I did a swimming workout yesterday. I think, overall, I swam about 1500 yards in somewhere around 40 minutes, in intervals, with a lot of chatting at the end of the pool and screwing around in between. I love to swim in the ocean, in Great Lakes, and in pools messing around with my kids. I have not one but two scuba diving trips scheduled with 13 this summer. We’re diving shipwrecks in Tobermory and off the coast in Key West.
But swimming for exercise has been something that overwhelms me. I swam competitively in high school. Very competitively. I trained with people who became Olympians, I went to national competitions, I trained six days a week for up to five hours a day.
And then one day, I just stopped. I decided I wanted a normal teenage life. I quit right after I turned 17 and didn’t do another pool workout, well, until yesterday, nearly 30 years later.
Last summer I tried. I bought a summer-long membership to the masters swim club and then sat on it and didn’t go to a single practice. I think that being in the group and facing how slow I would be, how weak I had become, was just too big of a demon to slay. When I was thinking rationally, it seemed pretty logical to assume that I wouldn’t be the first person who had ever participated in a masters sport who had once been really good at something and then somehow gotten old and fat in the decades that followed.
I think that one of the things that I was really self-conscious about was sharing a lane. if you are swimming two or three or four people to a lane in a practice and you are a lot slower than everyone else, you get in their way. It isn’t the same as running in a group and falling behind — you’re actively creating a traffic jam. And somehow, some kind of body shame around being fat and out of shape was really getting in the way of me occupying my own space and claiming my right to not be fantastic at this on the first day.
Let’s call it the Fat Unicorn Syndrome. Fat athletes are assumed to be slow and low-skill at their sports. Lots of people are slow and low-skill at their sports. Example A, approximately half of my softball team last summer, most of them young and skinny. I didn’t have much self-worth invested in that — I signed up for the beer. Fat Unicorns, though, break the rules, by achieving great physical feats despite their fatness. They run half-marathons, crush the Athena class in the triathlons, find their way onto the crew boats, do the multi-day bike trips, etc.
I totally struggle with participating in a new venture unless I can be a Fat Unicorn. Especially if I’m on a team or in a group practice where my incompetence affects others. The truth is that unless we are going to spend the rest of our lives not trying new things, we are going to do things that we are bad at. I spent the first two years of my martial arts career trying not to fall over, but now that I’m nearly five years in, I’m training for my black belt. But I think that for some of us fat athletes, there is this extra internal mental pressure. “If I am not instantly excellent at this, people are going to assume it is because of my fatness, and they are also going to assume that I will never be good at it.” And the heavy weight of people’s low expectations gets in your own head and sets up barriers that certainly seem real.
Stopping swimming for me is absolutely connected to my weight gain in my mind. I ate like a swimmer when I was actively competing — probably 6000-7000 calories a day. I was constantly hungry and ate a ton of crap. So when I stopped, the weight just piled on. It took me a good ten years to figure out what healthy eating looked like and that helped me stabilize — at about 240 lbs. So, not doing swimming is tied closely in my mind with “letting myself go,” and with every bit of shame and regret I have about being heavy. I’m working on those feelings.
But I swam yesterday. And because I’ve been powerlifting, I had some new core strength and stability that I haven’t had recently. My heart was pounding after just a few laps, but I didn’t feel that kind of deep exhaustion or weakness or instability that you feel when you try something new and your body isn’t quite ready for it. It felt, well, just fine. And I swam on my own time, in a lane with somebody about my speed, then later with 13, who is markedly slower than me. But I like to think that I made space for him too, to figure out his own pace, his own distance, and his own skill. We’ll keep going, at least until we hit the shipwrecks this summer.