When I think about photographs of the great Duke Kahanamoku, I see him standing poolside, or stroking his beautiful flutter kick, or propped up on his forearms post-swim, wet, dark, and handsome. Duke is hailed as the father of modern surfing, but we mustn’t forget his gargantuan achievements in the chlorine. He won the 100-meter freestyle race in the 1912 and 1920 Olympics, and at one time held every freestyle record up to a half-mile. He revolutionized swimming, introducing the flutter kick he developed in his native Hawaii.
In the late ‘90s I worked as a staff writer for Surfing magazine. When we’d meet to discuss articles for upcoming issues, then editor Nick Carroll would insist that we first go for a swim, at the nearby Ole Hanson pool in San Clemente. “Duke used to swim there,” he told me. Nick buzzed at a frequency that I admired, and if swimming would help me acquire some of it, I was all in.
Following Nick’s lead, we swam 50s, 100s, 400s. My stroke was rough; I really only knew freestyle. But the water felt great. And much like surfing, there was that glorious afterglow. A couple hours post-swim I’d tingle with a sense of well-being. Lying in bed at night, I’d feel vibrantly alive from the crown of my head to the tips of my toes.
A few years later I moved to New York and got married to Gisela Matta, from Sao Paulo, Brazil. I had fewer opportunities to surf, but I made up for it by swimming every chance I got. There was a decent public pool on 14th Street (five bucks a swim). There was an epic pool at Chelsea Piers—I couldn’t afford the membership, but I went in as a guest of a friend who could. During Gisela’s and my frequent trips to Sao Paulo, I swam at a rooftop pool of an apart-hotel with sweeping views over that giant, sprawling city.
But my lap swimming took on new meaning in January 2014. I know the month because it was exactly eight months after Gisela died suddenly in a cycling accident. Suffice to say, I was a wreck. The skipping record in my head was one of deep despair. I felt stuck in a victim narrative. I did all sorts of things to try to break out of it—psychotherapy, meditation, ayahuasca, the Hoffman Process. I eventually relocated to Palm Beach, Sydney to write a book. I worked in the mornings and swam in the rock pool in the afternoons. It was summer, the salt water was warm, I shared the pool with elderly men and women. Stroking back and forth in the hot sun, I shed something. I found my bounce again.
I recently did a two-month stint in West London. Before my trip, when I’d tell friends I was spending January and February in London, they’d say, “What a depressing time to be there. It will be grey and rainy and getting dark at four o’clock. Sounds like a recipe for alcoholism.” “That’s true,” I’d say. “And I will have my goggles and swim fins.”
In London I found a wonderful place called Porchester Leisure Centre and hit it nearly everyday. Built in 1926, the pool looks like the sort of place where Duke might have swum. The bottom is made of tile, with many caulking repairs and rust stains that give it an ancient mariner appeal. My routine was to swim a mile, or roughly 53 lengths. I’d swim four lengths with a pull buoy (or leg float) between my thighs, then 10 with fins, 10 with pull buoy, 10 with fins, 10 with kickboard, 10 with fins. This would take around 40 minutes. There were two approaches: one was to count my lengths, a kind of meditation mantra. The other was to forget about the counting and just swim nonstop for forty minutes.
I liked following the black stripe, and I liked letting my thoughts roam free. They’d drift from the mundane to the profound. On lap 3 they might go: Call Mom, Pay Visa bill, Begin Dazzling Blue. On lap 7 they might evolve to: Write Nick about swimming, Look up swimming quotes. By lap 37 I might have a small epiphany about something I’m working on. For instance, I recently zapped over to Portugal to write about the Nazaré big wave contest. The day after the event, on the cliff overlooking the break, I ran into filmmakers Mike Prickett and Tim Bonython, and surfers Garrett McNamara, Tom Lowe, and Bianca Valente. I’d experienced this sort of thing many times before in my travels; the global surf family moving from one great wave to the next. Swimming past a man in Speedos I was suddenly transported to the Speedos of “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou.” As soon as I finished my swim, hair still wet, I scribbled into my notebook: Big wave tribe just like Bill Murray and co. chasing the elusive jaguar shark. No, better yet, we’re a bunch of Captain Ahabs chasing the white whale.
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And I emailed Nick Carroll, too, and asked him what he likes most about swimming. “I love the feeling of being held by the water and the sense of laminar flow in a long freestyle stroke,” he wrote in an email. “Swimming connects my body and inner mind and drags me into the present through movement. I feel constricted in time and space, and also free of both. I once walked past a whiteboard at the pool where a coach had written a training set. Beneath it the coach had written the underlying intention of the set. It was three words: ‘Posture, balance, line.’ I love that.”