I walk into the gym and observe a number of other early risers come through the door as the health club opens.
We are the first to arrive, time and again.
Minutes later, some of us will meet again at the pool. Strangers united by the need to glide through the water.
For the last 7 weeks this has been my routine. I guess it started as a sort of therapy, after a period of depression waved over me.
The endless search for inner peace brought me here, to this room, of all places.
I needed something to get me out of bed, a kind of structure; a rule to follow in an attempt to keep my sanity.
I needed a project, a goal, something to chase.
I must admit that initially it was a little intimidating and awkward. Most new pursuits are.
More of a recreational swimmer, I am not used to the structure of lap swimming. I feared the inevitable inadequacy which comes with being outside my comfort zone.
I imagined an environment where I would be overshadowed by fast, athletic, competitive swimmers.
I feared I would be stepping into where I didn’t belong, into a space reserved for only those who have already earned their place through years of stroke mastery.
I knew I would have to fight and overcome this anxiety.
But what I also knew was that once the seed had been planted, there was no going back.
Being a determined person (and to an extent, quite stubborn) can be both a blessing and a curse.
So I showed up.
I showed up the first time.
And the second time.
This was already a small victory.
I figured I would at least do it for one week then decide how I felt about it.
They say it takes 21 days to form a habit. Three weeks. I just needed to stick it out.
And so, during the first week, I began to settle in.
As it happens, it wasn’t like what I had imagined at all. All the regular swimmers were “normal” people just like me. I felt surprisingly at ease, and I was actually taken aback by the support and comradery that I encountered.
Then more beautiful things started to happen. Over time, I began to see the same characters.
The characters that make up this story are people who likely live distinct, complicated, happy, sad and endlessly varied lives. I get to see only a snippet of their day, of their life, of their identity.
I get a snapshot of what makes them tick, a glimpse of what they get out of bed for in the morning, a hint of the feeling they chase.
These are the 5am swimmers. And now I am one of them.
Why do we all show up?
I pondered the motivation behind our commitment.
It occurred to me that the reason we are willing to devote our precious time and grace the pool with our presence, is undoubtedly the same.
The pursuit of mental and physical health.
There, in that small heated room, in our less than fancy swimming gear, embracing the functionality of our bodies, covered in unflattering caps and goggles… we connect.
These 5am swimmers are now a part of my life, even if in passing; in the background, behind the scenes.
They are not the people I talk about during my day, nor are they the people I purposely seek to interact with.
Yet they are so significant.
They are essentially strangers, but in spite of not knowing most of their names, I could tell you a handful of things about each of them.
And so begin the interlinked mini stories, the tales from the pool, where each of these characters have played an essential role.
I was already at the pool. I can’t quite remember how many laps I had done; this was early days and I didn’t measure my progress in laps, but rather in time spent at the pool.
Initially I would usually spend about 45 minutes swimming, trying different things, perfecting my flow, correcting my own breathing and increasing my swimming fitness. Not yet continuously; but more intermittently, tentatively.
At this point I didn’t count laps at all or even measure distance. I still needed a longer rest.
My focus was skewed towards technique and achieving rhythm.
Quality over quantity, I thought.
Moments later I noticed a dark skinned man in the lane next to me.
It turns out he was quite chatty and started a conversation while I was recovering.
He was very welcoming, smiley, and warm. He was the kind of person that just makes others open up and talk about themselves without even wanting to.
I keep to myself a lot, but suddenly I was inadvertently invested, and actively engaged in this exchange.
He noticed my tanned skin too and asked whether I was of Aboriginal descent (also adding that this was his own ethnicity). Curiously, I have been asked this on a number of occasions. When meeting new people, I usually don’t bring up heritage or background, because I believe that we are all the same, we are all human beings and that stuff really doesn’t matter at the end of the day.
But rather than getting into a philosophical discussion about humanity, I simply told him I had Brazilian heritage.
The focus of the conversation was then switched to swimming.
He said that he was relatively new to the sport, wasn’t a confident swimmer and had been coming to improve his stroke. In agreement, I told him that this was exactly the same reason I was there.
The man had brought accessories with him, a board and some flippers, visibly indicating his beginner status.
I shared with him some of my own experiences, volunteering that I hadn’t been privileged to learn good technique when I was a child, and although these types of skills are harder to master as an adult, I was determined to come at least four times every week to improve myself.
We had a pleasant conversation whereby we established a common ground and an unspoken comfort in knowing that we were not alone.
We then each continued our laps.
From that day onward, if we see each other, we usually greet.
I walked into the pool area. I noticed a slight, tanned woman. It’s hard to estimate age; I would say she looked perhaps some twenty or so years older than me. Appearance is subjective, but in my opinion I would say that she was in pretty good shape. She wore her hair out and seemed to be concentrating on doing her own thing. I found myself admiring her elegance and beauty.
I had seen her before, a number of times.
I know that she likes the far lane, because it has a ledge where she usually puts her belongings. She always brings her own music, which she listens to while mainly practising resistance exercises. I remembered that she rarely swims laps or under water.
At first, I didn’t know that the music was in fact hers. I actually used to think that it was being played over the loudspeaker.
I began to enjoy her songs and eventually I realised how much I missed them when she didn’t come swimming at the same time as me on any given day. The room seemed rather dull without her.
Today, the pool room was particularly busy and all the lanes were full when I arrived. I had to pick a person to share the lane with. I usually feel a bit uneasy about entering a taken lane, as I don’t like to impose or enter someone else’s space.
On that day, I decided that I would share with this lady.
Normally I would respectfully ask a swimmer if it’s okay to share their lane, but on this occasion I didn’t ask her. Not because I was being impolite, but because I had already decided that I wouldn’t invade her space – I had come to know that she only uses the far side of the pool, so on this occasion, I would stay short of the last 5 metres to allow her to continue her own routine with minimal disruption.
She never asked me to do this, but I had previously noted her affinity for solitude and peace, so I immediately put myself in her shoes. I figured that if that was me, I would want this too.
I swam a number of shorter laps, and then noticed another lane become available, so I moved over to swim full laps.
As I had concluded my swim and was leaving the pool, the lady spoke to me.
She thanked me.
She thanked me for not using the entire lane and letting her have her space.
She commented on how much she appreciated that small gesture.
It’s funny because I didn’t think too much of it at the time; I did what I thought was respectful and what I would have liked for myself.
We sometimes think acts of kindness go unnoticed, but the truth is they don’t. People do appreciate it.
Now we will always greet each other at the pool or exchange short conversations. She is lovely.
I was probably on my tenth lap when I noticed a man enter the lane. He looked a bit hesitant and shy. He asked whether it would be okay for him to share my lane.
He then excused himself, saying that he was very slow – it looked as though he might have been worried about holding me back.
So I assured him that I was slow too and that wouldn’t be the case, that we could each comfortably have a side.
He freely gave me more information about himself, told me his name – which was Adam.
Adam continued by explaining that he had just joined the gym and it was his first week as a member. He wanted to get in shape. He was the kind of guy who counted his laps and was also interested in group fitness classes.
We had a nice chat and shared a lane.
It was another busy day at the pool. All lanes were taken, and one was already being shared. Between laps, I watched an older man arrive and put his belongings on the side bench.
He was dressed in his togs, goggles in hand.
I had a lane to myself and so did the female next to me.
The lady with the music was there too, on the far side, and a man already shared her lane.
I wondered whether the older man would pick my lane or the one next to it.
I swam one or two laps and then noticed that he hadn’t yet entered the pool.
I observed that he was still sitting on the side bench. Despite appearing to be ready, he seemed to be waiting for something.
I sensed that maybe he didn’t want to feel like he was inconveniencing someone else. And I knew that feeling all too well.
After another lap or two, when I reached that side of the pool, I removed my goggles and made eye contact with him. I then invited him into my lane, clearly indicating that I was happy for him to share if he so wished.
He obliged. He said that some people don’t like to share. It was clear now that the older man was the sort of person who needed an invitation.
A lot like me; that’s probably why I noticed. I empathised.
I assured him that there was plenty of room and that he needn’t wait at the side of the pool. He was welcome to use the space.
Interestingly, the older man turned to be quite a fast swimmer. He doesn’t know this, but that was one of the hardest swim sessions I had. I forced myself to keep up with his laps, to consistently swim at the same speed and match his pace or alternate an equal number of laps.
I had made a good decision.
A new face caught my attention that day.
I noticed a woman I hadn’t seen before enter the middle lane. She continuously swam one lap of breaststroke and one lap of freestyle through her session. She kicked a lot. My freestyle laps were significantly faster than hers, because there was so much drag in her swimming. I kind of wanted to tell her, but I didn’t. No one wants unsolicited advice in their workouts. Besides, who was I to give swimming advice?
I didn’t want to appear arrogant and to be honest most of what I know from swimming technique comes from watching online videos. I am definitely no teacher. In fact, most of the time I have no idea what I’m doing.
So I let her be and minded my own business.
Sometimes I wish more people would do that.
I was well into my laps by now, when I saw the Aboriginal man walk into the pool room. He began sharing the lane next to me with another male.
I only had ten or so laps left of the morning’s swim, and I continued on, without interruption.
I finished the final laps quite fast because I have been taught to finish strong in whichever sport I participate in. This is something I learned from my Muay Thai fighting days… to always give your very best at the end of each round, to impress the judges, to give a clear message that you still have fight left in you and go out with a bang. I still distinctly remember my trainers yelling from the ropes at training “LAST TEN SECONDS” – and that was the cue to perform. No matter how much pain you were in, no matter how tired you were – the last ten seconds had to be the best of the round. “FINISH STRONG!” They would shout.
As I exited the water and reached for my towel, I noticed that the Aboriginal man was on my side of the pool. I greeted him.
He exchanged a warm smile and a greeting in return. I marveled at his genuine and friendly disposition.
But he didn’t just extend me a short hello. He went on to tell me that he had noticed a huge improvement in my swimming since the first day we had met at the pool.
He added that I was swimming really well and that it was quite impressive to see the difference.
How wonderful it was to receive a compliment on my progress.
The truth is, when striving to learn a new skill or sport, so many people will quit before they see results. Or they don’t put enough work in, don’t keep consistency, don’t stick around to survive the awkward stage of getting used to a new routine. They quit, and say it wasn’t for them.
Learning new things isn’t always easy. Sometimes you have to persevere, and just put the work in. Make a pact with yourself, set times, set numbers, even compete silently with people next to you.
Whatever it takes. If you want it, and if you put the work in, you’ll get results.
And when the first results start to come, the floodgate bursts open for more results.
It’s a peculiar paradox that the skill learned becomes easier… but you actually work harder.
I thanked him with sincerity. What a nice thing to say.
I spoke of the hard work I had put in, and how I was feeling more comfortable now, finally having some fun with it, too. Because that’s what it’s about as well – having fun, enjoying the process.
I met the slight lady with the music again.
It was another busy day.
As we acknowledged each other, I remarked, “it’s busy today, isn’t it!”
She looked up, looking as though she had only just seen how crowded the room was for the first time, along with the new arrivals and shared lanes.
She said with a surprised demeanour, “Already? I usually come at this time because there’s no one here! I might have to start coming later.”
I agreed. I prefer it when it’s quiet too.
This was the last time I saw her.
Her presence is definitely missed.
It was 4:50am and for a while I was the first person braving the winter cold outside the gym doors, waiting for them to open. Moments later I recognised the breaststroke/freestyle woman.
She looked quite different outside the pool.
She usually wears a swimming cap, but this morning I could see her short yet thick, curly hair.
I heard her speak to some other early arrivals in a British accent.
On that day, she swam her usual freestyle and breaststroke. Though this time she also added backstroke to her repertoire.
Earlier on I had thought to myself that she was a slow freestyle swimmer.
But now here she is, swimming more diverse strokes than me. Not one, but two extra strokes.
Meanwhile – I’m just a one trick pony (or at least for now).
In fact, I have also observed that the majority of people swim freestyle. This woman is not just a ‘slow freestyle swimmer’. She is multi skilled.
I wished I hadn’t thought negatively about her before, because I now see more of her talent.
I see more of her.
A man entered the room, quickly choosing a lane to share.
I’ve seen him on a couple of occasions. He is never there at 5am, always arriving closer to 5:30.
The peculiar thing about him is that he wears a snorkel mask to swim. I wonder why he does this.
He also swims freestyle, which he continuously did on that day.
I have tried to keep up with him a couple of times when I noticed him in the lane next to mine; sometimes I can, but without having to account for the short breathing break, his stroke is considerably faster.
That extra few seconds it takes to breathe make it hard to catch up to him.
I enjoy the challenge nonetheless. The few times I got to the other end first, have made me secretly stoked; though the win is always short lived because I usually need extra time to rest afterwards whereas he’ll just keep going.
But I’m grateful for small victories, small incentives to improve. Every bit counts.
By 5:25am I had counted all my laps. My one kilometre was done. This is by no means a fast time (and I still don’t tumble turn), but what a long way I have come. As I exited the pool, I caught a man’s eye. I vaguely recognised him; he was the older man I invited to share my lane the other day.
He confirmed my memory by extending a friendly smile and starting a conversation.
He said, “Hey, I just wanted to thank you for the other day. I was the guy you shared the lane with?”
I nodded my head in recognition.
He continued “You know, some people really don’t like to share. They get angry when you go into their lane”.
The anxious feeling of being hesitant to invade someone’s lane was entirely familiar to me. I didn’t want anyone else to feel that way.
I warmly replied, “Not at all! There is plenty of space. If you ever see me here, you are welcome to hop in my lane any time!”
He continued with a friendly banter as I gathered my belongings by the side of the pool.
His next statement would make my day.
“You’re a good swimmer! I mean I’m not fast or anything – but you were ahead of me”
I thought to myself: yes you are fast. I remember the last time we did share a lane, and it was the hardest I had ever swum. I thought to myself how hard I had to work to reach the other end before he did, and even today, while he was in the lane next to me.
But I didn’t tell him that. I didn’t want him to think I was competing with him.
This is not what the 5am swimmers are about.
I did say though, “Oh trust me; I worked hard to get to where I am. I’m not naturally a good swimmer. I have been coming consistently and I even watch a bunch of YouTube videos in my spare time for technique tips!”
We had a giggle. He finished off our conversation with reassuring words and commenting on how well he thought I was swimming.
This left me on a high.
“Cristina is my name”, I said.
“I’m Sam”, he replied.
We exchanged our ‘see you laters’.
This is the story of the 5am swimmers.
It is also a story of human connection.
Of personal achievement.
Of overcoming fears, anxiety and obstacles created by our own minds.
The human body is amazing.
Oftentimes, our minds will tell us we can’t do something.
We become convinced we can’t.
So we don’t.
But when we take it upon ourselves to channel our minds to believe that we actually can – amazing things happen.
Our bodies usually follow.
It all starts in our mind.
I am grateful for the beautiful and positive encounters I have had with the 5am swimmers in my ongoing journey.
For they have supported me in ways they don’t even know.
Every ripple starts a wave. Be that ripple.
(Dedicated to the person who gave me the gift of swimming – Claire Owen)
**names in post have been changed**