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INTO THE POOL

I couldn’t walk, but I could swim

Thomas Dils on Unsplash
Swimming is my time to slip into a world without noise and no sensation but the water on my skin.
  • Olivia Goldhill
By Olivia Goldhill

Science reporter

Published Last updated on This article is more than 2 years old.

There’s no time I love my body more than when I’m swimming. Twice a week, I go to the pool and, before I enter the water, I briefly look in the mirror. I am tall, with muscular shoulders and, on my lower back, hidden beneath my tired navy-blue swimsuit, I have a scar about five inches long and half an inch thick. The scar marks the site where surgeons cut through my flesh, 12 years ago, to take out a piece of disc that was crushing the nerves in my spinal canal. And again, the same skin and muscles were cut open twice last year: Once when surgeons drilled six massive, metal, three-inch screws into my spine, and then when they took those screws out nine months later.

While I was anticipating, undergoing, and recovering from these surgeries, I was unable to ignore the threat of paralysis. It was a blinding light, far too painful to glance at directly but seeping into my vision no matter where I looked. Loss of mobility presented a new worst-case scenario of what my life could become, which made the old worse-case scenario (of being unemployed and alone and destitute) seem positively luxurious. Swimming was the small, gentle way I began to reclaim peace in my body.  

My first emergency surgery, in January 2017, was a huge, traumatic operation, intermingled with pain so severe it caused me to dip out of consciousness, and a haze of drugs including fentanyl, morphine, steroids, and oxycontin. It typically takes patients three months to return to work after this surgery, and much longer to return to normal.

I started swimming regularly in March of 2017, at a time when I could walk, very slowly, to the subway and to work, but it took effort and concentration not to slip, to keep my body straight. Sitting was difficult, and so was standing. I used an immense amount of energy to complete the basic requirements of daily existence. Before my surgery, I’d happily swum a quick 1,000 meters whenever I found myself in a pool. The first time I swam post-operation, I shakily managed 100 meters (two lengths in an Olympic-size pool) and emerged, exhausted but exhilarated.

Swimming wasn’t like walking, I wasn’t simply completing the basics of life. It felt like more. I was achieving something, a demonstration of bodily strength and dexterity, with every stroke. And, unlike walking, swimming didn’t hurt. There was no impact, no floor to jolt my spine. My legs and arms were coordinated, my entire body rising and stretching in one, united movement. I was advancing through the water, and I felt, for the first time in a long time, like my body worked.

I healed in 100-meter increments. Every week, I put on my swimming costume and cap, weighed up the lines of healthy, fast-paced swimmers, then joined them in the water for barely 15 minutes. When I heaved myself out of the pool, the floor would spin and I would feel lightheaded, for a moment, as though I could sway to the ground and topple. In just over a month, I reached 600 meters, which felt legitimate. And, eventually, 1,000. Earlier in the year, when my body was sunk, immobile, in a hospital bed, a doctor had told me I would have to do something for my back—physio, swimming, pilates—every day. Or else. Swimming was helping me escape that “or else.” One afternoon, while walking up the stairs, I grazed my thigh with my palm and noticed there were new muscles there. My body was changing.

It wasn’t enough. The X-rays didn’t look good, so, in July, I was sent for a CAT scan. The first surgery hadn’t worked, they told me, and a screw was now loose in my spine. I, quite literally, had a screw loose. Even worse, the surgeons couldn’t agree on how to fix it. I could either have a bigger operation, which came with a lengthy recovery time and potential long-term risks, but would be relatively safe. Or I could opt for a smaller surgery with a quicker recovery time, but which could leave me in agonizing pain and in immediate need of the bigger operation. There was no right answer. Objective, rational calculations cannot compute the psychological threat of three surgeries in one year. I cried into the pool sometimes, but, as the screw wriggled in my spine, I kept swimming throughout that summer of dread. Once a week, twice a week, every day. When the surgery came, whatever it would be, I would be prepared.

After extensive medical consultations and flights from New York to London, to meet with the recommended surgeons in each city, I decided on the smaller surgery. In the slightest sliver of luck in a dark year, and the greatest fortune I will ever experience, the operation worked. I was back in the pool less than three weeks after surgery and, this time, I managed 400 meters.

“Surgery” is a neat, clinical word for an intensely personal, physical process. Repeatedly cutting through the same tissue causes muscle damage and so, for my second operation of 2017, surgeons made a shallow incision through my skin. Instead of cutting down the center of my body to the spine, they pushed through previously uncut muscle on either side, burrowing down through the thick red tissue to find my vertebrae, where they used a screwdriver to take out my screws.

It’s been 14 months since then, which is not enough time to mark me as healed. My back will always have partially removed discs and bear the scars of multiple operations. It will always be a weak cord running through my being, which I will have to protect with whatever muscles I can muster. And I will keep swimming, for self-protection, and for joy. In the months since that last operation, I’ve gone through other difficult, but far less horrendous, events—the kind that pepper the normal life I was at risk of losing—and many moments of happiness, and swirling, excitable chaos. Swimming is my time to slip into the pool, away from the actions and demands, to a world without noise and no sensation but the water on my skin. Sometimes, when it’s cold, I dread trekking to the gym to submerge my body in the irremovable smell of chlorine. But then I’m there and, always, I pause, push off under water, and have a rush of euphoria before I’ve completed my first stroke.

I was worried, when I first started swimming in New York, that I would have to avoid smarmy comments from men who see a swimsuit as an invitation for conversation. My swimming cap handles all that. As soon as my hair is hidden under a pink plastic wrap, I am utterly desexualized, transformed into a clean-cut, practical figure. I was desexualized, too, as an invalid. But this time, it feels positive. Mine is a body made for doing things, not for being looked at. I am a swimmer.

Sometimes, as my weight fluctuates with the seasons, my stomach or thighs might grow fuller or more svelte. And I love it, I love it all. I am so proud of my body, with the six holes in my vertebra and the mangled nerves that have slowly found space and my once-weakened legs that are returning, gradually, to normal. I am proud of my flesh, and muscles, and my skin that miraculously heals, binding over wounds and turning them into strong, stark scars. Swimming is a love letter to my body: A way to stretch it out, and move, and feel complete calm and freedom, all at once. Swimming is my body’s love letter to me.

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