Every birthday, I swim 100 meters for each year I've been on the planet. This year, that means 5,700 meters, or 3.5 miles.
Needless to say, it doesn’t get easier as the years pass.
But I’m not alone. This summer, I'll also be cheering on a friend who will cover 6,000 meters to meet her birthday goal. She's doing it in part to celebrate a miraculous dodge from a deadly form of cancer this year.
She’s also doing it because of the group. So am I.
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Every week for nearly two decades, a bunch of us (mostly women and a few men) have chosen to swim for our lives — together. We have gathered early in the morning for extended warm-ups, heart-pounding intervals and rushed cool-downs before we scuttle off to work or family obligations. On Saturdays, when our attendance is more regular, our sets are longer and our cool-downs usually involve coffee and a chat.
We began years ago to motivate each other to swim at a competitive level, structuring 3,000-meter workouts on tight intervals at a demanding pace.
In the process, we have discovered the closest relationships of our post-50 lives and the promise of longer lives.
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Exercise friendships are nothing new. But usually, such alliances wax and wane with the latest fitness pursuit, disbanding as lives and bodies change.
Ours has endured through the decades. Lap by lap, year by year, we have buoyed each other through marriages, divorces, advanced degrees, late-in-life children, disease, disabled sons and daughters, job loss, financial strain, college transitions, the death of parents — all this, and the relentless sag and revolt of our bodies.
Maybe it’s just the hilarity and vulnerability of sharing a sport in which one is stripped down to a Speedo, goggled up with a cap that purses one’s forehead, barking out sets in coded commands most people don’t understand.
We cannot escape ourselves in this position.
We’ve become so accepting of our aging forms that we spontaneously, and without explanation, walk up to each other in the locker room unclad to spread lotion on each other’s mole-speckled backs, an interaction that can horrify younger onlookers.
We just laugh. And as we get older, there is simply more to laugh about — a knee that locks up in the middle of a workout (OK, so it wasn’t that funny), the inevitable lap we forgot to swim, the hot flash among our youngest member that forces us to pause in the middle of a set, the suit that rips up the back exposing a full-bodied bottom…and the decision to keep on swimming, rip and all.
Twice the Benefit
As it turns out, we’re likely to live longer because we swim together. We’ve found a kind of double whammy for longevity.
For one thing, the swimming itself appears to make a difference. According to a multi-year analysis of men conducted by researchers at the University of South Carolina, swimmers have a significantly lower risk of death from all causes — not only compared to sedentary folks, but even to walkers or joggers.
Last year, of course, Diana Nyad became the poster child for mature swimming after her Cuba-to-Florida trek at age 64. With less fanfare, a 104-year-old man in Winnipeg became the oldest masters swimmer in the world this year. He began competing at age 79.
But beyond the laps, we’ve hit another factor that correlates with longer life: We are a strong and regular social support for each other.
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Frankly, we would never be friends if we did not swim together. We have divergent political views, incomes, geographical backgrounds and temperaments. A few times, we have sparred over difficult issues — abortion, drug legalization, gay marriage and birth control.
Once or twice, one of us has left the coffee house in tears.
But no matter what the strain or stress, we always return to each other.
In a life beset by transitory connections or superficial online intimacy, the steadiness of our workouts has become a priceless throwback. The pool is our town square. It’s a venue and ritual that keeps us face-to-face, willing to share and to accept the intimacies of each other’s hopes and heartbreaks.
Rules of the Group
We also know such eloquent sentiments wither in the face of human bitchiness or bluster. We’ve all had our days. So we’ve formed a strict code of behavior, a set of guidelines that would serve any group, exercise or otherwise:
- We never compare or compete. Instead, we celebrate showing up. That’s enough.
- We can push each other hard, setting tough goals and applauding our achievements.
- We forgive each other generously, always backing off when a set is too much for anyone.
- We practice etiquette, which usually involves thinking about the other person’s position (in the lane and elsewhere) and deferring whenever possible to the group bliss.
- We know when to pause the workout and listen to someone in need.
- We know when to shut up and leave people alone, which is easily achieved by pushing off into another long set through the water.
- We always defer to the humor in a situation. After all, life is short.
Watching the Clock
As we approach our 60s, with our ever-longer birthday sets, these guidelines seem to be more valuable than the longevity we may get from swimming itself. They seem the essence of a life well lived and swum.
But don’t get me wrong — we love the idea that swimming keeps us young.
Not long ago, an enthusiastic lifeguard stood on the end of the lane beaming at us as we came in between an interval. Leaning down, she praised us for our speed and spunk. “Are you all in your 40s?” she asked.
Stunned, we looked back at her and then burst into laughter. “Yes,” was our answer as we looked toward the clock’s secondhand pushing to the top of our interval. “Ready, go!”
Still, we know the clock will stop someday.
Last year, a man approaching 90, who swam nearly every morning in the adjacent lanes, finished his workout, walked into the sauna and collapsed. By the time paramedics arrived, it was too late to revive him.
When we heard about it at the next workout, we were, of course, profoundly sad and once again reminded of mortality and life’s unpredictability. Yet, all of us quietly agreed that departing after a good swim workout was, on par, not a bad way to go.
So we pulled on our caps, positioned our goggles and jumped in — together.
Gayle Golden is a writer and senior lecturer at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Follow her on Twitter @ggwriter
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