Guest Post: Anne-Michelle Tessier, the accidental swimmer

Sunday, August 6, 2017

I didn’t intend to be much of a swimmer this summer.

For nearly a decade, I’ve been a runner. An all-season, at least three times a week runner. A road race, trail race, 5k 10k 21k (and one 42k!) runner. I’ve run throughout in January in Edmonton and August in Montreal . I’ve run to the Space Needle and across Deception Bridge and through New Orleans and Manhattan and Port Moody and Hamilton; I’ve run through the Rockies and under the Detroit river, and last season I ran races in both Hell and Paradise, Michigan. Ok, I’m bragging, but you’ll see in a minute while these are merit badges I need to hold onto these days. Running is the primary way I keep sane, keep my body moving forward and my monkey brain at bay.

Then at the beginning of July I badly strained a muscle in my foot. It happened right before a race that I obviously shouldn’t have run, but I did, and so found myself sidelined for at least a month. AN ENTIRE MONTH WITHOUT RUNNING. CUE THE VIOLINS. … And so I took a deep (bilateral) breath and got ready to swim.

In recent years, my summers often involve a membership to the outdoor aquamarine gem of Michigan State University, where grad student triathletes and emeritus breast strokers do steady laps at wildly different speeds. My routine is: slip in, goggles on, breast stroke 50m to the end, one breath, and then front crawl back, for as long as I can stand it. Usually that means no more than half an hour, when either my breathing gets too ragged or my thoughts get beyond bored – normally, both. I long to be one of those dolphins doing flip turns and never stopping but somehow my oxygen levels can’t support it. Occasionally I read blog posts on more efficient swimming, and I remember things I’ve forgotten since swim team for 8 year olds, but trying to implement them at the pool only makes me feel more off-kilter.

Still: with running on hold, there was nothing else to do. In between stretching and strength cross-training and icing like a yeti, I have been going to the pool at least three days a week, and I made it up to 1km with little stopping (but still only 60% front crawl). Every trip to the pool, the lanes first looked cool and inviting, but three laps in they were liquid drudgery.

Then, last week, my friend Cheryl heard about my swimming progress and insisted we go swim in a lake together (well, first she insisted we go swim a FIVE KILOMETRE LAKE RACE together, but I vetoed that pretty fast.) While I’ve been a fair number of lakes, and the odd sea and ocean, my open water swimming has previously been about bobbing, paddling and generalized splashing about. This, however, was to be Actual Open Water Swim. Cheryl wanted to train for the above-mentioned 5k insanity, and I wanted to not look like an idiot behind her.

So yesterday, I pulled on my big girl suit and goggles, and drove half an hour north of the Michigan capital to a beachy lake surrounded by random farming fields, and got ready to swim the unknown. On a Tuesday afternoon, there were probably 30 people on the beach, but most of them were children playing and adults on towels, and those in the water were doing that bobbing and splashing I’ve already discussed. But Cheryl had heard of this lake from triathlete friends, and sure enough there was a woman with a latex head and an underwater watch out beyond the ropes, powering through the little waves. I hoped her location meant the whole rest of the lake wasn’t a mess of weeds? (Which it wasn’t, though they weren’t entirely missing.)

Well, gulp. No getting out of this now.

I told Cheryl I’d actually never swum with a swim cap before and had bought one just for this event, and so I dunked my head a bit like she did and then clumsily pulled it down to my ears. I kind of felt like a robot now, with this sleek new skull? And Cheryl said let’s just swim down to the end and I couldn’t see how to say otherwise, so I nodded and she started swimming away and I followed.
AND. Suddenly, I was swimming and it was so easy. The lake bottom wasn’t too deep, mixed with sand and plants, and the water was sun warmed in places and chilly in others.  And somehow I was front crawling through it, rhythmically, smoothly, barely having to think.  How was this happening? Why was it so effortless? Cheryl looked back frequently to make sure I was fine, but I was, and so we continued. Our laps drew a rectangle in the main section of the lake, back and forth and up and down, and in the end Cheryl’s wrist says we swam about 1.3k although I don’t see how we could have gone that far. It was so little effort.

I remained a little anxious about weeds looming up to slither at me, or maybe running into a fish. But the whole event was over in 40 minutes which felt like only 5, and it seemed I could have swum forever. Was it a miracle caused by wearing a swim cap? I did feel like the prow of a rubbery ship. Or does Motz County Park have secret watery powers of oxygenation? I am not yet sure, but there is clearly something to be accounted for.

… That swim was yesterday. Today marked two weeks from the day the doctor suggested I let the sprain heal two more weeks before trying any running, and so in fact I am writing this post while riding the high following my first, gingerly two mile run. It wasn’t pretty, but it mostly didn’t hurt, and we are going to call that a solid WIN.  Now back home, with my foot pro-actively iced under frozen peas and yesterday’s beach towel still drying in the hall, I’m thinking about a particular feeling I haven’t had in quite a while. It requires a very specific childhood dinosaur memory, so just bear with me for a minute.

When I was a kid, the Royal Ontario Museum had a dinosaur exhibit unparalleled anywhere else in the world (by which I mean, I had only ever seen that one dinosaur exhibit, so it was the best.) One thing that I will insist WAS the best, actually, was this one dark corner of underwater dinosaur diorama, in which a skeletal ichthyosaurus was suspended, under attack by two smaller prehistoric fish (?) (mini-sharks?), and all made to look submerged with flickering navy blue lighting. Although I was intrigued by the bones and the fight scene, in retrospect I was most affected by the light show – under their influence, I felt like I too was at the bottom of this dangerous primordial ocean, and especially when visiting on a hot Toronto summer day, it was both thrilling and refreshing.

Fast forward 25 or so years, to my best summer runs. It is hours after sunset, and I am gleaming with bug spray and pounding the sidewalks. The air is cooling off, though still sticky, and all around me the streetlights and traffic noises and city haze and neighbourhood chatter blend together. And if all the stars align: at some point, my pounding footsteps blur into a single rhythm, and I feel that I’m riding a wave. The light turns navy blue and the air is liquid and I am unstoppable. I’m night-swimming.

Maybe by the end of the summer, my foot will heal enough to go swimming on the pavement again.

In the meantime, we’re finding another lake to swim next week.

It’s turning out to be a good summer.


AMT is a linguist, a runner, a writer, a professor, a swing dancer, and possibly a swimmer. She lives, works and tries to keep moving forward in and around Michigan, but some months is easier found in Vancouver or Toronto. Her household includes another linguist and a dog, both of whom would rather chase the squirrels while she is in the pool.

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