By Sia Nowrojee
Swimming has always been my yoga, my meditation.
Growing up in Nairobi, Kenya, I treasure memories, as most competitive swimmers do, of weekend swim meets, sitting around with teammates, waiting endlessly for heats and then finals, the smell of wet towels and chlorine around us.
I left Nairobi for college in the U.S and didn’t muster the courage to go out for the swim team. The 6:30 a.m. practices didn’t help either and I let swimming go as my sport. But as an adult, it has remained my meditation. I find sanctuary in the rhythmic strokes, the breathing and the solitude it allows, even in a full pool. The smells of chlorine and mildew are as familiar and comforting as the smell of my grandmother’s masala.
Wherever I can, I find a pool. My first lap swim in that pool often signifies that I have arrived to stay; I’m not simply moving through. The pool teaches me a lot about the location I then call home and my place in it.
My most glamorous swimming home has got to be the Meadowbrook pool in Baltimore, the launching pad of torpedo Michael Phelps. I like to say I practiced near him. This is not a lie. However, given his length and his phenomenal speed, we were never lap neighbors for more than a second or two. At Meadowbrook, in the company of greats, I realized – there are swimmers and there are swimmers. But when I looked around at all of us in that esteemed pool, I also realized that we are part of a common underwater tribe; easily recognizable by the smell of chlorine on our skin, the indent of goggles on our faces and the respectful way we moved past each other in a lane, regardless of speed or strength.
My least glamorous swimming home was a dimly lit Soviet era pool in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. With the aquatic “Delfin” mosaicked in Cyrillic above the door, and an entrance flanked by two silver swimmers as statuesque as Esther Williams, the façade recalled the days when monuments insisted on the era’s greatness. However, once inside, as in the rest of Bishkek, the loss of Soviet resources quickly became apparent. The facility was dark, the locker room cold and the showers overused and under-cleaned. With a hint of nostalgia, however, Soviet rules were still evident. The terms of my membership were established by a stern Kyrgyz gentleman, who seemed to think I was a rule-breaker: I was to come only on certain days at certain times, when I could join the senior women during their swim, for just one hour. No, I could not start today.
When I returned for my first lap swim, I was swept up the stairs to the locker room in a wave of babushkas. Seemingly the only person under 60, I wondered why I was relegated to this time spot. No one said anything to me. No one smiled. We headed for the pool, lit only by the watery winter sun defeated by a row of filthy windows. One by one we slipped into the pool like lemmings and began our laps. After about a month, the ladies began speaking to me and I responded in very poor Russian. I began to understand that for many of these women, who had lost Soviet pensions and family members to precious work opportunities abroad, this outing was a lifeline. Their fellow swimmers, their companions. These showers, their only source of hot water. The willingness of these women to continue the discipline of swimming signaled an optimism that belied their grimness. Their acceptance meant more to me than I anticipated. I realized – I was honored to be on this team.
As a foreign service spouse, I have dipped my toes in many an embassy pool, from the temperate hills of Islamabad to the sunshiny tropics of San Salvador, where I introduced my firstborn to the joys of swimming. Sometimes, we even had an American club pool, as in sleepy University Town in Peshawar, Pakistan and glamorous Abdoun in Amman, Jordan. These pools were almost always the same; comforting in their American familiarity and bizarre in their schizophrenia. Regardless of the culture beyond the pool walls, within them bikinis and alcohol were abundant. To the smell of American comfort food and the sounds of country music, I have done thousands of laps, ducking kids and admiring the stamina of the military personnel sharing that (inevitably) single lap lane. It is in these pools that I first did what I claimed I would never do as a teenage swimmer – breaststroke with my head held high like a Labrador, wearing fancy sunglasses. Sometimes you have to succumb.
As time has passed, I have developed neck problems which impact my ability to swim regularly. I still think of myself as a swimmer. I always will. I watch the kids on our neighborhood team, effortlessly swimming, waiting patiently for their next race, focused on the now. Who knows what the future holds for them. But if they are lucky, wherever they go in the world, a swimming pool will be a haven, the smell of chlorine will bring them back, and that first push-off from the wall will make them feel at home.
Falls Church resident Sia Nowrojee is a senior editor and technical writer at the University of Central Asia.