Water therapy: why my life feels better in water

I grew up in Michigan, the Great Lakes State, a state surrounded by fresh water. I’ve spent many a summer on and in Crystal Lake in northern Michigan and the majority of my life practicing and competing in swimming pools around the country. In so many ways and for so many reasons, water defines who I am.

I feel at home in and around water and truly believe that without water I wouldn’t be who I am, or likely where I am, today. In fact, San Francisco’s proximity to water played a notable role in me choosing to move out west. I spent my childhood summers less than a mile from Lake Michigan in northern Michigan, so San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean — another great, albeit salty, body of water — appealed to me.

Lake Michigan
Lake Michigan near Frankfort, Michigan.

My love and appreciation for water run deeper than simply being near it. It’s the effect water has on me that I love most.

Life lessons in water
I swam competitively for more than 18 years. During that time, I grew to love not only swimming but also the feel of being in the water. I’ve had heartbreaking moments in the water, and I’ve had moments where I am so filled with joy and amazement at seeing my wildest goals come true that I can’t wipe a massive, ear-to-ear smile from my face — even once I’ve climbed out of the water.

Through thick and thin, swimming has taught me some of the greatest life lessons. It’s taught me the value of perseverance, passion, friendship, respect, sportsmanship, goal setting and teamwork.

Since the end of my collegiate swimming career, every time I’ve gone to swim laps or simply spend time in water, I’ve also realized how much swimming balances me. It balances me in more ways than I can list. My time, my relationships, my studies and now my work, my personal life. The list goes on. But more important than any of the above, I feel as though swimming and time spent in water balance me.

Balancing act
Since moving to the Bay Area, I’ve sought out lap time whenever I feel stressed or am having trouble working through a problem. In those moments when I can’t seem to get out of my head, I turn to swimming. In the water, I find my balance.

I find it as I sit down on the pool deck and slide my legs and body into the water; I find it as I take a deep breath, duck beneath the surface and push off the wall; and I find it in the silence that envelops me, the way the water has the power to drown out the world around me. The second or two of silence that lies between the time I push off the wall and the first stroke that pushes me to the surface cleanses me. In that moment, I feel as though my body breathes a deep sigh of relief. I feel at home, nourished.

In water, the outside world washes away. When I swim, I drown out the world around me. My thoughts catch up to me, but we don’t battle one another. Even if it starts out that way — and sometimes it can — once I find my rhythm in the water, I find a rhythm with my thoughts. With no outside influence, my thoughts and I can dance in harmony. We’re forced to work together, to compromise, find a solution.

Similar balance, same love of water, new activity
In the past six months, with the help and patience of a colleague and friend, I’ve also taken up surfing. Surfing is different than swimming, since it’s mostly done above water, but I’m finding the element of balance is the same. It takes balance to swim; it takes balance to surf. Both sports also balance my mind.

Unlike swimming, I can’t put my head beneath the surface to drown out the world around me. Well, I could, but I’d be doing it terribly wrong. Still, as I sit straddling my surfboard, bobbing in open water, I’m able to wash away everything else, to balance and live in the moment.

In swimming, I find my rhythm with the water by feeling the way my hand catches and pulls against the water and feeling the way my body rotates slightly as I move down the lane. In surfing, I find my peace in the moments between catching, or trying to catch, a wave. Moments of peace in open water. Watching the way the water rolls in between sets, the way it gently picks me and the surfboard up and puts us back down again. I find my peace in feeling the cool water on my skin, feeling a piece of loose kelp or seaweed brush against me as it floats by.

In the pool, I find my balance in a more focused, more linear way. In open water, I find it in a more unique and natural way. No matter where I am, I find my balance in and around water. Put simply, my life feels better in water.

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