Early October, 2013
It is 6 weeks post-MIMS, and I still can’t swim. I am beached both by my physiotherapist’s proscription against swimming for the foreseeable future, and and more definitively, by the inability to swim without pain. My shoulder still bites when I raise my arm above my head, make a forgetful lateral movement outwards to reach for something or swing on a jacket. It’s no longer the hot, fiery breath of pain that I felt during the swim, but a sharp tweak; a warning. On my first physio visit, I explain how the injury happened and how I'd kept swimming on it, and he responds with a weary laugh. He tests my range of motion in a variety of postures; I signal when a movement starts to cause pain with a small wince or declarative “There!”. He tests to see if I have lost any power in the arm, looking for tendon tears; he instructs me to resist the pressure he applies against different parts of my hand and arm. Everything is intact. He says that if he could put a camera inside my shoulder joint, it would probably be very red and angry; when I go home, I look up arthroscopic images online and visualize my irritated tendons, repeatedly snagging between bones. I have a diagnosis now: a shoulder impingement….or swimmer’s shoulder as it is also tellingly called. And I have a comfortingly mechanical account of my injury to work with; the narrowed space between the top of the humerus and the acromium traps the tendons, causing more swelling….and so on. The cure: rest, anti-inflammatories, and a programme of exercises so subtle that it’s hard to believe they are doing any good. I lie on the floor, lifting my shoulder up and back, holding for a count of ten. Ten repeats, twice a day. It is my ritual; an act of faith. It’s shockingly hard to do, which offers some comfort; there’s obviously something back there that’s not as strong as it should be. Each day, I think of my exercises as another step towards recovery; it’s training like any other, but nowhere near as much fun. I recall a friend of mine - a runner benched by injury- observing that when you feel fit and well, you think it’s going to last forever, and when you are injured, you think it will never end. Indeed.
My incapacity makes me feel broken and old, and I start to feel an unexpected encroaching discomfort with my body - a bit fat, greying, peri-menopausal - that is ordinarily pushed out of sight by swimming. In the water, swimming for hours, my body feels absolutely perfect; beached, it’s so much harder to hold on to that feeling and I feel ashamed at the shallowness of my appreciation of this body of mine, and the precariousness of my détente with it. But being laid up is not all bad, I remind myself; I’ve reclaimed 2-3 hours a day that I used to spend swimming, and my neglected book (this book) has leapt to life, the unexpected beneficiary of my injury.
But god…how I miss swimming.
I crave swimming. I long for it. When I think of swimming, I can feel my body reaching quietly for the movements; it imagines itself stroking cleanly through the water. Without the comforts of swimming and full of anxiety about starting my new job, I’m unsure how to relax and can’t quite tire myself out physically. My sleep has lost the sumptuousness that long swimming delivers, and the stock of nuts and muesli bars that I keep in my desk drawer goes untouched, my appetite dulled by the sudden drop from 30+ km a week in the water to nothing. I join the gym at my new workplace and go every morning. I can (could) swim for hours, but my lower body fitness has been neglected over the long summer of swimming; after just a few minutes on the treadmill or cross-trainer, my legs are burning and my face scarlet. But I persist; it is a new body project to occupy me, inching the duration up weekly in minute increments. Progress, of sorts. I always choose one of the treadmills with a partial view over the swimming pool and I follow the swimmers travelling up and down the lanes with envious longing. I can’t stop watching, like constantly running my tongue over a mouth ulcer. I find myself compiling an uninvited critique of the swimmers below me: he’s crossing the centre line with his right hand; she’s scissoring her legs; that person’s over-reaching at the front of the stroke. I imagine myself swimming in a fantasy of liquid smoothness and technical perfection as I trudge away gracelessly on the treadmill.
And in the bottom of my gym bag - a costume, cap and goggles. I know I can’t use them (yet?), but I like to have them there. Just in case.