Of all the things I’ve missed during the pandemic, swimming ranks high. In the water, all of my worries disappear, and as those worries have piled up at an alarming rate over the past six months while the pools in New York City have remained closed due to the Coronavirus outbreak, I’ve had little recourse to calm my mind.
“With swimming, you're taken outside of your normal environment the moment you plunge into the water,” Bonnie Tsui, author of Why We Swim, confirms of the activity’s transcending capabilities. “You’re enveloped completely by a medium in which sound is muted, vision is blurred or fogged, taste and smell are limited,” Tsui says. This muting of the senses “encourages a kind of internal retreat,” she continues. “The hushed sound of water boosts alpha wave activity—those brain waves associated with relaxation and creative thinking. Things drift in and out, and you find that you make connections you might not have otherwise.”
Swimming just might be the ideal workout for these fraught times. It dials down stress more quickly than anything I know, which is why I was thrilled when the city’s pools reopened last week, with 33 percent capacity and distancing protocols. (For those who want to avoid people entirely, pools have entered the gig economy with apps like Swimply offering local private pools by the hour.) According to the Center For Disease Control and Prevention, there is “no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to humans through the use of recreational waters,” a heartening development that provided me with additional incentive to get back into the water. Less compelling was my stroke proficiency after months in at-home isolation.
“Swimming is meditative,” the lauded swim coach Boris Talan tells me when I reach out looking for help on jump-starting my routine. It has also been touted as a near-perfect exercise: a low-impact, all-ages sport that delivers a full body workout, improves lung function and can burn 360 to 660 calories an hour. Talan—who splits his time between Manhattan and the Hamptons, where he trains celebrities, elite athletes, models, and designers including Stella McCartney and Calvin Klein—seems more than capable of getting me back on my game: A former swim captain of the Russian National Team who has trained ballet dancers at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg and tackled both the English Channel and the Strait of Gibraltar, Talan holds a master’s degree in biomechanical motion. “People come to me and say, ‘Boris, I feel like I’m going out of my mind,’' he says. “I tell them, ‘Let’s get you in the water.’”
I meet Talan, now 55, in the lobby of a Midtown pool. Tall and crisply dressed in Rag & Bone jeans, a black Prada button-down shirt, and a black Dior jacket, his green eyes and a thick sweep of bronze hair practically pulsate with health. “Kids like me because I am like a big kid myself,” he says in a slight Russian accent.
We snap on our goggles and slip into the water. Talan’s gentle but rigorous method is to focus on technique and the body's position in motion. In minutes, he has tweaked my breaststroke to be more efficient by rounding my arms a bit. Then he has me do the stroke with my head out of the water, like my mother does when she doesn’t want to muss her hair. “This is so good for your back, now that everyone is on the computer all day and kids are doing long-distance learning,” Talan says. We move on to my front crawl as he observes underwater. “Keep your legs closer together when you kick,” he urges when he surfaces. “See how much easier it is to move?” It’s a tiny but miraculous fix.
Back and forth we go: breathe, kick, breathe, kick. “This natural instinct of inhaling and exhaling while you swim is basically the element of living, isn’t it?” Talan asks me as my mind blissfully empties and enters what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “a flow state,” when people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. Breathe, kick, breathe, kick. “The rhythm almost naturally reinforces you to be alive,” Talan adds. Sometimes—in these times—it's nice to have that extra push.