What Swimmers Have Taught Me About Diversity

Last week I knew this blog was going to be about what swimmers have taught me about culture—and then Charlottesville happened.

It’s not possible for me to move forward as if nothing has changed—because everything has.

Although my belief in the power of rising out of the ashes remains intact, this week I see the flames in a different light. Saturday’s event leaves me “on fire” to add my ideas about Simple Shifts to Forge Ahead Faster to the national conversation we are having about white privilege, institutionalized racism, all the varieties of “us” vs. “them” and the havoc that’s being wreaked on our democracy.

What can swimmers possibly have to teach us in light of all that?

Take a moment with me and consider that swimmers are—in absolutely the least offensive or violent way possible—the epitome of “Us” vs “Them.” There are only two kinds of folks in this conversation. Either you’re a swimmer—or you’re not. And swimmers are very different from the rest of us.

My partner in business and in life has brought me into contact with people I would otherwise never seek out—US Masters Swimmers. Let me tell you, they are a singular breed: amazing and awesome to their community and those who love them, while being mostly undecipherable to the non-swimming world.

These three behaviors will show you what I mean:

  1. They have an alternative “body-awareness”: while the rest of us focus on what our bodies look like, swimmers are focused on what their bodies can do. They are seemingly unaware of how much public practically-nakedness surrounds them every day!
  2. They talk “Swim”: even though they’re using the English language, many of their words mean nothing to the non-swimmer. Words like splits, negative splits, sendoffs, descend, flip turns, stroke count…WHAT?? Standing in the midst of a conversation between swimmers can leave you feeling like you’re on another planet—and in a sense, you are. Because swimming is such a solitary sport, the only way to really share the experience is with others who’ve been in the water the way you have. There simply are no words to accurately describe it to the rest of us.
  3. They have a Single Focus: everything in a swimmer’s life revolves around swimming. Period. It’s not that other things aren’t important—lots of things are. It’s just that everyone who stays in a swimmer’s life understands this focus—or they don’t stick around. Swimmers have to make the choice of which activities to pursue with a simple distinction: will this support my swimming or not?

As a non-swimmer, going to swim meets and hanging out with swimmers has oftentimes been challenging for me. Fortunately, I’m completely committed to the one swimmer with whom I share my life—so that puts a face and a humanity on swimmers for me that I would never have had otherwise. And I have met swimmers who I have come to love—as I experience the power and generosity of this community. I’ve even discovered, been following and been cheering for champions like Natalie Hinds, Lynne Cox and Katie Ledecky.

So what do my discoveries about the alien world of swimmers have to do with my understanding of diversity?

It has everything to do with the idea of “Us vs. Them”—and it took Charlottesville to open my eyes to it.

In Friday’s Special Edition, I’ll share it with you.

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