Why We Swim

Summer is Swimming.

Summer 2020 started with the Memorial Weeked, and people threw off their Covid19 fears and ran to the beaches, lakes, and rivers, drawn to water for primal relief.  I was also desperate for the water.  For years we have done our summer swimming at a city neighborhood pool just two blocks away.  But of course, it was closed this year.  The first week of June, I started looking for regular swimming options, which included having to sign up online for spots at the local watering holes.  I was so desperate I even asked  my husband to put in a back-yard pool.   That being impractical and expensive, he signed us up at a local gym with a large outdoor pool where we could keep socially distant and not touch anything but the water!  The first day in the water and every day since, swimming has been saving my soul with joy.

Why do we swim? In her new book full of stories, history, and research, Why We Swim, author Bonnie Tsui takes us with her on a global journey, drawing us in to seek the answer:

We swim for pleasure, for exercise, for healing. But humans, unlike other animals that are drawn to water, are not natural-born swimmers. We must be taught. Our evolutionary ancestors learned for survival; now, in the twenty-first century, swimming is one of the most popular activities in the world.

Swimming competitively or for exercise, is typically a one-person activity with your head underwater looking at the lane lines below.  Swimming together, however, is a great way “to find community through a team, club, or a shared, beloved body of water,” as Tsui says.  Wherever you are from, there must be an iconic swim hole, lake, or beach that everyone knows and loves.  In Austin, Texas it is an absolute necessity to spend a day with friends at Barton Springs, a three-acre, spring fed pool with the average temperature of 68 degrees.  Part of the sheer joy of the swimming is the first jump in, screams and all, from the shock of the cold water.

Bonnie Tsui, an accomplished swimmer herself, braved the brisk waters of the San Francisco Bay, crossing from Alcatraz. She relates the benefits of cold-water immersion.  There’s been quite a bit of research showing that dopamine levels go up and that the shock of the water can increase your blood pressure. Over time, the cardiovascular system is strengthened from swimming in cold water. 

Cold water swimming…I love it and my husband hates it. He people watches while I swim at Barton Springs! It started for me one summer while at a conference at Glen Eyrie in Colorado Springs. I hiked up a local peak with a friend.  We came upon a pond and I jumped in, hiking clothes and all, and was surprised and thrilled by the cold mountain water.  After that, I started jumping into cold water each winter as a personal dare and discipline.

Swimming has also been a time of meditation, a healing for my mind and spirit. There is a flow in the water, a rhythm in the strokes, that immerses me in the moment of breathing and moving.  The physical rhythm lends itself to the rhythm of prayer, praying a word with each stroke or length of the lane.  I’ve memorized many breath prayers and they are my companions that push me forward not only in the water, but closer to the Creator.  After all, in the beginning, it was the Spirit of God “hovering over the face of the waters.”  God gathered the waters together and saw that it was good.  (Genesis 1:2, 9) And swimming is a sacred connection to the creative goodness of God.

Spiritual Practices.

Meditate. Your summer may be over, but there are still hot weather weekends ahead for some last swims outdoors.  Be intentional as you swim to take advantage of its meditative properties.  Become one with the water, let it flow over you with the rhythm of life.  Repeat a breath prayer or mantra with your strokes. Try this one:  “Bless the Lord, O my Soul.  You satisfy me with good things.” (Psalm 103)

Reflect. Remember the story of Moses and the Parting of the Red Sea: “Thus says the Lord who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters…Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.  Behold I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”  (Isaiah 43:18-19)

Pray. Ask for the swirling waters around your life to part in front of you, so you can see what God is doing, how new things spring up when you look forward and keep moving.

When Peter wanted to attempt walking on water in Matthew 14:28-29, he asked:

“Lord if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

Jesus answered: “Come.”

What would you ask Jesus?

Treasure good words in your heart: “When you go through deep waters, I will be with you.”  Isaiah 43:2

Tsui, Bonnie. Why We Swim. Algonquin Books, 2020. Click below for a New York Times Review:

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