Friday, April 03, 2009

A sparkling spirit

There are some people who are filled with so much personality and positive energy that it practically oozes out of their pores. You can tell they are special without exchanging a word. Maybe it's the way their eyes sparkle. It's always the special ones whose eyes shine the most brightly.

I met a sparkling spirit at the pool yesterday. Swimming is not something I do very often in Kyoto. Japan is a country of contradictions and rules. One of the biggest rules is that there is a season for everything -- and summer is the season for swimming.

There is a beautiful 50-metre outdoor pool at Kyoto University. But because there is a season for swimming, the pool is only open two months each year. Never mind the fact that it is warm enough to swim outdoors from April to November. You can only swim in July and August. That is the rule. Obey it.

I figured there had to be a few indoor pools in Kyoto so I went to the tourist office to ask. The woman working behind the counter handed me a list of all of the swimming pools in the city. There are 10 pools in Kyoto. Nine of them are only open in July and August.

The one pool that is open year-round is inside a massive sports complex in the southwest corner of the city. It takes three trains and 45 minutes to get there from my apartment. The complex is home to the only 50-metre indoor pool in the city. But because there is a season for swimming, the pool is converted into a skating rink from October to May.

Those of us who like to swim in the off-season have to make do with a smaller "side pool" until June.

It's not ideal but I need to swim. More for my mental health than for my physical health. When I swim, I can only focus on getting enough air to breathe. It is difficult to think about anything else when you are in physical pain. I think this is why I push myself so hard when I run or swim. It quiets my mind and distracts my thoughts.

I'm not one to give astrology much credence but I'm a Pisces -- the fish -- and I think maybe there's something to that. I feel more powerful and free in water than I do on land. I've been swimming since birth. Literally. My mom gave birth to me in a tub of warm water. I swam competitively through grade school and high school. I quit competitive swimming in university but I still woke up at 6 a.m. every morning and swam on my own for an hour before classes.

I have always been drawn to bodies of water. Oceans, lakes, rivers. A rectangular box dug into the ground, lined with concrete and spiked with chlorine, is a poor substitute for the real thing but it will do.

Anyway, all of this is a long, rambling preamble to the point of this post -- the sparkling spirit I met at the pool yesterday.

It is spring break here in Japan, a fact I didn't realize until I stepped on the pool deck. Just like in Canada, spring break and public pools go hand-in-hand. So I spent a good part of an hour swimming around kids who slipped under the rope separating the play area from the lap swimming area. The lifeguards would yell at them to get out of the lanes. So they'd swim where they were supposed to and then pop back in the lanes when the lifeguards weren't looking. It was like swimming through an obstacle course.

The only other person swimming laps in my lane was a very young boy -- the sparkling spirit.

He was swimming laps by himself. He seemed to have come to the pool alone. No adults checked in on him. No kids asked him to play. He was very intense and very serious. He was wearing a cap, goggles and a little speedo. He couldn't have been older than 10.

All of the other kids in the pool were splashing around in the play area, or taking turns going down the waterslide. Not this kid. He was spending his spring break swimming laps in the pool by himself. And he seemed to be enjoying it. Really enjoying it.

I slipped into his lane and started my workout. I was about a quarter of the way into it when I noticed that the kid was following right behind me, swimming his heart out to stay on my feet. I was doing a set of 6x200 (alternating 200 metres freestyle and 200 metres IM). My little friend swam right behind me, arms churning like windmills, swimming the exact same workout.

I grabbed a kickboard and did some dolphin kick. He grabbed a kickboard and did some dolphin kick. I swam some freestyle sprints. He same some freestyle sprints. When I rested, he rested.

When he lifted his goggles from his face, I saw that he had the most beautiful shining black eyes.

I didn't say anything to him. I could have told him he was a great swimmer. But I didn't need to. We understood each other. We were both enjoying the feel of the water and the pain of a punishing workout. We were swimming the same strokes, on the same intervals. He was following me and I was letting him follow me. What did we need to say?

I could tell he was having fun trying to keep up with the only foreigner in the pool. He could tell I was having fun pushing the little Japanese boy whose fingertips were always inches away from my toes.

After an hour, I got tired and left. But the kid stayed in the pool. Churning up the water with as much energy and intensity as before. You could tell he was a special kid. A sparkling spirit. A much-needed ray of sunshine on an otherwise dark day.

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