never forgotten to bring a swimsuit and goggles over his five decades of touring, wrote:

This summer I went swimming

This summer I might have drowned

But I held my breath and I kicked my feet

And I moved my arms around

His song reminds me that, even in the face of fear, one can aspire to buoyancy.

These days, at 73, he has been swimming exclusively in Gardiners Bay, off the East End of Long Island. “There’s a lovely cold snap when you jump in,” he told me recently. “I saw a man last week in a wet suit and felt highly superior until I watched him cover a very substantial distance, much further than I would have gone. It’s all relative, I guess.”

We all have our distance left to go. To get by, we get in. To get on with it. To get through, and come out — hopeful, and subtly altered — on the other side.

Bonnie Tsui is the author of “Why We Swim.”