By Mike Gustafson//Contributor | Wednesday, December 20, 2017
Every Christmas Eve when I was a kid, I listened for sleigh-bells, even though I didn’t know what sleigh-bells should sound like. I assumed they sounded, well, like bells, but with some additional mysterious, magical resonance. And I assumed I would hear them, among the creaking white pine trees and northerly wind gusts. For hours, I’d lay in bed, close my eyes, and listen. And even though I never heard them, the experience itself was fulfilling, magical, dream-like.
I never had a similar audible experience until years later. I was a competitive NCAA swimmer, and I had just swum poorly in a mid-season swim meet. My coach, attempting an unorthodox way to ease my despondency, encouraged me to do something I had never done before: Listen to the water.
“Close your eyes and swim underwater,” he said. “And just do nothing. Listen to the water. Hear the water.”
At the time, the last thing I wanted to do in that moment was to listen to some abstract water gurgles. Instead, I wanted to throw my goggles, cry in the showers, and feel sorry for myself. I wanted to flee. I wanted to hide. I was frustrated with the sport and how my performance times weren’t reflecting the work I had put into training. I thought I had done everything right. And yet, I was swimming worse times than I had years before. And so, somewhat reluctantly but seeking any kind of advice or solution, I found a quiet corner in the warm-down pool, took a deep breath, and sunk underwater.
As any swimmer knows, “underwater” is an upside-down world. A weightless wonderland featuring supernatural abilities, where humans can flip, fly, and soar. But it wasn’t until I closed my eyes and listened to the rhythm of this upside-down world that I felt connected to it. A part of it. A part of its unique rhythm.
Gone were the whistles, yells, beeps, and cheers. Gone was the natatorium’s mechanical ventilation’s whirl, the florescent lights’ buzz. Gone were the onslaught of heats, dives, turns. And for thirty seconds or so, I only heard one sound.
A heart beat.
Swimmers can get easily caught up in times, performances, and expectations, like any of us can get caught up in grades, careers, wealth, and materials. I’m reminded of this every holiday season spent frantically buying, shopping, and wrapping. Occasionally, the holidays morph from a magical experience into a material one.
But when I followed that coach’s advice that day, and when I closed my eyes and temporarily shut-off the visual stimulation and non-stop movement of the world around me and just listened, I felt re-connected. In this upside-down, underwater world, I heard a heart beating — as natural and human a sound we will hear — and the experience felt otherworldly. Magical, even. Like I was a kid, once again listening to the black Christmas Eve night. The world seemed new, fresh, alive. As though there was this beat, this rhythm, this song happening all around me, and for the first time, I was singing along.
So much of our sport is focused on its tactile nature, its physical dance through water. Strength, flexibility, motion, angle, velocity. I’ve spent thirty years working on these things. But in thirty seconds of motionless listening, I learned more, felt more, gained more.
The holidays can be a whirlwind, frenetic time. The holidays for swimmers can mean additional hours of velocity and training. More yards. More intensity. More sweat.
But also, important?
To your family. To those carolers down the street. To the quietude of the deep winter night. To your heart.
Mike Gustafson co-owns @LiteratiBookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan.