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Rebecca ter Borg
Rebecca ter Borg

SocietyDecember 26, 2021

The Sunday Essay: In praise of swimming

Rebecca ter Borg
Rebecca ter Borg

Summer read: I found peace by taking the plunge with Hinemoana, writes Leonie Hayden.

The Sunday Essay is possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

First published May 23, 2021.

Original illustrations by Rebecca ter Borg.

I have always loved the water. A glimpse of any pretty body of water, no matter how arctic, and an ancient part of my brain whispers: “you’re pretending to be a mammal, you’re supposed to live there.”

Sometimes I imagine I can hear Hinemoana calling me home. Why is she so often described as the wife of Kiwa, or the wife of Ranginui, and therefore the jealous rival of Papatūānuku, always trying to erode Papa’s shores? A Real Housewife of Te Moana Nui-ā-Kiwa who waits for her husband in a karengo apron, drunk on jealousy. I don’t believe Hinemoana is vengeful or thinks about anyone else at all in her vast green-blue. I think she’s soft and all-powerful, happy surrounded by her kuku and koura and other treasures, unencumbered by breath or husbands or gravity. It’s me that is jealous of her.

So like infant Māui bobbing about on the tide, “thrown by you into the foam of the surf, after you had wrapped me up in a tuft of your hair”, I spend hours soaking, diving, splashing, chucking a ball around, pretending to be a deranged dolphin, and swinging off a rope until I look like a walnut. First in, last out. What I’ve never really done is swum.

I have vague memories of attending Hilton Brown swimming school, lined up alongside every other small child on the North Shore like so many Johnson & Johnson-soft, pot-bellied ponaturi. I assume I showed no aptitude because the lessons didn’t continue after I became a sentient human being. I was a sporty kid – or perhaps busy is more accurate. Being busy is the Number One Rule of Being A Child. I spent years doing music lessons, netball, athletics, karate, and a brief, disastrous flirtation with ballet (Mum, encouragingly: “you were the only one who understood the French words though!”), all of which I liked but never loved.

Years later a particularly tempestuous teen temperament saw me getting kicked out of both school and home at 16. In my gothic fugue, I imagined that things like a nutritious diet and regular exercise had all been part of an authoritarian plan to control me, and so after I left home I gave up both and set about living rebelliously as a sedentary potato.

As a result of this embarrassing mindset, I’m an asthmatic with a neck hump from working at a desk and bad knees and hips at the age of 40. I have not treated my tinana like a temple, a palace, or even a moderately priced kitset garden shed. During a rigourous self-improvement period two years ago, I decided to become a person that goes to the gym a lot, but after four or five months I discovered all the bouncy exercise I was doing was slowly making an old hip injury worse (for which it had no defence on account of having bored and atrophied muscles for neighbours), until I had to stop altogether. I saw an osteopath for my hip and while there was slow progress, if I slept on it weirdly, I’d be back to square one. The potato life returned.

What I did next is grotesque, but it is a burning hot shame I share with many, many other people – I continued to pay for a gym membership I didn’t use for over a year. I refuse to do the maths that will reveal just how much money I shovelled into the abyss, for fear it will drive me mad, but it did mean that when I decided a few months ago to venture back, the lovely, Brillopad-scrubbed shiny people of the local gym were waiting for me with open arms (I had, after all, paid for a good chunk of their latte budget with no good or services demanded in return).

For some reason the first thing I did was go for a swim.

Actually, the first thing I did was walk up and down the pool a bit and then choke trying to swim one length. I swallowed and coughed up water and was exhausted before 10 minutes had gone by. My eyes burned, I hadn’t thought to get goggles. So I got out and glumly sat on the side of the pool for a bit. Then a thought hit – what if I just swam reeeally slowly. Like, embarrassingly slowly. A leaf floating down a stream; an ant in a current. And so I crawled one length at my drowning ant’s pace, and stopped and caught my breath. And then I did it again and again. I was surprised that the freestyle I was taught as a kid came back fairly easily, although I painfully snorted the pool water into the back of my brain a couple more times. I did my best for about 20 minutes and then I got out.

Afterwards I found I was excited to go back.

I go two to four times a week now and my excitement hasn’t diminished. The warm, sweetly acrid air always feels like a welcome. I’m not much faster, but over time I’ve worked up to swimming for half an hour without long pauses between lengths. People many decades older overtake me easily, and honestly I would high five them as they go by if that wasn’t a breach of unspoken pool etiquette (literally, stay in your lane). I love that this funny local gym attracts all ages, all sizes, all abilities. For an activity that means stripping down to nearly nothing, I feel surprisingly in and in control of my body. In fact, my favourite thing about my regular time slot is that I’m surrounded by other fat bodies that are strong and athletic. They power through the water with ease – muscles glistening, their rhythmic kicking a comforting heartbeat as I plod along with my one length to their every two. In fact, I’ve only seen one person that “looks” like a swimmer: a tall, sandy-blond man with 18 abdominal muscles who looked like he’d wandered off the set of Home & Away. One of my neighbours eyeballed him, told him off for not wearing a swimming cap, and kept on swimming with her Olympian’s stroke. I haven’t seen him again.

I love the feeling of stretching out in the water, fingers and toes reaching away from each other. The rotation of arms and neck seems to undo a lot of the evil of working in front of a computer. Muscles feel warm afterwards, and the cardio never steals my breath completely. And it’s also wonderfully meditative. The connection between wai and wairua is visceral and immediate (one understanding of wairua is the combining of the masculine and feminine waters, to create a spiritual identity). Certain evolutionary leftovers in the form of receptors in the face are triggered by cold water and automatically slow the heart rate. It’s one reason we instinctively know to splash our faces with cold water when we need to calm ourselves. Hinemoana calling us home.

The thoughts I spend so much time pushing away with content and social media just swirl unfettered, but at a manageable rate. Often it pushes past that to a nice blank space, where all I’m thinking about is the water and my body moving inside it.

I sometimes get clarity around a story I’m working on. I wrote this entire essay in my head while I was swimming.

We all have different physical limitations and means, but if you have also discovered that bouncing around under gravity’s full force doesn’t feel that good, I encourage you to get wet. Even in its chlorinated form, it feels like a return home and I for one am grateful for every drop.

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