Life in the slow lane: a swimmer’s guide to the pool’s natural hazards

I like to go swimming two or three times a week, and I like to swim a length for every year I’ve been alive. Up and down I go, counting the lengths, thinking about how old I’m getting and keeping an eye out for natural hazards. There are a lot of natural hazards in swimming pools.

You see that object face-down in the water? That’s the Drifter. He’s actually doing the breast-stroke but, like driftwood, he needs the ripples and currents caused by other swimmers to move him. It will take him twenty minutes to complete the length.

The large creature that’s just launched itself at the water and landed like a plank is the Bone-Digger. He thinks he’s a shark but he swims like a dog digging up a bone. He is a localised commotion; a splashing and thrashing of arms and legs; a tangle of movement unconnected with swimming. Sometimes I think I can hear him shouting. He manages two lengths and then clings to the side, head down, shuddering, sucking in air.

The pale woman with the chapped legs and the blotchy face is the Weaver. She sets off near-right and arrives far-left, crossing lanes at random, nodding and waving apologetically, peering anxiously through the choppy waters that lie ahead. She knows that soon, inevitably, a preternatural force will draw her into the path of the Swan Ladies.

The Swan Ladies move in a pack, three abreast, an expensive fragrance lingering in their wake. Length after length they glide up and down, heads clear of the water; talking, laughing, drinking tea. They can go on like this for ever, as poised as carousel horses. Despite her efforts, the Weaver bobs helplessly into their path. She disappears and then reappears behind them, bewildered but unharmed. They give no sign of having noticed her.

The tall elderly man standing up to his waist in water at the far end of the pool is the Wader. This veteran hoists his trunks up to his chest and gazes fiercely at his own feet before falling forwards. Below the surface he hovers a few inches above the floor, propelling himself forward with tiny hand movements until half-way along the length he stands up and strides slowly back to the starting point. He’ll do that for the next hour – amassing a vast distance in tiny segments.

The Club Swimmer arrives. She is magnificent. She wears goggles, earplugs, a nose-clip and a rubber swimming-cap. She brings with her fins, bricks and weights. She ties herself up in complicated knots and undulates through the water like a dolphin. We all fear her.

All, that is, except West Coast Boy. He arrives in his brightly patterned board-shorts, slips silently into the water, completes thirty lazy lengths (tumble-turning at each end), and then vaults lightly onto the side, leaving scarcely a ripple. He shakes his floppy hair and ambles off.

There are other hazards – Bubbles Man, The Floater, the Love-Birds and of course, the horrifying Tiny Speedo. I’ve grown accustomed to them. They have been my watery companions for a long, long time; my fellow swimmers, gamely pursuing a means of locomotion for which none of us are designed – and I suppose, as I plow up and down the lengths counting out the years, I should spare a thought for what they might call me.

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