On Monday, February 19, 2018, from 12:49 p.m. to 1:27 p.m., I lived life in the fast lane for the very first time. It was, in a word, exhilarating. For those 38 minutes, I was light and swift and streamlined. My skin was clean and soft. My legs were strong.
When I finally heaved myself out of the fast lane and traipsed to the showers in the women’s locker room, removing my goggles, swim cap, and peeling off my swimsuit, I was so distracted by those 38 minutes that I hardly noticed how the strong jet of water from above changed from Siberian cold to pasta-boiling-ly hot.
To be clear, that half-hour took place in one of three 82-foot—or 25-meter—“fast lanes” in the pool at the bottom of Dodge gym. The other options are two “medium” lanes, two “slow” lanes, and the odd “family lane.” Last Friday, for instance, I spent 20 minutes in the “medium” lane. I have yet to swim in the “slow” lane.
The lane system is based entirely on self-evaluation. It is an aquatic honor code, of sorts. Nobody is watching you; nobody is assessing you (unless a fellow swimmer is writing an article for The Eye). Apart from two lifeguards who watch only for life-threatening situations, other water worshipers who are far too busy kicking their own legs to worry about yours, three large digital clocks at either end of the lane, the banners of the colorful Ivy League hanging on one wall and a single missing ceiling tile, you are alone. And these miscellaneous observers only bother you if you swim on your back. Commit to facedown front crawl or breaststroke and you are free.
So, upon entering Dodge gym, amateur swimmers—which is what those of us who flock to the “free swim” hours from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. all are—have the time it takes to descend approximately five flights of stairs and strip down to their swimsuits to make one simple decision: which lane they want to try out today. Once they commit to one, they dive in and begin to sprint, or swim, or float and wallow and flail.
On Monday, as I made my way along yet another lap of the blue oasis, I wondered—which is what I often do while I swim—how my fellow swimmers picked their lane. Do they choose their speed based on their mood that day? Or on the speed of those already in the lane? Do they always pick the same lane? But I also wonder if free swimming in Dodge pool transcends those questions.
In my experience—and my recent experience has consisted of swimming several times that week of February 19, for 30 minutes a day, as field work for this piece—the fast-lane crowd is quite different from the medium-lane crowd. That Monday, I was in the fast lane with a man as wrinkled as a California Golden Raisin, if California Golden Raisins were white and pale. In his first lap, he dived to the deepest reaches of the pool before embarking on a slow, dramatic ascension that culminated in a whale-like breach about two-thirds of the way down the lane. In his second, he flipped onto his back and began to agitate every part of his body with such force that he transformed into a mobile human jacuzzi. This kind of post-structuralist, idiosyncratic, definitely-not-fast behavior is only found in the fast lane.
The medium lane crowd is much more traditional, as it sticks to conventional strokes and steady speeds. The slow lane crowd, from pool-side observation, seems to be the most peaceful. These swimmers, or free-floaters, glide gracefully along, propelled by the occasional kick or arm pull.
I have one friend, Matthew, a senior in his last semester at Columbia College, who somehow failed to notice the “fast,” “medium,” and “slow” signs the first time he visited Dodge pool and who proceeded to unknowingly plunge into the fast lane.
“Whilst swimming in the fast lane,” Matthew said, recalling the harrowing experience of his first semester in 2014, “I began to feel waves behind me. As the taste of chlorine filled my lungs, I realized that I was slowly and assuredly drowning.” He added: “Suddenly a large body ran over me and I was left floating behind the kicking feet of a walrus.” Matthew emerged from this horrific encounter and immediately threw up. Clearly, the fast lane is not for everyone. But, until now, nobody knew about this experience, apart from maybe Seth Benjamin, who was with Matthew at the time. Why did nobody know? Because Dodge pool is a cocoon of freedom, anonymity, and warm splashes.
I must admit that Matthew’s story is exceptional. For most swimmers with any kind of introductory pool experience, the stakes of making a bad lane decision are not very high: a stray kick in the face; a few uncomfortable gulps of water; an intimate and underwater view of a stranger’s behind. Usually, the worst thing that can happen is that you must quickly switch lanes by ducking under the the red-and-blue floating plastic ropes.
Nevertheless, as I coasted along in the pool another evening that week, I thought about how the question of fast, medium or slow is about more than just simply the amateur swimming pool. Given that anyone can swim during the open hours, what is “fast” to you? Are you “fast”? How much faster is fast than “medium”? More than ever, life, and particularly the speed at which we live it, seems to be quantified. Though I don’t want it to, my phone will tell me the number of daily, weekly, monthly, and annual steps, flights climbed, and walking and running distances. A treadmill monitor’s green text informs of speed, incline, heart rate, calories, time, level.
Oftentimes, those numbers and measurement mechanisms make me feel acutely trapped and suffocated. In those moments, I pilgrimage to the dingy basement of Dodge gym. The water soothes my face, my ears, and my mind. I wish more experiences were like swimming during Dodge gym’s “free swim” hours, from which I emerge with red panda-bear rings around my eyes, softer skin, and the rush of 38 glorious minutes in the fast lane.