Runners say swimming is boring. Racquetball players say there's no challenge. Bikers say the scenery is bad.
They all miss the point.
Swimming is aerobic meditation. It's exercise combined with rest and reflection -- a healing, peaceful kind of exercise. And all you need is a bathing suit, a pair of goggles and a pool -- no light-up-the-night running suit, no imported-three-extra-gears derailleur.
Swimming takes the "Oh wow, man" out of getting in touch with yourself. It's the hot tub of exercise, an aerobic activity that doesn't destroy your joints.
Swimming is a way to beat the system, a way to turn off the constant current that keeps us moving, working, producing at all costs, with no time to pause for the psyche.
Swimming is that pause. For 30 minutes every day, the over and over and over again of a steady freestyle stroke mesmerizes a swimmer into effortless daydreams. The rhythm restores you to a comfortable mental tempo that lets you deal with life outside the pool, with The World, on your own terms.
A runner feeds only type-A behavior; running becomes only more frenetic. Getting better means running faster or longer. The competition is out there: packs of lean, muscular reminders that you could be running a 6 1/2-minute mile if you just pushed a little harder. Some people even run to work -- with their suits tucked into backpacks. That's relaxing?
Certainly there are runners who can trot casually to Mount Vernon and back and speak of discoveries internal. But in two years they'll be talking chondro malacia and show up at the pool to soothe their tortured knees.
Racquetball players perhaps do push themselves, do strive for a win, some instant gratification that reminds them they're doing pretty well, even if they aren't as young as they once were. But the game perpetuates the pressure that pervades the daily routine.
Bikers may come closer to aerobic meditation: They have their moments of solitude. But bikers can't forget themselves and dare not forget others -- it's too easy to get hurt.
Swimming's strength is its tedium, which lulls the swimmer into prolonged, unavoidable daydreams. The mind wanders. Unwittingly, it tries to organize: It remembers birthdays, it recalls conversations. And finally, it wanders into the oblivion of lost dreams and hopes and fears. With the back-and-forth, back-and-forth of 30 laps or so, you remember what you're ultimately striving for. The Big Picture falls into place.
As you leave the pool, details line up in your mind instead of dashing about in chaos. You stop and buy a birthday card. You make a note to call an old friend. And on the best days, you know why you're doing it all.