Swimming Alone

A 2020 swim between North Ave and Division St.

I swim alone.

Swimming alone is taboo in the swimming community and outside of it. I was telling a guy on a dating site I swim alone and he compared it to rock climbing without any ropes. I’ve been SHOUTED at in so many online swimming forums that I now keep my swimming habits secret.

Is swimming alone dangerous?

YES! Duh! Absolutely! 100%

I’m not going to use this space to say anything about how I’m an exception from this fact or how I strategize to swim safer when I’m alone. However, I accept life is dangerous, and no matter how many precautions one takes, it will always end. I accept that swimming alone is a risk.

The safest way for anyone to swim, experienced or not, is under the watchful eye of well trained lifeguards. There is no dispute about this. During the summer when the beaches and outdoor pools are open, Chicago boasts the largest municipal lifeguard force in the world! Yet, I almost never swim when they are present. I prefer not to swim when they are present and will try to schedule swimming when they are not on duty. I should add here, that swimming when the lifeguards are not on duty in Chicago is illegal and I could be ticketed.

I will say, however, that I’ve witnessed dangerous peer pressure in swimming meet-up groups. I’ve seen people uncomfortable with conditions go in anyways because they see their peers going in. I’ve seen joshing and hazing about water temperatures and wave conditions. And I read about this drowning in nearby Highland Park and couldn’t help but to think this was fatal group think.

Sunrise between North and Division, Chicago, midsummer 2020

Why do I swim alone?

Sunrise and calm waters. The lake is at its best at dawn and the lifeguards in Chicago start at 11am. Walking or biking to Lake Michigan in the dark is a strange and magical time where two worlds meet during the heat of the summer. Some night-people are still on the street and sometimes on the beach. The reality of the evening is beginning to dawn on them (pun intended) and the earliest dog owners and joggers are starting to appear. The lakefront is mostly empty and the water is usually at its calmest often like glass. I love this time of day, especially on a day off when I can push myself swimming knowing I can recover the rest of the day.

Community pier #104, Lake Geneva WI

Swimming alone is a lifelong activity.

I grew up in a swimming family. We went on snorkeling vacations, we always owned a boat and I could always walk to an accessible swimmable body of water. I was PADI open water SCUBA certified at 13! And coming of age rituals included diving off the pier, diving off the diving board, swimming across the lake and less officially, jumping off The Border Street Bridge. Growing up in this way, I also grew up reading marine forecasts and tide tables daily to plan the day’s fun.

Young women jump off the Border Street Bridge. Photo The Boston Herald

I don’t think of swimming alone. I mean it does cross my mind depending on where I’m swimming, but I don’t think much of it. Swimming alone is a natural act for me. If I want to go swimming, I go swimming. I don’t want to be bound to coordinating swimming with anyone else. I rarely want to be bound to anyone for any activity!

Lake Superior swim, September 2020

Swimming is wild and free.

These qualities make swimming both quintessentially American and highly controversial. Swimming is sensual. Even saying the Germanic word, s-w-i-m-m-i-n-g, is onomatopoeia especially in comparison to the latin root “nadar” found in the Romance languages. Being nearly naked, enveloped in a weightless world is transformative. No wonder water is the medium of baptism. But Americans value wild freedom often in name only. When practiced, freedom, is usually readily policed, “for our own safety,” and being wild is unruly at best. What I think really irks American society is that swimming is notoriously difficult to monetize and swim spaces encourage the mixing of classes and races. When it is monetized with an entrance fee or membership, the fee is more often a tool of segregation than profit. When not in the open water, the public pool is by far my favorite place to stay in shape. The public pool is vibrant with representations of the whole community. The cost is nominal if at all. Having belonged to a gym once for two years, I can say that the public pool is where the real swimmers swim. At the beach, people who’d never cross paths anywhere else, talk at ease with each other.¹

Young women swim in a no swimming zone near Fullerton at dawn, during the pandemic lockdown, when swimming was prohibited for all of Chicago at any time of the day at any location and the lifeguards were used to police this rule, forcing swimmers to only swim when the lifeguards weren’t looking or weren’t present.

Swimming alone is my natural state.

I am at home in the water. Swimming alone is like a baptism everytime. I am surprised by how renewed I feel after each swim. Swimming alone is a part of my identity. And like other parts of my identity it remains closeted for convenience.

¹ Some of the ideas in this paragraph were learned from the book, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America by Jeff Wiltse

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Swimming Alone

Swimming Alone

Thoughts on the interconnectedness of a solo life. Thoughtful rule breaker. Wild woman. Chronically ill.