March 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Water Gods

By Anna Funder
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Not long ago I stood at the edge of my local pool in inner Sydney looking forward to getting a load off my feet – not that I had seen them for a while. I was in the last week of my third pregnancy, and my feet, along with quite a bit of the rest of me, had long since disappeared from view. Apart from being just a tad heavy (denial expands-to-fit in the final trimester), I felt completely normal and up for a swim in my usual ‘medium’ lane.

But it was chockers, as was the fast lane and the recreation lane. I refused to consider the slow lane, which seemed to be full of people as large as me, only not pregnant. There was another with a “Lane Closed” sign on it, but some youths were larking about in it with snorkels. Clearly, they belonged in the recreation lane. Then the bell curve of justice would be satisfied: there could be two medium lanes.

As I waddled towards the overseer, the people in the ‘closed’ lane brazenly swapped their snorkels for hand paddles and started swimming about, two abreast, smiling as they stroked. One put a kickboard between his legs for some lazy freestyle. By the time I reached the woman in the red “Aquatic Education Teacher” rashie, I couldn’t get the sniffiness out of my voice. “Why,” I demanded, “is that lane ‘closed’ when there are people playing in there?”

A strange, beatific look spread over her face. “Those,” she said in a soft voice, “are the Olympians. That’s Eamon Sullivan, that’s Geoff Huegill and that,” she gestured to a hipless streak leaping effortlessly from the pool at the other end, “is Libby Trickett.” (The 100-metre freestyle Olympic gold-medallist has since resigned from the sport.)

I swam (my best possible stroke) to the other end of the pool and hung there to watch. The Olympians had started practising their diving in the next lane. At a signal from the coach, they flew overhead, one after the other, their bodies leisurely undulating in the air before meeting the water and churning up half the pool in two strokes. It is true what they say about being humbled in the presence of greatness. It seemed that the elements themselves – the very air and water – behaved differently around them, were humbled too. The swimmers’ bodies were categorically different from the rest of ours: tauter, finer, their skin like a dolphin’s, the water running off it. It was like seeing an evolutionary leap, the split happening right here in the Ian Thorpe Aquatic Centre, Ultimo, Sydney.

Grant Stoelwinder is the coach of Australia’s elite sprint squad, and he told me what evolution takes: two hours in the pool eight times per week, a gym session three times per week, plus Pilates, yoga and spin classes, as well as physio, massage and chiropractic appointments. When I said it looked like they were playing, he smiled. “The best swimmers make it look easy.” He explained that they use a snorkel and swim slowly up and down in a way that is “low on energy but high on concentration” in order “to become really aware of technique, to reinforce the same pattern so it becomes automatic under intense pressure”.

For Stoelwinder and his Olympians, the attractions of this pool are its glorious design and its location in the inner city, so that in the midst of their gruelling schedule the young people can “experience a bit of the vibrancy of Sydney”. And this centre is a magnificent thing. The ITAC, as it is known, is a community facility run by the City of Sydney and the YMCA. It is a complex of three pools (one Olympic-sized, one warm and one children’s with fountains) and there is a state-of-the-art gym underneath. It was Harry Seidler’s last design before his death, and the building, with its magnificent, wave-like ceiling, feels like the modern-day equivalent of the lavish, public-commissioned community hubs of another era: the cathedral.

After my son was born my levels of denial sank, along with everything else. I became vulnerable to the ITAC emails about personal betterment, belonging and general goodwill that landed in my inbox over the summer. The Christmas card wishing me the standard “season filled with health and happiness” was followed by a more forceful new year’s message: “NEW YEAR, NEW YOU”. In mid January came “10 tips for keeping new year’s resolutions”, which began: “A week has 168 hours; give just 2% of that time to us and the rest of the week will be filled with increased productivity, improved wellbeing and a more positive attitude.” Tip number three discussed the benefits of “practising positive thinking and self-talk” and of “reminding yourself how your bad habits affect you”. I am a gen Xer – the last generation of brazen bad habits before the current cult of self-belief and self-improvement so guilelessly took over. The more I looked at the emails from ITAC, the more it seemed like a religion. “Don’t keep your resolution a secret. Tell friends and family members, who will be there to support your resolve to change yourself for the better”,  and “Research has shown that when we believe we can achieve something, we are more likely to accomplish it.”

This new church already had my children in swimming lessons with cute names (“tuna”, “salmon” and the baby soon to start “shrimp”). A personal trainer had been sending me texts that were friendlier than ones from my friends. We had been to birthday parties at ITAC and a Mums ’n’ Bubs class that made an eternity of an hour. Now the place wanted attendance three times per week: it would get my soul by working first on my mortal flesh.

I asked Adrian Heffernan, the manager of the centre, about the Olympians. “It must be a feather in your cap,” I said, “to have Stoelwinder’s sprint squad training here.” Adrian is as spruce and upbeat as an evangelist – or perhaps I just think that because I’m in need of more “positive self-talk”. “We’re happy that this facility is world class and that they want to train here,” he told me. “But from a facilities-management perspective, elite sports people often don’t give much back.” I was shocked the gods of this place could come in for criticism. “Fortunately, that’s not at all the case with this elite sprint team,” he continued, going on to explain that this group has been involved with schools programs and “aspirational speaking” at the centre. “But our focus,” he said firmly, “is on providing facilities for local residents.”

As he described the programs offered by the pool – the Rainbow Club (swimming for children with disabilities), the PrymeMovers gym for seniors, the Wednesday breakfasts open to all – I sensed a cradle-to-grave inclusiveness, a place free of judgement, which was new to me. And then Adrian read my mind. “Some people are here four, five times per week,” he said. “I think of it this way: we used to have work, family and Church in our lives, and now we have work, family and the centre.” He smiled, “I think of this as a Third Place. Somewhere people come together.”

And who could ask for more of a place? Breakfast, goodwill, good health and gods who put back in.

Anna Funder

Anna Funder is the author of All That I Am, which won the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award, and the 2004 Samuel Johnson Prize–winning Stasiland. She is a chancellor’s postdoctoral fellow at UTS.

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