Courtesy: John Culhane
“What I’ll Miss About COVID-19” is not the most promising title for any article. It also risks minimizing the terrible suffering and loss experienced by so many during the past year. But from the perspective of this swimmer, one of the small but important consolation of this soon-to-end nightmare is a reimagining of the possibilities of pools. It’s been a chilling experience – in the right way.
Since this past Fall, several outdoor pools in the Philadelphia suburbs have stubbornly remained open. The usually-seasonal clubs that run these facilities have figured out ways to install heaters, keeping the pools at temperatures appropriate to workouts. So, while all the indoor pools in the area were closed for many months after the summer season, I was toiling away with a masters team at the Ft. Washington Swim and (no) Tennis club. At the same time, my twin daughters discovered that one of the area age group teams, Penn Charter Aquatic Club, had been freezing through the same thing at another, nearby facility. This prompted them to join that club, which turns out to have been the best decision they’ve made about their sport in a long time.
I haven’t especially enjoyed getting in or out of the pool – especially on nights where the temperature has been in the twenties, and the wind has been blowing hapless pull buoys hither and thither. And the steam arising from the pool on especially bitter evenings has frozen those same buoys more than once. Crazy. My kids and I have talked more than once about the insanity of what we’re doing.
But the misery of freezing my butt off on the pool deck is more than assuaged by the sheer joy of outdoor swimming. Especially in recent years, I have been putting up with swimming indoors for most of the year – but have really loved the al fresco experience every summer. The swimming itself is enough of a treat for me to drive thirty-plus minutes from the city, but it’s not just that.
Masters swimming is always about the camaraderie of teammates: The faux-complaints over insane sets. Catching up about swimming and the rest of our lives. The shared sense of commitment to the special sport that most of us have been engaged with forever.
But swimming through face-numbing cold and in the face of the pandemic is even more special. A kind of brutal triage has reduced the ranks to the truly dedicated – obsessed, to use a perhaps more apt word. I love getting to beat myself up for 75 minutes amid other, like-minded folks. A strong sense of accomplishment and unity is reflected in the otherwise inexplicable smiles (and more predictable blue lips and chattering teeth) that cap every practice. “Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!” We don’t care. In fact, we love it.
Sadly, it seems likely this is a one-and-done situation. The improvisations and the high expense needed to heat these pools is sure to be seen as a labor-intensive and expensive ordeal next Winter, so it’s very unlikely to continue. That’s not enough for me (or anyone else, I hope!) to mourn the end of this awful pandemic. But it will be a loss nonetheless.
ABOUT JOHN CULHANE
John Culhane is a professor of law and Co-Director of the Family Health Law & Policy Institute at Widener University Delaware Law School. Besides his work in education, he’s also a prolific author who has been a contributing writer for Slate Magazine, and whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Miami Herald, the Huffington Post, Dissent Magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Philadelphia City Paper, among others.
John himself is a Masters’ swimmer, a self-described ‘swimming enthusiast,’ and was a captain of the men’s swim team at the College of William & Mary. He resides in Philadelphia with his husband and his twin daughters.