How learning to swim as an adult changed my life
Although those early lessons didn’t get me very far, I eventually learned to swim in my twenties at the Auburn Swim Center in after-hours women-only sessions. Located in Western Sydney, Auburn Pool is a home for immigrant swimmers. The team’s hallways are easy-going, and the recreation halls and shallow pools are filled with children supervised by South Asian, African and Arab parents.
It was here that I achieved the feat of swimming and floating alone in deep water for the first time. “I did it,” I exclaimed, saluting the hijabi lawyer friend who had taken me there. Some of the girls in the sessions were hijabis, and there were also older women, all of whom stripped down to bikinis, one-pieces, or bodysuits with the exhale of a community used to suspicion and surveillance. . I no longer observed modesty, but found these sessions a psychologically safe space. I didn’t have to fear racial incidents, or faster swimmers banging their elbows into my restless feet.
I could pass all the exams and outsmart the Anglos on the tests, but swimming required body memory that I imagined would be passed on invisibly on ocean and pool vacations to acclimate babies.
Growing up, I rubbed shoulders with the insularity of women-only spaces, desperate to hit the clubs and the wider world where I thought the real adventure and freedom lay. Looking back at the emotional costs of some of my glass ceiling breaks, I reveal how precious those gatherings were, a buffer against the slingshots and arrows of a new and not always welcoming society. The idea of ”safe spaces” is often derided, but in a country where friends have been spat on, yelled at and even physically attacked in public, the question is not why we have these spaces but why we we don’t have any more. There’s comfort and freedom in a place where you can literally let loose and recharge.
“Keep it low, though. We don’t want another Alan Jones drama,” a swimmer told me as she floated in the 50m outdoor pool.
Years earlier, in 2002, a caller called inflammatory broadcaster Alan Jones to complain about a “Muslim women only session” at the Auburn pool. The furious caller claimed the pool was closed so Muslim women could swim in their ‘dresses’.
Jones replied caustically, “What? The pool is closed – it’s a public pool – is it closed to everyone except muslim women? And they go in there and dive in there, in all their bullshit? The response was quick. Complaints to the center ensued and the sessions, swimming lessons booked by a local girls’ school, were cancelled.
In fact, the pool had been reserved, not closed. Isn’t free market capitalism what these right wing guys are touting? My blood boiled. They had all the water in Sydney to themselves, and that little bit of Western Sydney, that hour, they wanted to take it away from us.
Racism around water was a historic part of Australian culture, with segregation aimed at Aboriginal swimmers enforced in swimming pools until the early 1970s. After that, non-whites were not officially segregated. lockout, but we were hampered in more subtle ways.
This is where the new racism came in. It was as if unpopular children were being ostracized by the queen bee, who invoked their financial and cultural dominance to keep the best of the dining room. Water has often been an elite space – for boating, yachting, beach vacations. This is what bothered me about so many breathless accounts from Australian journalists of their love of water: they were unaware that what they considered a universal Australian experience was in fact a deeply contested space.
In 2016, I realized my dream of becoming an official beach girl. I loved conquering places I wasn’t meant to be, and moving to the seaside suburb of Coogee was what I saw as a kind of reverse colonialism: my foray into a world where the NIMBY Brigade didn’t want me. I rented a run-down one-bedroom apartment with an office.
It was a middle class neighborhood. Every morning I watched the beach come to life with runners, swimmers, and walkers, all revolving around the spiritual call of water with the ruddy industry of a water-loving culture.
Varanasi priests use sacred rivers to sanctify believers. In Australia, the beach is our secular religion. Watching the sun rise over the water and set behind the horizon was like being close to God in as spiritual a way as walking into a mosque. I took off my shoes out of respect and entered the water as my most naked self. I was anointed and baptized again.
Nestled in the Federal Labor constituency of Kingsford Smith, Coogee had a main street which at the time was not as consciously fashionable as Bondi’s. In Coogee, you couldn’t get chai tea or turmeric; it was reassuring daggy. The food wasn’t great; nothing but smoothies and breaded fish. The only other dark-haired people were the Domino’s delivery guy and the Subway cashier.
But one advantage of Sydney’s cultural and social divide was that I could disappear into that side of Sydney where no one knew me. The white areas were the perfect place for young Muslims to sneak out, away from prying eyes. The distance was somehow liberating. I could wear sleeveless dresses, letting the sea air caress my skin.
Swimming saved me. I woke up at dawn and sleepwalked to the ladies’ baths at McIver. McIver’s is a heritage-listed ocean pool that’s been a ladies-only area since 1922. Hidden by cliffs, the pool has become a haven for outsiders, gloriously showcasing bare breasts, fat bulges, wrinkles, hairy legs and dress. -you like the ethos. Unlike Bondi’s perfect blondes, society’s outsiders have congregated here: Muslim women, older swimmers and the queer community.
I got up at dawn and threw myself into the freezing water with the swimmers of the old McIver. Once immersed, I felt alive. It stopped my chaotic mind, my spiraling depression, my irregular heartbeat, and the thought of it continuing to melt into the sea. The ice on my nerves was instant balm, and watching the sun rise as my body moving through the water, I felt my heartbeat slow. I learned later in therapy that I had unknowingly gravitated toward somatic healing and nervous system healing through submersion in cold water and exercise.
When I am in the ocean, absorbed by its rhythms, I feel that I am in the embrace of something wild, natural and free. Life, like a wave, is rarely perfect and often much more tumultuous.
Edited excerpt from Desi Girl (UQP) by Sarah Malik, released August 30.
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