Morning Swims


It’s seven in the morning. For many, it may be the time to struggle with the snooze button. Others may be taking the first dose of the day’s coffee supply. But for me, on more than half the days in a year, it’s time to take a plunge into the pool.

Hearing about my swimming schedule, people often commend my “willpower” while appearing reserved about the sleep deprivation it implies. However, I don’t swim for physical exertion alone; I follow an inner urge for a mental retreat. Rather than cutting sleep short, the morning swims seamlessly extend its restfulness with sensory serenity and richness.

Swimming is inherently soothing, and the morning hours amplify the tranquility. The crystalline embrace of water, accompanied by the rhythmic pulse of the waves, constantly reminds one of their bodily presence and breath—a meditative practice requiring far more effort onshore. I cherish the slim window, before the day’s hustle and concerns intrude, to escape stimulation for rumination. One of my fixations is the moment when the first sunlight pierces the surface, causing a Tyndall effect and casting shimmering, dancing threads. The spectacle feels almost spiritual.

In the pool, the early birds are a different breed from those who come later in the day; regulars and pros abound. It’s not uncommon for an athletic, disciplined figure to rise from the water and reveal themselves to be a silver-haired septuagenarian. Morning swimmers are also the impatients, and their gathering creates a competitive, even fierce, environment. Dare to slack off halfway, and you’ll find yourself flanked by shadowers coveting your position within seconds. The one at the wall just won’t give you the right of way; always assume they’ll pop off right before you turn around. Collisions are so common that it’s wise to temporarily dial down your civility gauge. Caveat natator.

Finding a pool with morning access isn’t always easy, and getting accustomed to a new one takes time. As I moved between cities and neighborhoods, each pool became a symbol of my attachment to those places and experiences. Arriving in Philadelphia as an international student, I had my first substantial conversations with foreigners in the campus natatorium. A year later, it was my last stop before leaving the ivory tower for good. In my final days as a lawyer in Beijing, the pool was where my private struggles surfaced as bubbles, and where I chose to move on. Undecided about where to live in Shenzhen, I dropped a pin on a public outdoor pool and scouted its vicinity. There, I also got a crash course in the southern climate, feeling the sting of sunburn and torrential raindrops on my back, both mercifully mitigated by the water.

As such, the pool at dawn has become an anchor in my life. Many mornings, laden with an emotional hangover and a restless mind, I sought refuge in the pool, knowing I would emerge with relief and resolution. As I navigate the terrains of reality where doubts inundate, and chart the boundaries of relations that warrant no reciprocity, the pool remains a steadfast, empathetic bulwark, always acknowledging my individuality and responding to my presence.

Everything the life taketh away, though, and swimming is no exception. Bad weather shuts the facility. Aging pipes bust. You forget to bring the swimwear. Things happen, and you can only readjust and return the day after.

…Or days after. I often think of a foggy morning in February 2020, when people were anxious and disoriented as the virus spread and the initial lockdown measures were scrambled into place. Out of habit, I still went to the pool, despite knowing it was likely closed.

Surprisingly, it was open, a result of asynchronous and ambiguous mandates. The door was left ajar, the lighting minimal. With a mix of stealthy thrill and anticipatory grief, I slipped into the pitch-dark water and began my routine. For the entire hour, I wasn’t sure if I was moving forward or just waving my limbs at the void.

As I left, the staff began to red-tape the entrance. The pool remained dry for the next one hundred and twenty-seven days.