Lapping it up: confessions of a down and back enthusiast

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Lapping it up: confessions of a down and back enthusiast

It puzzles me why competitive swimming isn't a bigger deal on the peninsula. Koreans should swim like fish. After all, they drink like fish.

Koreans surely enjoy being in the water. If you've ever seen photographs of one of Korea's public pools on a sweltering summer afternoon you sense the absolute delight that comes from splashing about in brown liquid.

But you don't see much competitive swimming here. In fact, it's about as visible as competitive carpet-riding.

I thought about this the other day as I swam laps at the downtown Seoul health club to which I belong. To swim laps is like being alone in a karaoke cubicle; the only sound you hear is in sotto voce -- yours -- which is actually quite nice.

I've been listening to myself a lot lately, for I have just returned to swimming after more than a three-decade absence.

I was an age-group swimmer for 10 years in the United States, competing in meets through college. Those were the days before men wore goggles in the pool. Those were the days when no man would be caught flatlined in a bathing cap. Those were the days when I had hair.

Swimming in those days had been fun at first, but after a while I came to hate the hectoring of coaches and the monotony of going down and back, down and back. Digging postholes had to be more fun, I figured. I was expected to swim, though, because my older brother, also a swimmer, was a chlorine god.

Then one day I stopped swimming. At the time, I was living in Japan, at the bidding of the U.S. Army. On a lark, I entered a military swim meet in Yokohama. I figured I would do fine, even though I was not in shape, unless you count consuming large amounts of sake as a training aid.

Picture the Titanic: I listed, I sank. I so embarrassed myself that I didn't want to get up off the bottom of the pool. I vowed to never swim again. And I didn't. Why continue to do something you detest?

Oh, I jumped into the ocean now and then and cooled off in a motel pool on occasion. But for 30-plus years I never swam another lap -- until I came to Korea.

When I arrived here looking for exercise I tried gyms at first, but the din of piped-in, repetitive, reverberating disco-boogie-cooing nonsense eventually drove me away. I sought solitude, and I found it in a 25-meter-long lane.

I started slowly, 20 laps, then 30. There was no coach to yell at me, no older brother to live up to. Crazy thing: I began to like swimming again, especially the down and back part. Raise the Titanic, baby! Swimming was no longer manual labor, it was lost love. I've found joy in reconstructing as I swim the plots of old "Seinfeld" episodes, and recalling the words to old songs by the Four Seasons.

Swimming, I found, made me feel better, which of course I had heard doctors preach for years but had ignored. Simply, swimming didn't batter my body, as the gym had. It's aerobic and aids flexibility and musculature. O.K., you get minor skin and ear irritations periodically, but you seldom screw up your back or wrench your knee in the water.

Doing my laps I've found out something else -- that I appreciate the mechanics of swimming. When I was a young swimmer, I buried my head in the bubbles and drove forward, never considering what I was doing. Now I ponder buoyancy and visualize movements and I find it all instructive, though only devoted swimmers would be truly interested in hearing what I have to say about kick depth or arm recovery. I'm sure it would be like listening to a new jogger babble on about lift and pronation.

Now and then I watch other swimmers. Most Koreans like to finish a lap, stop, then gaze back at their progress, like a sculptor admiring his work. And swimming butterfly seems to hold a samurai grip on Korean males. Their creed: Swim one lap of fly or die trying.

I swim freestyle these days, and as I go down and back, between the sitcom lines and song lyrics, I think about life's great mysteries. One of the greatest is why my health club requires me to wear a bathing cap.

by Toby Smith

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