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Being a big fish in a small pond isn't all it's cracked up to be. This great revelation came to me in my health club pool as I was being sideswiped by a wildly flailing breaststroker while trying to avoid colliding with a portly man who was drifting contemplatively about the deep end. It's not that I'm so big, but the pool is only 35 feet by 17 feet (or 15 feet, the club's receptionist isn't sure; at first she told me it was 6 feet, but she must have confused depth with width).
When I joined the club, it was with the vague idea of becoming fit. Suddenly everyone I knew was into jogging, tennis or weightlifting. I pictured myself lithe and muscular, smiling broadly as I did my workout, singing in the steam room.
But, by the time I took my postswim shower, I was often swearing under my breath and scowling. Sometimes my adrenaline was coursing because I'd had a run-in with someone who'd suddenly been inspired to practice water ballet in my lane. Sometimes I had scratches on my arms or legs from skirmishes with antisocial swimmers.
Because I concentrated on swimming only after I'd joined the club and discovered that Nautilus machines were boring and treadmills stupefying, I hadn't paid much attention to the size of the pool. Swimming took me by surprise and soon became an addiction. My skin grew soft from immersion, and I became as engrossed with finding goggles that didn't leak as doing the crawl right.
A friend had demonstrated the stroke, lying with the lower half of his body on the bed, his upper half projecting perilously over the floor. "It's like rolling over barrels," he'd said obscurely, and as I swam, I repeated his words as if they were a mantra, kicking as fiercely as I could so that no one would get in my way.
Many pools have lanes marked by stripes on the bottom. In my pool, though, the concept of lanes was entirely subjective. While the path I made from one end of the pool to the other constituted what I thought of as a lane, it was clear that it existed in my mind alone and only the force of my own conviction could make it real to someone else.
Some swimmers seemed to share my vision; their actions showed that they, too, operated on the assumption that lanes existed, imaginary or not. These swimmers were immediately recognizable because they didn't enter the pool if no "lanes" were available; instead, they stood resolutely on the deck, twirling their goggles, waiting to claim the first free "lane." They could also be distinguished by the fact that once in the pool, they remained there a long time, and their paths delineated a perfectly straight line.
But while these swimmers followed an unwritten code of honor, as far as everyone else was concerned, anarchy reigned. To some, the pool was simply an invitation to romp and splash. To others, it was a place to go to cool off after the Jacuzzi. But the majority actually tried to swim—or at least to stay afloat. They blithely swam every which way but were outraged if anyone got in their path.
Before long, I'd catalogued the various types who frequented the pool. There were the social butterflies, who stood in the shallow end, laughing and gossiping and rarely, if ever, got their hair wet. They were wholly unimpressed with the fact that what they were in was a swimming not a standing pool. Then there were the dilettantes, who surface-dived like inept porpoises, essaying a few strokes now and then, sometimes with water weights strapped to their arms and legs. Often as not, they would swim the width of the pool rather than the length and, consequently, were almost impossible to avoid. When you bumped into them, they'd give you a spacey look as if you'd interrupted a deep, involved reverie, and then paddle dreamily on.
The fighters, on the other hand, would sooner scratch you than allow you to get within a yard of their thrashing selves. This group was made up of those who dealt with the water as though they were doing battle and had to pound it into submission. Clearly out of their element, they remained afloat by a sheer act of will, and their wake was composed of such turbulent and towering waves that whenever you turned your head to breathe, you'd get a mouthful of water.