Courtesy: Mike Moriarty
When the summer that’s almost over first began nearly three months ago on Memorial Day weekend, I, like millions of other Americans, eagerly returned to my neighborhood swimming pool, where I looked forward to a reunion with summertime friends and neighbors I had barely seen in nearly two years. Chesterbrook Swim & Tennis, my community club in McLean, Virginia, managed to remain open in 2020, but it did so under strict limitations that left little room for much of what has made it and so many other clubs valued treasures in communities all around our country: the type of one-on-one swim lessons where a lifetime of swimming enjoyment germinates; exciting swim meets where youngsters experience their first thrills of victory and agonies of defeat; or relaxed, small-group social interactions with parents and friends that characterize these clubs under non-pandemic circumstances.
For me, though, the start of this particular summer swim season was not so much an overdue community reunion as it was the start of a summer-long farewell, a bidding adieu to memorable places and neighborhood friends who had shaped my sense of place, my sense of belonging, indeed my sense of self. After 60 years in Northern Virginia — and nearly 60 summers in and around the region’s swim clubs — my wife and I are poised to pull up stakes (or climb from the pool and towel off, as it were) and begin the next chapter of our lives two hours south, in Charlottesville, Virginia, where we hope to enjoy a more walk-able, know-your-neighbors lifestyle than we believe we can achieve in McLean. But if that farewell tour began immersed in the type of anxiety and self-doubt one would expect on the cusp of a major life change, it has concluded in late summer, in the lengthening shadows of August, soothed by cooler temps and comforted by a sense of peacefulness, a realization that lessons I’ve learned in and around Northern Virginia’s neighborhood swim clubs have prepared me for my own, personal autumn.
When I was six, a neighborhood swim club opened a five-minute walk from my family’s home in Falls Church, Va., and into that concrete oasis in the ‘burbs my parents released my brothers, my little sister, and me, like tadpoles dropped in a clump of gel in the seasonal creek that meandered through the woods at the end of our street. All of us took to the water easily, quickly absorbing not only stroke basics, but the sense of accomplishment that comes with milestones achieved in the water. Decades later, I would swim across the Chesapeake Bay, but when I staggered up the beach at Kent Island and looked back through the giant legs of the Bay Bridge and over the surface of 4.4 miles of brackish open water to where I had started two hours earlier, I’m not sure I felt any greater sense of accomplishment than I had some fifty years earlier when I clung to ladder of our neighborhood pool and gazed back across maybe 20 yards of churning water to the lifeguard stand, where I had begun my first bold voyage across High Point Pool.
If that prideful adventure across six lanes of open pool was fraught with twists and turns (as I navigated around the cavorting crowd of kids, teens, and parents), the swimming that ensued over the following five-plus decades more closely resembled the orderly, straight lines on the bottom. Successful swimming is about refining your stroke and then going through the exact same motions time after time: maybe 16 or so strokes per 25-meter length, over hundreds of lengths, year after year. The view changes a little from pool to pool, but there’s no denying the exercise is repetitive — and habit-forming.
Throughout my life, my habitual swimming came to serve as a source of not only fitness, but also mental and emotional comfort. Like morning prayers spoken softly in the calm of a quiet monastery, swim strokes taken in the morning in an uncrowded pool have at times instilled in me a sense of harmony during periods of conflict, a sense of clear direction in times of uncertainty, a sense of normalcy in times of change – such as the one I am poised to embark on at summer’s end.
Indeed, swimming has provided me with one more important thing: a sense of belonging. Membership on our neighborhood club team through my formative years situated me among my immediate circle of friends and beyond – I was the tall kid with the pretty decent backstroke. I think the discipline the activity instilled in me, as well as the modest success (and resulting confidence) I enjoyed, influenced my path to adulthood in a multitude of ways, not least a general familiarity with the entire Northern Virginia region. First as a skinny, little boy in the backseat of a station wagon, and later as a dad in the driver’s seat of an SUV, visiting other area swim clubs introduced me to other communities and filled in the gaps of awareness that would otherwise have been filled with suppositions and assumptions that everywhere else was like where I grew up. It wasn’t.
As a middle child in a big family, I ventured from Falls Church to Springfield, to Annandale, Fairfax, and Alexandria, gaining a little bit of perspective at each stop all along the way. Without conscious effort, I tucked away memories of not only times, wins, and losses, but also people and places imprinted on my memory, like permanent freckles baked onto my shoulders from countless afternoons in the sun. A set of identical twins spied on deck at Orange Hunt swim club in 1969 — who knew such things existed outside of the movies, thought my 9-year-old self. “The lip of this pool is made of slippery brick! Whose idea was that?”, I exclaimed at another club a few years later, unsettled by the surprise complication to my anticipated racing start. “We’re taking Gallows Road to the meet?”, I must have asked my dad with a certain amount of trepidation.
As I grew older and evolved from a youth swimmer into a “swim dad”, my return visits to some of the old familiar clubs I had visited as a child connected me not so much to new communities (by then I knew them well), but in some way these return visits connected me to myself, enabled me to begin to learn certain lessons more difficult to master – and much more valuable – than a flutter kick. One such visit stands out from the others.
In the early 2000s, I accompanied my daughter’s team to a meet at a neighboring swim club, one where my little sister had lifeguarded in 1984, the summer before she succumbed to depression while away at college. The loss of her was a pivotal event for me, one that disabused me of any assumption that life follow a straight line, like a swim lane. In an emotional pre-meet speech at Hamlet Swim Club in 2003, I was allowed the opportunity to express my gratitude for the annual award in my sister’s name that the team has since 1985 presented to a graduating senior. It had been 18 years since we lost Molly, but on the deck at Hamlet was where I first summoned the courage to publicly express my feelings on that painful subject.
Tragically, the “swim lesson” I learned that morning at Hamlet was one I drew on just a few years later, when a star swimmer recently graduated from my home club likewise lost his battle with depression. By that time I was Chesterbrook’s board member responsible for the team, and in a speech at our team’s next swim meet, I was able, I think, to draw on past experiences — including the one at Hamlet a few years earlier — to articulate the raw emotions my community felt at that time.
In the past 10 years I have devoted more effort to summer swimming pools themselves than to the youngsters (or adults) splashing about in them. First, as president and then as renovations director, I spearheaded Chesterbrook’s “once in two generations” renovation, including construction of an expansive recreational pool, tennis courts, a basketball court, and a party pavilion. Although the club has for more than 20 years been home to a highly competitive swim team, for the 600 members families — and for me particularly — the massive renovation was not about finding enjoyment in winning swim races, but was instead about discovering simpler joy — floating, splashing, horsing around with parents, aimlessly whiling away an afternoon.
It was against that backdrop that I struggled in June to imagine a happy future in Charlottesville, divorced from this universe of familiar clubs, events, and friends, all playing out each summer according to the familiar rhythm of the swim season. So, striving to replenish my pool of memories one last time, I ventured out on a brutally hot Saturday morning and visited three clubs that had an almost mythical presence in the decades-old memories that I clung to, like steel swimming pool ladders permanently embedded in deck concrete.
Alas, the clubs did not reinforce old memories as much as they suggested time had rolled on. Outside my vision for a generation or more, the clubs had evolved, challenging me to follow suit. At the first club I visited, one where I thought I faintly remembered a sturdy brick bathhouse on a rainy morning in 1968, I found that a major fire a few years ago had caused such severe damage to that structure that the club had demolished it and rebuilt; try as I might, nothing at the club triggered even a faintest recollection, my long-held memory either misplaced or expired.
After watching a few races in those unfamiliar surroundings, I departed for another club a few miles away, where as a nine-year-old I had watched some of the area’s top young swimmers compete in the league’s annual All Star Meet, an experience that I think helped motivate me to qualify for that meet the following summer. Bren Mar club, however, hosted not a single Saturday meet in 2021, as demographic changes in the surrounding neighborhood have forced it to give up trying to field a team. At the third club I visited that day, Hamlet Swim Club, I dropped off my annual cash award to be given in a few weeks to the outstanding graduating senior recognized with the award that bears my sister’s name. The club and its community prospers and its swim team competes in the upper ranks of the league; still, though I remain eternally grateful to the members for their perennial recognition of my sister and the values the award symbolizes, I would be surprised if there remains even one soul at the club who remembers the sassy, auburn-haired 19-year-old girl for whom it is named.
Back home at Chesterbrook, the following Sunday afternoon was spectacular: it was sunny and warm, but the oppressive heat and humidity of the previous day had subsided. In the “competition” pool, lap swimmers shared lanes with ambitious members of the swim team soaking up lessons from skillful coaches, while in un-roped lanes kids played and challenged each other to touch the bottom of the 12-foot deep pool. Embedded in the coping stone between lane 3 (where the home team would race) and lane 4 (where a visiting swimmer would race) is a plaque I had installed fifteen years ago in memory of the star swimmer whom I had eulogized on his passing in 2006. Up a flight of stairs and a few steps to the west, in the direction of the tree-line where the sun would set in another few hours, the recently completed “recreation” pool was crowded with parents and children bobbing, splashing, and playing in the fountains — carelessly, as they should on such a fine summer day. Virtually none of the young families I saw there could identify me or link me to any of the efforts I have undertaken at the club for the past 20 years, but as I take it all in, I am nothing if not content with all that I see.
It was time, I realized, to take to heart the advice of one of my favorite authors, William Faulkner, whose novels and stories explored the persistent interconnectedness of the past with the present, and the enduring challenge — both as individuals and as communities — to resolve our understanding of the past on terms that propel us into the inexorable future. “You cannot swim for new horizons,” Faulkner wrote, “until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.”
The following Monday morning, I dove into the pool at 6:00 a.m., intent on swimming two miles in the hour before the swim team would arrive for the season’s final practice. With effort, I achieved my goal (barely) and climbed out at 7:00 — the last grown-up to finish the morning’s early bird swim. As I toweled off, I noticed a young dad a few feet away, sitting on a deck chair with his son, who couldn’t have been more than eight. The boy looked a little sleepy, but I could tell that his dad was quietly offering him words of support and encouragement. A moment later, the coach arrived and called that eight-year-old and his teammates to join her in a space at the far end of the pool, where they gathered on the deck in a semicircle. The coach — young enough to be my daughter — spoke to the children softly, barely audible above the chirping of crickets in the nearby grass and the songs of birds in the tall oaks and poplars that bounded the lawn. With nary a fidget, the children sat patiently, listening intently to their coach’s message.
Between that gathering and where I stood with my swim bag slung over my shoulder was 25 meters of cool, clear water, utterly still, as smooth as glass, not even a ripple remained from my two miles in lane 3 — nor from my two-plus decades at the club. The water, I understood, now belongs to those children sitting at the far end of the pool. I pick up my goggles and head for my car; I have more to pack, and the moving truck will be here before I know it. There’s an old swim club in Charlottesville, Fry’s Spring Beach Club, that I hear is doing some great new things, and I’m hoping I might be able to help.
Mike swam at the NVSL’s High Point Pool from 1968 – 1978. Joining Chesterbrook Swim & Tennis Club in 2000, Mike served as the club’s Swim Team Rep (2006-2008), President (2013-2015), and Director of Strategic Planning (2019-2020). He looks forward to joining Charlottesville’s Fry’s Spring Beach Club in 2022.