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Water Born: Swimming Along in Competition and Life

by Gwen Deely


May 24, 2012

My life aquatic was in full swing before I was born.

Evidently I was busy doing laps and polishing my freestyle in the womb because doctors had to pluck me out with a forceps two weeks after my due date. My parents gave me swim lessons at the tender age of three. A football-shaped float strapped to my body kept me from drowning.

My first race, when I was four years old, was memorable for its ferocity. So determined was I to win that the organizers were unable to stop me when a false start occurred. I swam my guts out while they were shouting, blowing whistles and finally jumping in. Even when I was held aloft above the water, my arms were frantically churning to win that race.

You might say I was competitive.

My family lived on Long Island, a hotbed for Olympic swimmers in the late 1950s. My sister and I spent every minute of our summers at the pool where our swim coach, Nello Pesci (yes, Pesci), had us working out morning, noon and night. Those were the days of analog stopwatches, very inexact for a sport that is now measured to the hundredth of a second. Pools had concrete walls, and during races parents volunteered to be "headcatchers" for backstrokers who would otherwise crack their heads when they swam hard into the wall. We ate sugar cubes before our events -- like racehorses.

I loved competing. I even had Olympic aspirations, but those dreams vanished in 8th grade when we abruptly moved to New York City. I swam not a stroke until I got to college. But women's sports were not taken seriously by anybody and I was pressured by other professors to not "waste my time" with sports. Plus, it was distinctly "unladylike" to be a jock.

I forgot about swimming until the age of 35, when I quit smoking. I joined a United States Masters Swimming (USMS) team and had the good fortune of working with a remarkable coach who believed that practice makes perfect if and only if you practice perfectly.

My teammates and I swam wherever we could find a pool. My least favorite was at an apartment complex in East Harlem. Located in a dark, dank basement, it was bizarrely set up like an outdoor pool with tables, chairs and umbrellas. The residents of the complex held parties at night, judging by the unsavory flotsam we found upon our arrival in the morning. More than once we found chicken bones at the bottom of the pool. Sometimes water temperatures exceeded sauna-like conditions so we swam with our faces out of the water, doing mostly backstroke. But nothing stopped us from getting in.

We traveled to swim meets, near and far. Under my coach's zen-style guidance, I attained all my race goals, and had fun. I learned that win or lose, life goes on. The laundry doesn't go away; bills have to be paid.

After 20 years of competition, I reached a plateau where I was no longer motivated to devote so much time and energy to maintaining my speed in the water. Age prevented me from getting faster and I was not willing to recalibrate my goals to slower times. I wondered if I should continue to swim. What would I do without the structure of workouts, intervals, the pace clock, coaches and lanemates to spur me on?

That is when the true magic of swimming revealed itself to me. On busy days in a busy city, the pool has become my sanctuary. Without the stress of striving for speed, I am free, as never before, to enjoy the spiritual and aesthetic dimensions of the water, as well as the physical.

Slipping into the silky, aqua-blue environs of water, its surfaces dancing with refracted light, is irresistible. My personality is perfectly suited to lap swimming; the black line at the bottom of the pool soothes my soul. These days I swim as efficiently as possible with minimum waste and maximum joy. The great pace clock of life ticks on, and I choose to enjoy every stroke.

In May 2012, swimmer Marie Kelleher established new national swim records in the 50 and 100 freestyle at the Virginia Senior Games. She becomes the first female USMS member to compete in the 100 to 104 age group. Marie is a beautiful example of staying with the life aquatic.

Time will tell if I ever return to competition. But it is nice to know that it will be there, waiting for me, if I do.

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Gwen Deely achieved 58 USMS Individual Top Ten Swims, was named All-American in Long Distance, swam many record-setting relays, and placed 4th in a Worlds 5K swim during the period of 1985-1995. She lives in New York City.

Also see "Nine Titles Thinking About Title IX" by Rachel Toor in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Yoga Frontiers: Women Shape Practices in Exceptional Ways" by Molly M. Ginty in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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