Why I Swim - Franziska Lüdtke
Swimming has accompanied me for most of my life. The first swim after a period of abstinence always feels like coming home, particularly when it happens in open water.
I’m a 51-year-old dramaturg and sometime journalist living in Northern Germany. In the past seven years I have lived in five different places and among the first things I researched about each new town was always the local swimming pools and locations for open water swimming. For a long time I didn’t swim at all during the winter partly because I dislike the air in indoor pools and partly because I feel caged in a 25-metre-pool after the great outdoors.
In Greifswald, I joined a squad of non-competitive open water swimmers who train indoors during the winter to improve their stroke technique. From early spring to late autumn they meet at least once a week to swim in the “Bodden“, the shallow waters between the Isle of Rügen and the Pomeranian mainland. This year – having lost the squad due to moving yet again and with pools closed since 1 November – I’m attempting to swim through the winter in the local river for the very first time. Strangely it took all this time and the covid situation for me to make that move — although I’ve been missing outdoor swimming so much every winter that I started to compulsively watch swim videos and buy swimsuits that I didn’t strictly need…
I can’t remember what first fascinated me about swimming, but it was something I very much wanted to learn. My first teacher was the founder and head coach of the local swimming club. One of his first questions to the class was, “who knows how to swim?”. When he found out only two of us did, he said: “You’ll learn it.” My parents then decided it was time to enrol me into a swimming course.
My swimming at that time meant mostly pool swimming – indoors in winter and outdoors in summer. On the rare occasions we went to the seaside, I loved swimming in the sea and discovered the fun of body surfing and swimming in choppy water. River swimming was out of the question due to pollution. Aged twelve, I got caught by my Dad taking a dip in the local river after rowing practice, I was banned from swimming for two weeks.
Around the same time someone dug out a new fishpond in the woods along my cycling route to school. It was filled with ground water of an irresistible deep bottle green and surrounded by heaps of white sand – a South Sea lagoon that had suddenly popped up in the middle of a Northern German pine forest. Obviously it was asking to be explored. So my friends and I returned in the afternoon not having told anyone where we were going. That afternoon we sunbathed in the white dunes and swam in that incredibly clear, cool, green water. At first we swam very cautiously, fearing the cold patches we’d been warned about, but when we didn’t hit on any, unrestrained joy about swimming in our own private paradise took over. We discovered the incredible liberty of nude swimming for the first time, the feeling of melting into nature.
That afternoon was the beginning of my lasting fascination with swimming in open water. I sought out other ponds in my area and enjoyed staring into the green depths while swimming instead of following a black line. To be able to leave behind the bathers at the shore was blissful. To turn on my back in the middle of a lake and watch the sky was and is my favourite way of being alone. Since then Lidos are places I only swim at in bad or indifferent weather, when there isn’t anyone around. In good weather I seek out open water locations wherever I am: ponds, lakes, gravel pits, rivers, and of the sea. I’ve swum on both sides of the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the North and Baltic Seas.
One of my all time favourite swims was in the river Aare in the Swiss capital Bern on a hot day at the beginning of August. The Aare has fast flowing, turquoise blue glacial waters that are icy cold even in summer. On its way through Bern’s city centre it feeds several riverside lidos, but there are also pool ladders every 50 metres or so along the bank. When you get in, the river carries you swiftly down stream. There is no chance to swim against the current. I tried and I enjoyed the strange sensation of swimming upstream full strength but still moving downstream feet first. To get out you have to swim towards the bank in time and then grab the ladder hard, then climb out quickly. It was exhilarating beyond belief. After I got out I ran upriver as fast as I could and jumped in again. And again. And again. And again. I was high like a dog in the snow and couldn’t get enough of the swift, cold, icy blue water glittering in the sun.
Why do I swim? Because it makes me feel alive and part of things. I can never stop marvelling at the change of perspective when you watch the world from just above the water’s surface. Sea swimming in choppy water makes me feel alert and exhilarated as does body surfing and swimming in cold water or swift flowing rivers. Swimming or drifting in calm water is the only form of meditation I can relate to. The same is true for swimming front crawl with a goal in mind (or view). It probably has to do with the regular rhythm of strokes and breathing and the concentration of looking down.
I find that very soothing in times of stress or grief. When I was preparing for my M.A. exams during the long and hot summer of 2003, I took my books to the local lake (actually a gravel pit) and took long swims in between reading Chekhov plays and Silver Age Russian poetry.
Only very recently I’ve realised how swimming has always been an integral part of my life and although I’m still not a fast swimmer, I’m a very enduring one. Hopefully I’ll be able to carry on swimming into very old age. There are so many inspiring people who’ve done just that.
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Happy swimming xx
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