Sunset at Kaimana Beach with windsock faintly visible on the left. (Photo by Carol Canter)

An Ode to Swimming

A personal tribute to my fellow “swimmin’ women,” to the swim-themed room at the Joan Brown Retrospective at SFMOMA, and to the inspiring film The Swimmers.

Story by Carol Canter.

Joan Brown’s sculpture Divers, 1974 and painting After the Alcatraz Swim #1, 1975. (Photo by Carol Canter).
Joan Brown’s sculpture Divers, 1974 and painting After the Alcatraz Swim #1, 1975. (Photo by Carol Canter).

The visceral power of my connection to a swim-themed gallery at the Joan Brown Retrospective at SFMOMA, as well as my immersion into a film, The Swimmers, has inspired me to reflect upon my longest-lasting and healthiest habit of a lifetime — as well as on my fellow “swimmin’ women,” companions complicit in sharing the natatory journey.

Joan Brown Retrospective: Swimming clears my head, soothes and strengthens my body, and feeds my soul. For painter Joan Brown, an entire gallery of paintings depicts her experience of Swimming in the Bay 1970s, one of nine galleries that made up a compelling retrospective of her work at SFMOMA through March 12. The introductory wall text states, “For Brown, swimming not only unlocked the physical advantages of exercise but also gifted invaluable metaphysical benefits, from feeling a loss of ego to experiencing meditative flows that inspired plentiful creative ideas.”

Yet, along with portraits of Brown’s International Swimming Hall of Fame coach Charlie Sava, and others hinting at her lawsuit that forced the male bastion of open-water swimming clubs to welcome women into their hallowed halls, there are self-portraits that memorialize her near-death experience during a one-and-a-half mile race from Alcatraz Island to Aquatic Park in 1975. A freighter unexpectedly passed by, creating dramatic eddies and thirteen-foot waves. Brown lost her bearings, becoming hypothermic, and was one of several swimmers who had to be pulled from the water.

The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim, 1975. (Photo by Michael Tropea)
The Night Before the Alcatraz Swim, 1975. (Photo by Michael Tropea)

Here she is on the eve of that first-ever all-women’s Alcatraz swim, in calm contemplation, unsuspecting. The expansive scene within the scene behind her includes Alcatraz Island, the rocky origin point for the next day’s big event.

Joan Brown’s After the Alcatraz Swim #3. (Photo by Carol Canter)
After the Alcatraz Swim #3. (Photo by Carol Canter)

“Here the events unfold on a painted canvas resting behind the artist, with a pattern of the freighter appearing on the artist’s dress. Using butterflies as a symbol of metamorphosis, Brown signals the transformational nature of her experience, now viewed with distance from within the comfortable interior, with one steadying hand on the desk.”

Image via Netflix
Image from The Swimmers (Courtesy promotional of Netflix )In The Swimmers, Olympic hopeful Yusra Mardini and her sister Sara Mardini, movingly played by sisters Nathalie and Manal Issa, jump into the sea from a shockingly overcrowded leaking lifeboat, to give themselves and their fellow refugees better odds of surviving the harrowing journey from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos.

The Swimmers: Not a documentary, the film is based on the incredible real life story of the sisters. Their strong family bonds, friendships, education, and the competitive swim training by their father are all upended when one too many close encounters with death in war-torn Syria convinces them to flee to Berlin. The dangers and treachery they face along the way echo the stories we read daily about the plight of countless other migrants driven from their homes by war, persecution, drought, famine, and other political and climate-induced realities.

There is much more to say about the film, but the centerpiece, given the focus of this article, is the life-affirming 3.5 hour swim to the Greek island of Lesbos. And the camaraderie and supportive bonds that led other capable swimmers to join the Mardini sisters in helping to ensure the survival of all.

My personal water-based journeys: I could write at length about my long daily ocean swims in Mexico, rolling out of bed to stretch my limbs in the warm sensual turquoise waters as pelicans swooped overhead. Or reminisce about an adventure with a group of my Hawaii besties and our teenage kids, swimming with a wild pod of dolphins off Oahu’s Leeward Coast. And how we were so enthralled with this communion at sea that we neglected to notice how far offshore we had drifted, so gently and lovingly. Luckily, we were all strong swimmers, so when I alerted the group to look back at the distant shoreline, we were able to power swim back fast, with minimal panic. That came but a month later, when we read in the newspaper about a shark attack in that very location!

Lions Pool, Oakland: So finally, this rumination is dedicated to my fellow “swimmin’ women” from Lions Pool, an outdoor heated swimming pool in Oakland’s Dimond Park with no freighters, dangerous currents, or sharks. With some of the women, I have been swimming for well over 35 years and the bond is easy, intimate, and completely free of pretense. For when you shower together for decade upon decade, secrets seem to wash away.

I found the pool after moving from Hawaii where I became an ocean swimmer during my 9 years in paradise. Meeting friends at Kaimana Beach, also known as Sans Souci, under the shadow of Diamond Head, we’d swim out to the windsock and back once or twice, 3 times to clock a mile. This was usually after work and we bathed in the fiery colors of a tropical sunset. What a transition to evening.

Sunset at Kaimana Beach with windsock faintly visible on the left. (Photo by Carol Canter)
Sunset at Kaimana Beach with windsock faintly visible on the left. (Photo by Carol Canter)

Wrenching though it was to leave such a life behind, I was moving on to join the love of my life in Oakland. And that’s where I also found Lions Pool, an unexpected refuge complete with a community of friends, to be developed over thousands of laps and hundreds of showers.

In my early years at Lions Pool, the elders were Evie, Franzie, Monique, and Betty Jane, women full of piss and vinegar — funny, smart, earthy, and all with huge hearts, a sense of humor, and drive. Evie, an old leftie, all in for social justice, swam until she was 93. Even as she regaled us with stunning glimpses into her activist past, there were days when, hunched over to put on her shoes in the locker room, she would snort “and they call THESE the Golden Years! Don’t believe ‘em!”

Evie and Franzie are gone, but BJ, now 95 and as beautiful as the day we met, swims undeterred by rain, cold, wind, and hail. Monique, a retired social worker and small plane pilot, was standing in the aisle of a jumbo jet en route to London many years ago. We eyed one another as it slowly dawned on us that here we were, fellow swimmers from Lions Pool. And then out came the inevitable line: “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!”

The elders have inspired me, and now I too am reaching that demographic myself, blessed with good health no doubt due to decades of lap swims and locker room bonding.