Swimming: meditation for people who can't sit still

For obvious reasons, you don’t see swimmers too often. Runners? Impossible to miss

For obvious reasons, you don’t see swimmers too often. Runners? Impossible to miss. They are a bobbing ribbon of high-vis jackets on hard shoulders across the country, or slaloming around the dog dirt on coastal paths. Cyclists? They emerge in such numbers down country roads that even the midges complain about the swarms.

But to find swimmers you more than likely need to be squeezing into a lane beside them, or standing waist deep at the shallow end, blowing through teeth, doing the preswim jig while you work up the courage to submerge yourself.

Coastlines still host the dots of hardy winter swimmers; the rest are tucked away in a 50m loop. Up and down. Up and down. Up and down. The repetition is what many people find off-putting about swimming, coupled with a view of a pool floor relieved only by the occasional passing Band-Aid.

They are wrong. Repetition is its fundamental appeal. Swimming is meditation for people who can’t sit still. You think of little but the next stroke. And the next. And the next. You count the laps. Lose count. Start again. The water washes out all other burdensome thoughts. “It’s like yoga,” a fellow swimmer said to me during the week. Yes, downward doggy paddle.


Should there be surprise, then, that a survey this week claimed that it is the “most popular sport and exercise activity” among Irish adults, enjoyed once a week by 230,000 people?

Perhaps some caution comes because of the survey’s provenance. It was carried out by the ESRI (interesting), and commissioned by the Sports Council of Ireland (fair enough) and Swim Ireland (ah, I see).

No doubt the survey of 70,000 adults was conducted soundly, but whenever you are presented with results that correspond with the publicity needs of an organisation behind it, it’s hard to overlook the coincidence. A ridiculous vision forms of the questioner doing their job – “Tell me which of these sports you participate in most regularly: soccer, running, Gaelic games, swimming . . . ” – while wearing inflatable arm bands and reeking of chlorine.

Can it be called the most popular “sport”? It depends on how you frame that. Hundreds of thousands do it, but it rivals walking as the least competitive activity. Few who swim will have ever competed in any kind of swimming race.

Even when most of those in a running race do so without a hope of winning, they still compete – against themselves, against the clock, against that woman just ahead of them. Swimmers have fewer opportunities for mass races, and less inclination anyway. It would be my guess that most swimmers who have raced in the past five years have done so in triathlons, and even that event is a mix between a swim race and a water-based donnybrook.

Yet the claim of being most popular exercise holds water for other reasons. It corresponds to UK findings, although that country has a far superior infrastructure of pools compared with Ireland’s patchy network, particularly bare along the commuter belts. But it is more than that.

Even through foggy goggles, you can see the wide appeal of swimming. Its popularity spans an extraordinary age range. The users of any public pool might span eight decades, and is there another sporting activity in which young and old share a lane, often on equal terms? Because of this it is an exercise that requires most people to leave ego back in their lockers.

The first thing any swimmer must do is walk the edge of the pool with more flesh on view than they would normally show anyone other than their partners, and even then they would probably dim the lights. But in the bright strip lighting of a pool there is nothing to do but ignore the echo of their own body image.

Take anyone whose sense of body image and perfect aging is based on what they’re fed off the magazine shelves and drop them into a public pool. Here the homogeny of idealism meets the infinite variety of human shape. Yet body is seldom an indicator of prowess. You can rarely tell a decent swimmer at a glance. That belly-laden man could be a sedate breast crawler or might plough through the lane with grace. But, at any one time, a pool might be busy with some people hanging around at the edge, someone doing callisthenics, others churning up the water in solid training. But they all consider themselves swimmers.

It all makes swimming the most delightful egalitarian activity. Entering a pool means immediately accepting all sorts. Any shape. Any standard. Any age. Any stroke.

Except for butterfly. No one likes a splashy show-off.