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Barbara, 70, and me, at 71, have swum together for at least 50 years. The lake we enjoy is in Manitoba’s Canadian Shield – West Hawk Lake – it’s deep and delicious, a crater formed by a meteor. For many, it’s an eighth wonder of the world.
We swim in a quiet and serene cove, protected from motor boats for the most part. It’s home to seagulls, a duck or two, kayaks on occasion, perhaps a paddleboarder. The difficult summer drought of 2021 brought a burning sun that warmed the lake to levels alarming to even veteran cottagers. As the drought eased, and the water cooled in late August, we decided to keep swimming. We had both read Bonnie Tsui’s Why We Swim, a fine book about cold-water swimming. We would challenge ourselves to swim for as long as possible through September and into October.
Barbara is scientific in nature; I am less inclined toward the factual. But, inspired by Tsui and world-class open water swimmers such as Kim Chambers, whose story Tsui recounts, we assiduously logged the decline in the lake’s temperatures. Fortified with dark chocolate before the swim and hot tea afterward, we swam until Oct. 9, the water sitting at a bristling 15 C.
I have long loved swimming, though the fear of being seen as fat has dogged me. I am one of those female bodies poorly displayed in bathing suits. I know I am not alone. In fact, I believe that all women are inadequately served by bathing suit cutouts. I use the term cutout because the shape of bathing suits reminds me of the cutouts for the paper dollies I once played with, my child self carefully applying outfits to models whose dimensions I could admire but had never located within my own family. In my younger years, I concocted a variety of cover-ups to conceal my body. In this last stage of my life, however, while those feelings may run high, more often than not, I set the battle aside, indulging in my right to swim, released from the weight that seems unfit on the shore.
Cold-water swimming deepened my sense of well-being. Full-bodied, brisk with power, profoundly at one with the landscape, I grew joyously and was unfettered by culturally imposed body models, in themselves, arbitrary and soul-destroying.
Cold-water swimming became a ritual Barbara and I embraced as swimming sisters. When she returned to the United States immediately after our Canadian Thanksgiving, I did not know how I could approximate our cold-water hallelujah anywhere in Winnipeg, where I live, a location noted for its freezing temperatures and long winter’s nights. I was not about to chisel through the ice and dip my toes, warmed by nostalgia and bereft of common sense.
But, I had to swim; there were larger commitments I could not dismiss. In the summer, we planned to cross from the cove to an island across the lake. I had to stay fit. We also planned to host a cold-water regatta for locals in the fall. We would make this an annual event, enhancing our strength and endurance so that, in our 80s, we might swim through October and into November; and in our 90s, our children might figure how to hoist us up and down the 47 steps that led from cottage to dock.
With these plans in mind, I joined my local city pool. I had not been in a public pool for about 30 years, since my own children took their lessons. But my body said swim, my brain said swim and my heart, in its pitter and patter, could not let go of the lake. I went anyway.
I found chlorine, tepid temperatures and many many bodies. I adapted my swimming costume, abandoning the UV swimming shirt that was unable to bear chlorine. In the pool, I noted a number of young female bodies spending a great deal of time adjusting itsy bitsy swimsuits masquerading as cover. I watched swimmers race through the pool, goggled, heads encased in lycra caps. I myself bought one such cap in purple but it hurt – to look at and to wear. And, yet, as a crone, I learn to swim past my critiques.
Most importantly, I am swimming – almost every day – because I am “in training” through the long six months of winter. I am swimming because there is such release even in a public pool.
I observe every body that comes and goes, those graceful gliders whose speed I marvel at; the children shivering in towels yet often grinning, their hands inside the hands of the parents who brought them; the young ones on diving towers challenging each other; and the old ones, like me, bobbing, drifting, gliding.
I take my place, alive to my love of the water, alive to my promise for the spring and the summer that will come. I intend to step back into West Hawk Lake in May, and stay in the lake through September and October with my cousin. We are perfectly matched in our devotion, and increasingly aware of the miracle of being able-bodied enough to share the cold-water wonder side by side.
Deborah Schnitzer lives in Winnipeg.
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