Slow lane swimming in Iceland: Interview with Julia Zarankin

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Swimmers are kindred spirits. There's something about the love of water, and the need for the quiet aloneness that swimming requires that makes swimmers kindred spirits. One of these kindreds is writer, birder and self-professed slow lane swimmer, Julia Zarankin.

Her tales of swimming in Iceland are magical.

Be warned, you might book yourself a flight to Iceland after reading this...

LZV: You're a self-professed slow lane swimmer. Tell me about your swimming regime -- breast stroke? Side stroke?

I love this new identity: a slow-lane swimmer. I used to be ashamed & tormented by my slowness in the pool; in high school my gym teacher relegated me to the shallow end with the people who didn’t know how to swim, and I felt seriously deficient. Now I’ve embraced my slow-ness and kind of love it.

I tend to alternate one lap of breast stroke with one lap of front crawl (that way I don’t get as tired) until my internal clock tells me I’ve reached the half-hour mark. Sometimes at the half-hour mark I turn to back-crawl and do that for a bit, but I still haven’t figured out  how not to hit my head and not swim diagonally on my back, so it’s a work-in-progress, and I only experiment when I’m in the pool alone. I used to count laps, but then I stopped. The thing I love most about swimming is that my brain shuts off its to-do list and I enter this bizarre stream-of-consciousness zone where thoughts sort of tumble into one another, and I don’t really try to make sense of them, I simply drift into the role of an observer and watch them battle it out. It’s a strange form of meditation for me – the only area of my life where I happily divorce myself from my thoughts.

Swimming got me through the last stretch of dissertation-writing regimen: I had something to look forward to every day at 4:30 pm. My proudest swimming moment actually happened in graduate school, a few months before defending my dissertation. I went swimming, in the slow lane, of course, and for the first time in my swimming career, I passed someone. Then another, and a third. I kept doing my breast stroke with a ridiculous grin on my face and imagined that I could now, finally, start swimming with the faster folks! I couldn’t wait to tell the world about my new triumph. As I got out of the pool, I took one last look at my beloved slow lane to immortalize this moment of super-swimmer-ness and realized, to my total horror, that the people who I had passed weren’t swimming at all! They were water-jogging. Ah well…it’ll be the slow lane for me forever, I think, and that’s just fineJ

You asked about strokes: I think I experimented with side stroke a few times but I couldn’t get into a rhythm. For some reason side stroke forever feels like a dad-stroke to me, because it’s the only stroke my father knows. I’ve only seen him swim a few times in my life (he hates the water), and there he was, swimming side-stroke in his Tilley hat and sunglasses. So when I’m just doing side-stroke laps in a pool sans Tilley hat, I feel like something is missing. 

LZV: You've been swimming in 11 (!!) different slow lanes in Iceland. That's amazing! Highlights?
Iceland is a swimmer’s paradise. To be perfectly honest, I spent most of my time in Icelandic pools just lounging around in their hot tubs. Almost every swimming facility we visited offered a great pool with lane swimming, another pool with nifty water slides, and between 2 and 5 fabulous hot pots of varying temperatures – I loved the 38-degree pool best. Pools are social hubs in Iceland. Everyone from babies to senior citizens hang out in the pools. My husband and I once met Iceland’s oldest marathoner in a 40-degree hot pot. He was 85 years old and training for the Reykjavik marathon. He told us that he’s held the national record in his age-group since he turned 65! Almost all the pools are outdoor and they’re used year-round.

We swam in Reykjavik’s oldest art-deco pool called Sundhollin (it had two hot pots on the roof!), built in the 1930s, which I loved. We also swam in a swankier, more modern pool complex on the edge of the city. One of my favourite pools is in Iceland’s northern capital, Akureyri. Amazing waterslides, and about 8 different hot pots. I did some serious slow-lane breast stroke in between my stints in the hot pots. Great sunset viewing, too. (All pools in Iceland are open until at least 10pm).

By far the most popular thermal bath in Iceland is the Blue Lagoon, and it’s certainly great, but a bit overpriced and over crowded. If you’re looking for a spa-type steam-bath experience, I’d go to Myvatn Nature Baths, about an hour outside of Akureyri. We spent about three hours soaking in the baths after hiking around a volcanic crater and exploring lava fields. No slow-lane swimming, just soaking, but it was fabulous.

The incredible Hofsos Swimming pool

The one pool I regret not visiting is the Hofsos Swimming pool, designed by Basalt Arkitektar. It’s an “infinity pool” and apparently as you’re swimming your (slow-lane) laps (in year-round geothermally heated luke-warm water), you can see the ocean just beyond the horizon and it feels like you’re swimming out into the open, toward the distant islands. Apparently there’s also a town with a world renown herring museum not far from there… Ah, next time.

No town in Iceland is too small to have a pool, by the way.

LZV: How did you find these pools?
I did a bunch of online research and then talked to people in swimming pools and asked them where they loved to swim! Icelanders love to nerd-out about swimming pools.

LZV: Does the swimming culture or slow lane etiquette differ between Canada and Iceland?
Pools in Iceland are pristine, and everybody showers sans bathing suit before entering the pool. If an Icelander sees you trying to enter a pool before having had a serious shower they will glare at you and point you in the direction of the shower and sometimes even watch and make sure that you’ve showered thoroughly! As I mentioned earlier, pools in Iceland are also social hubs – it’s where people of ALL ages go to relax and hang out! I once saw a young Icelander reading Dostoevsky’s DEMONS in a 40-degree hot pot.

LZV: Do you ever plan your trips around swimming?
Yes! My obsession with visiting Budapest was entirely swimming-related. I think Budapest has the best hot-springs in the world! We swam in Szechenyi Baths – this majestic thermal bath complex built in 1911. I think there were about 15 different hot tubs and a huge outdoor pool where Hungarian men hung out all day long and played chess.

Editor's Note: CHECK THEM OUT! They are beyond incredible! *books flight immediately*

I also made sure we spent some serious time in the Takhini Hot Springs when we visited Whitehorse.
My husband and I are turning into hot springs junkies, so lately we’ve been planning travel (partly) around pool/water-related activities. I recently heard great things about hot springs in New Mexico…!

LZV: Are there other destination slow lanes you have loved, or have your eye on?
I’d love to visit Karlovy Vary in Czech Republic (though I suspect it would involve more lounging than actual slow-lane swimming), and we’re hoping to swim in the Dead Sea in Israel at some point this year, with a side trip to the hot springs in Hamat Gader – yep, I’m already doing my research!

LZV: When did you realize that in addition to being a writer and bird watcher and pianist (all very meditative, solitary things) that you are also a swimmer?
I can’t say I really think of myself as a swimmer. It’s mainly just something I do regularly (approx. 3x/week) to clear my head. And the bonus is that swimming instantaneously puts me in a good mood. What’s not to love about it?

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