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the swimmer

About a year ago, I started experiencing knee pain in Zumba. After a few weeks, the knee tenderness would go away. But then it started happening more frequently. I started yoga around this time, in an effort to find a less weight-bearing form of exercise. But yoga, with its one-leg standing poses, isn’t that easy on the knees.

So I started thinking about incorporating swimming into the mix. Swimming is pretty compelling as a form of exercise, given that you aren’t bearing weight and your sweat washes right off of you. Unfortunately, swimming laps also requires that you wear a racing swimsuit. To be frank, there are a lot of hobbies I’d try if it wasn’t for the clothes. Like ballroom dancing (mid-heel t-straps), or soccer (shin guards), or surfing (wetsuits with mock turtlenecks). But I’m 35. It’s getting real real. Time to put the vanity away and focus on preserving my remaining cartilage.

When I tried to put my vanity away, however, it resisted, mightily. I looked at all the one-piece Speedo and Tyr swimsuits on Zappos and Amazon. In terms of style and sex appeal, the suits ranked one step above the mom suits in the Lands End catalog. Every time I get the Lands End catalog I flip to the swimsuits and force myself to stare at them hard. Then I make a pact with myself that I will give up swimming altogether before I wear a swimsuit with a skirt attached to it.

The subject of one-piece swimsuits is a touchy one in our family, ever since Tom insisted that I wear a one-piece swimsuit to Tate’s baby-and-me swim lesson. I had mentioned to Tom that I hoped other moms would wear two-pieces because that’s all I owned. And that’s when I learned that I had married William Bennett.

“Yoona!! You can’t wear a bikini to Tate’s swim lesson. You just CAN’T. PLEASE. Think of Tate.” Think of Tate?? All I DID was think of Tate. I was getting my hair wet, wasn’t I? I looked at Tom as if seeing him for the first time. I was both offended by the implication that my bikini days were over, and annoyed by my husband’s conventionalism. I was so angry about the whole thing that I considered showing up in a monokini with cutouts and a ruched butt seam in the back. But in the end I just skipped the lesson.


On my laptop, I came back to the ugly racing suits every couple days. For two whole months. Finally I broke down and bought a two-piece Tyr. When I tried my suit on, I was pleasantly surprised. From a distance it looked like I was wearing a black sports bra and black men’s briefs, but that was preferable to the one-piece suits, which appeared to be cut solely to emphasize back fat. The bottoms of my two-piece did not cut into my sides and the top had a sporty appeal, even if it made it apparent that my chest is as flat as a board. For a second, I wondered if I should shove some cutlets into the top. But I shook it off. I was an athlete! (Fake) boobs would just create drag and slow me down. In any event, I had bigger problems to worry about, like my swim cap.

The first time I wrestled my swim cap onto my head, I pulled it right off and fished the packaging out of the garbage can to check the size. Clearly I had inadvertently bought a child’s cap. But no. Adult swim caps only come in one size, and that size is entirely too small for my head. My cap is so tight that when I put it on I swear I can feel my eyes bug out. Generally speaking, the ugliness of my head inside the swim cap was shocking. When I looked in the mirror, I inhaled a sharp breath. The swim cap, with all my hair tucked inside of it, confirmed something I had long suspected. And that is, that if I ever lose my hair, I am totally fucked.


The swimming. Right. The first time I got in the pool, I looked at the geezers in the lanes around me and felt bad that I was about to smoke them. Then I made the mistake of taking a breath every four crawl strokes, right out of the gate. Why would I do that? No idea. I may have thought that’s how everyone did it, since the only time I’ve really seen swimming is during the Olympics. By the end of the first 50 meters I was clutching the side of the pool as if it was a raft in shark-infested waters, and sucking wind so hard that my wheezing was audible over the lapping of the water. The lifeguard sitting in the chair above me alternated between carefully monitoring my situation to determine whether I needed CPR, and looking away, to save me further embarrassment. As I struggled to compose myself, the geezer in the next lane splashed me while doing a flip turn.

Since freestyle was so hard, I tried a few laps of breaststroke, and 100 meters of backstroke. When I went to pull myself out of the pool at the end of my swim, my arms gave out from under me and I was forced to paddle weakly over to the ladder. My lats were on fire, and my shoulders felt like someone had pulled my arms out of their sockets. This wasn’t the kind of soreness that settled in after a few hours. I felt it as I GOT OUT OF THE POOL. I’m no doctor, but I don’t think exercise is supposed to create that kind of immediate physical pain. I’ll have to write Michael Phelps to confirm.

I was so traumatized after my first lap swim that I considered quitting, but I’d invested a lot of time and mental angst in procuring the swimsuit and accessories, and I felt I owed it to myself to give it another go. It took me another week to get back in the pool. This time, I put on my swim cap, avoided all mirrors, and walked straight to the pool.

And once in the water, I started to get it. I was gliding through the water with more ease, and began to zone out to the rhythm of the water sluicing through my fingers. The voice in my brain, which sounds like a neurotic and chatty 7-year old girl, started to quiet. I stopped worrying that I’d eaten a one-pound bag of Cadbury Mini Eggs by myself over three days. I stopped worrying that Finn had recently started laughing like Beavis. I stopped worrying that Tate sang the alphabet song using only the letter K. In fact, I stopped thinking about anything but the satisfying feel of the wall when I touched it at the end of each lap.

It felt sublime. Who knows. Maybe there’s a swimmer in me after all.


35 Comments Post a comment
  1. Oh man. I went through a swimming phase, and I can attest to the fact that there was nothing uglier I have ever seen in my life than my dome in a swim cap. Even worse- it didn’t even keep my hair dry!
    Um, excuse me- isn’t that the whole point? To keep chlorine off my luscious locks? Am I wearing a condom on my head for kicks? For speed? I don’t think so.

    Anyways it all came to a screeching halt when I got athletes foot from the gross changerooms and it was kind of a relief because of all the naked olds.
    I’m not judging. When I’m old I am sure I, too, will not give the slightest of f*$ks who sees my bare wrinkly body, but at 23 I wasn’t ready to face my future reality that wholeheartedly.

    May 7, 2013
    • I have stopped swimming for now because of my piercings but the thought has crossed my mind that I ought to save swimming for when I really need it

      May 8, 2013
  2. undertheneedles #

    This is so great! It’s always so wonderful when we get to find something that we can relax doing. Especially if that means we’re also doing something good for our bodies!

    March 19, 2013
  3. The very best thing about swimming is that fat floats. Under my current circumstances I feel that puts me well ahead of my competition to be voted “Least Likely to Sink to the Bottom (and stay there)”.

    As to swim caps, I’m pretty sure they are simply foot binders repurposed for the head. I’m not sure how anybody swims with their brains trying to exit their ears (which at least are also under the cap so those brains aren’t going anywhere short term but, ooooph. Urgle!).

    March 6, 2013
  4. Coming from a marriage to an Asian I understand many of the nuances you speak of. I have moved to a ugly one piece I hate but have decided to revolt and buy a cute two piece this year. Or even a hick-a-billy sex pot mono-kino to hide my belly flab from 9.12 lb child number 4.

    March 5, 2013
  5. I love swimming for the exact reason that it always destroys me. ALWAYS. If you want extra drag to make it harder, get a rash guard or board shorts. I have hip tattoos, so I always wear board shorts to avoid the inevitable pick-up attempts despite the fact I am obviously dying from lack of air & could be a lot more in shape—I have resigned myself to the inevitability of back fat in Speedo suits. It is a thing.

    March 3, 2013
    • my predominant thought is that your gym sounds a lot more fun than my gym. the thought of being picked up while i’m in my swim cap seems insane

      March 3, 2013
  6. “I work Thursdays.” Funny.

    March 2, 2013
  7. Rarely do I audibly laugh while alone – but really – you nailed it. Going from being a runner (cute clothes) to doing yoga, to attempting to swim laps in a two piece not knowing I’d need a cap and goggles to look like a legit swimmer – I feel your pain. Thanks for sharing.

    March 1, 2013
    • the only thing that makes regular exercise bearable is having cute workout clothes. i believe it was jack lalanne who first said that

      March 1, 2013
  8. sammy #

    Unless you’re swimming somewhere without chlorine, you don’t want to mess with anything outside the ‘performance’ category of swimwear – it’ll be baggy the second time you swim in it and semi-transparent by the third time. J Crew suits are built for striking poses near the pool, not for swimming.

    I have a long torso, too, and always go with 2-pieces. I think the speedo boy short bottom with the sport-bra-looking top is quite fetching.

    And nobody looks good in a swim cap. Some people may look a little better than others, but nobody looks good.

    March 1, 2013
    • i dunno. j crew suits do ok. i have some from a decade ago and they’ve been dipped in hotel pools. but i hear you that it is not the right swimwear for the occasion. my friend told me to look at the speedo website, that there are many styles I don’t know about

      March 1, 2013
  9. Dominique #

    Hi Yoona,

    Have you all considered J Crew one pieces? They’re actually cute and minimize my chub.

    Just a thought. Great blog by the way!


    March 1, 2013
    • minimizing of chub is all. i will try a one piece or two in my annual j crew swimsuit purchase

      March 1, 2013
  10. Karen #

    Are you writing a follow up post on the necessary waxing that is a prerequisite to wearing the bathing suit? Please?

    March 1, 2013
    • Karen I’m Asian. Some things I’m just not equipped to opine about

      March 1, 2013
  11. Hey, if you ever wanna feel very appreciated by some of the perennial icons of our fair city, get a great workout to choreography that never changes, and be taught by a tier 1 coach, come to the West Pool next Thursday at 10:30 am. Andrea Sexton may even join us. And I’ll buy you a noseclip.

    February 28, 2013
  12. jinx #


    February 28, 2013
  13. thevirtualrealityofstaci #

    As usual I laughed through the whole thing. The part about the suits was the best. As a plus sized woman I feel your pain and no ONE piece looks good on anyone. I wear a Tankini just so I can feel less like a one coloured blob in black with a skirt attached. I have never been able to wear a swim cap, and now I know why.

    February 28, 2013
    • ah the tankini. now a reoccurring theme on my blog. clearly this means i am destined to wear one

      February 28, 2013
  14. cemmaillie #

    oh crap, this was so funny. I’m an injured runner, and have been sucking wind in my attempts to swim. It’s gotten easier. But I also just joined a class the other day. I just screwed myself all over again. I can do an hour on my own… and apparently only 20 minutes with an instructor. dang it.

    February 28, 2013
    • why is that? is it the pressure of someone watching, so you feel like you have to swim faster? or is it the technique? I’m intrigued

      February 28, 2013
      • cemmaillie #

        technique. It’s all about technique. my arms are all wrong on the front crawl, my bum is too low in the water (even though apparently I have a really strong kick), and my breathing needs to be more inline with my arms hitting the water. holy mother. I can do a mile on my own with my crappy swimming, but I could tell a huge difference with the comments on technique. but remembering it all at once? that’s a whole different ballgame. I just upped my own ante ten-fold. I wish I had done it sooner.

        March 1, 2013
      • now I feel like I need a swim coach

        March 1, 2013
  15. This made me laugh out loud!! I JUST went through the one-piece vs two piece bathing suit battle when I took my 7 month old to swim for the first time. MUST I wear a two piece now that I’m a mom???? I decided no.

    February 28, 2013
    • hell to the no. i am entirely against the concept of dressing one’s age, station, role, whatever. i hope to embarrass tom well into my 80s

      February 28, 2013
  16. Andy #

    I am now sitting in my office with a K-only version of alphabet song stuck in my head. It’s amazing

    February 28, 2013
  17. I love the one piece Speedo racing suits! They suck everything in and keep things in place, which I can totally appreciate. My terror lies in having to find a “normal bathing suit” as my husband calls them.

    February 28, 2013
    • i think my fear of them stems from the fact that i have a long torso, so they always ride up. because i know i wouldn’t mind the sucking-in benefits of a one-piece

      February 28, 2013

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