Robert Moses, Swimming

“Almost every day, sometimes twice a day, no matter how busy he was, Moses would swim. He preferred the ocean; he left time for a swim whenever he was over on Jones Beach; as soon as the causeway was completed, even before it was open to the public, he drove across it to swim in the ocean almost every day during the summer and, indeed, in spring and fall, too, no matter how cold the weather. He would change into a bathing suit in his car, jump our of his limousine and run down across the beach, waving a towel as happily as a boy, plunge through the first breakers, come up on their far side and swim so far out that his men shook their heads in admiration. Sometimes, heading home to Thompson Avenue at midnight, he would tell his chauffeur to head for Jones Beach instead, and there, after running across the deserted beach, he would swim far out to sea, utterly along under the stars.”

The Power Broker, Robert Caro


Robert Moses

On My Changing Relationship to the Goddamn Pool

If you know me in real life, or pay incredibly close attention to this website, you might know that when I was young, I swam competitively. I was never particularly good (I have never been particularly good at any physical endeavor) but I did it — a lot.

There were years when my summers consisted of three hours of swimming in the morning followed by another hour and a half at night. In between, all I did was sleep and eat.

The clearest memories I have of those days are of how cold the water was in the morning, how crazy our coach was, and how much we ate.

I remember steam coming off the water in the morning and all of us, rail thin, terrified to jump in. I remember Coach Oz who’d lost half a finger in a machining accident screaming at me so much his dentures would come loose.

And I remember the food. When my mother handled the car pooling duties on Friday, we’d stop at this Italian bakery. Four swimmer would split a dozen cannoli’s. At nine in the morning. Then I’d go home and eat a box of pancakes. Yes, a box. Or we’d head out to an all you can eat buffet, where we’d eat, straight through breakfast and into lunch, laughing and joking, and putting away plate after plate of food.

Those are my strongest memories. What I don’t really remember was enjoying the actual swimming. Usually, it seemed like a grind.

And that’s because it is. Unlike running, where you can chat, listen to music or watch the scenery go by, or team sports where comradery is part of the goal, swimming is an individual endeavor where you spend most of your time with your head in the water, looking at a black line at the bottom of a pool, trying to remember what lap you’re on. As I’ve written about before, it can get dull.

And yet there I was, last night, in the basement of my synagogue, getting in some yards.

Was it boring? Yes. Tedious? Yes. But also kind of wonderful to click off the laps without the benefit of a podcast, or audible download, or Spotify play list. A teenage me, would never have appreciated this, but last night, having 45 minutes to think about my son, my training, and John Joseph’s strange road from the Cromags to Ironmans, without any interruptions, felt like a luxury.

Michael Phelps, the drudgery of swimming, and me.

I swam competitively from elementary school through high school and I can say with some authority that swim practice is unspeakable boring.  Racing can be fun, but training is just the worst.  It isn’t like true team sports, where you can shoot the shit with your teammates on the field, and it isn’t like running, where you can while away the miles chatting with friends.  Hell, it isn’t even like open water swimming, where you at least have the adventure of waves and currents.  It’s just you, alone, with your head in the water, for hours.  It can suck.  When I was a kid, I swam for five hours a day in the summer, and I dreaded much of it.  I cannot imagine what it is like to be Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte, to swim those kind of hours, for the majority of your life.  They’ve sacrificed so much social interaction, no wonder they give bad interviews and no wonder Phelps wants to put this all behind him.

I used to dread practice, especially in the summer.  Three hours of back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, over and over.  Stroke, stroke, flip turn, stroke, this time faster, that time longer, again and again, for hours and hours.  Go home, eat, nap, and do it again for two more hours.  Five days a week.  There were many times I didn’t want to go to practice, and occasionally, there were times I just didn’t, choosing to read over another set of endless laps.

My coach was a mean son of a bitch too.  An old grumpy man, he was missing part of a finger from an accident he’d had on the shop floor of the local factory years and years ago.  He’d throw kickboards if he thought we were being lazy.  Who knows how he even became a coach.  He was serious, he was strict, and he believed in the tried and true method of getting in the time in the pool.  His unforgiving practices often made me dread the pool.  But mostly, I went and I swam hard.  Going, even when it was hard, dull, and boring, is what made me a decent swimmer, and it is what gave me the training to lace up my shoes to run on the days where I’d rather sit on the couch, or to tie my tie and go in and face a day of hell at work.  As a fast runner once said, you gotta want it, even when you don’t want it.

Time in the pool remains the best way to get fast, but few who criticize Michael Phelps this year for not training hard enough can begin to understand what it would mean for him to have trained harder.  Just at a time in his life when people were beginning to listen to him, when he was being allowed to have fun, we all wanted him to put his head back in the water.  I can’t blame him for resisting that.  And I can’t blame him for saying that after this, it’s over.  Good luck Michael, you are a hell of a swimmer, I hope whatever you do next fills you with excitement and allows for more engagement with the world, as for me, I like to get in a pool every now and then and relive the feeling of a coming at the wall fast, flipping efficiently, and pushing off again, but my days of hours in the pool are long since over.

Race Autopsy: Lady Libery Open Water Swim

Written years ago for another blog after I DNF’ed the 2006 Lady Liberty Swim


1. Though I am a pretty strong swimmer, I was not prepared an open water wetsuit swim. From the moment I jumped into the water, I couldn’t breath, and was hyperventilating by about halfway through. It wasn’t pretty. I’m not sure if my breathing problems were solely because of my lack of training, or if the wetsuit I got was actually too small. Either way, I should have had this figured out before I jumped in the water, but I didn’t. That won’t happen for the New York City Triathlon in July. I will fit in numerous open water swims of at least the distance I need to cover in that race. I narrow down why I had trouble breathing, and I will fix the situation. When I race in July, I will leave the water feeling strong.

2. I got awfully drunk on Friday night, kind of by accident, which was stupid and a sign that I wasn’t respecting this morning’s race. That won’t happen again. Matter of fact, I’ll be happy if I never get that drunk again.

3. I will not let the situation psych me out. This morning, the current was out of control. Of the first round of roughly a hundred swimmers, only forty finished. They waited a while before putting us in the water, and many more people finished from my heat, but I was thinking about the sight of those first round people treading water and moving backwards when I jumped in the water. That wasn’t helpful.

3. From here on out I will be taking my training much more seriously. Nothing brings you back down to earth regarding the hours you need to put in to do these kinds of events quite like riding into shore on a FDNY rescue boat.

In other jock news, I am trying to build my running base back up without getting hurt. That meant two 3.5 miles runs this week, at a roughly nine minute mile pace, plus a mile and a half swim in the pool, which obviously did me a lot of good.

*big up to BP for finishing the swim this morning. She told me to train better, I should have listened.