- Kirsten Bell
A typology of inconsiderate swimmers at public pools
Given that last week’s post focused on budgie smugglers and swimming pools, I thought I would continue the theme this week by providing some reflections on inconsiderate swimmers, along with my heretofore unpublished letter to ‘Mr Budgie Smugglers', who has the distinction of being the biggest nob (literally as well as figuratively), I’ve ever encountered in a pool.
I’ve been a regular swimmer for most of my life.1 As an adult I went through periods where I stopped swimming, mostly when I was living in places where there was not a conveniently located public pool. However, I have swum 2-3 times a week for the past 15 or so years – the only exception being during the first Covid lockdown when swimming pools in the UK were closed for six months.
During this time, I’ve swum in public pools in four countries: Canada, Australia, the USA and the UK. Despite minor local variations, I have found that swimming pool etiquette varies little from country to country – something borne out by etiquette guides (e.g., this and this). As these guides illustrate, etiquette breaches occur primarily in the context of lane swimming.2
For the uninitiated, lane swimming typically occurs during demarcated periods when the pool is reserved for swimmers doing laps. Very different from recreational or leisure swimming, both in terms of how the pool is set up and the demographic composition of swimmers (children are notably absent), this is when the ‘serious’ swimmers make their appearance. Pools are physically divided into ‘fast’, ‘medium’ and ‘slow’ lanes and swimmers are expected to sort themselves accordingly.
The key problem is that swimming speed is relative. One day you might be the fastest person in the fast lane; the next day, you might be the slowest. Complicating matters further is the contained nature of the pool. As the cultural geographer Miranda Ward observes, lane swimming imposes distinctive controls on the swimmer’s body based on the structure of the pool, the up-and-down routine, the lane dividers, and the presence of other swimmers in the lanes.
This makes lane swimming a complicated business, because it requires swimmers to be constantly attuned to each other’s bodies, as well as the physical environs of the pool itself. A considerate swimmer is always aware of other swimmers in the lane. They are constantly gauging where other swimmers are in relation to themselves and keeping track of everyone’s relative pace.3 Because the environment is so tightly constrained, problems quickly occur when people don’t follow the rules, or are lacking in awareness of their fellow swimmers.
Although such swimmers are typically labelled as ‘inconsiderate’, over years of informal ethnographic fieldwork (otherwise known as ‘swimming regularly’), I have come to realise that there are four distinct sub-types of inconsiderate swimmers.
1. The deluded swimmer
The deluded swimmer is someone who has little objective sense of how well they swim. Often, it’s someone (mostly male, but not always), who thinks they’re fitter than they are. They jump in the fast lane and start swimming – generally just before someone has finished their lap, thereby ruining the rhythm of the swimmer they have just cut off and, shortly thereafter, that of everyone else in the lane. But rather than moving over to a slower lane, they double down, based on the premise that they’re merely finding their groove.
In light of the fact that breast-stroke is officially the slowest stroke, any breast-stroker swimming in the fast lane falls, virtually by definition, into the ‘deluded swimmer’ category. Those breast-strokers who think that they will be able to keep pace with the free-stylers circuiting the lane are wrong at least 90%4 of the time.
2. The oblivious swimmer
The oblivious swimmer is a distinct subspecies of inconsiderate swimmer. Their key attribute is that while they are being a nob, they are not aware of this fact. Basically, the oblivious swimmer is someone who hops in the pool and then immediately forgets that there are other people in there. In effect, instead of dancing like no one’s watching,5 they’re swimming like there’s no one else in the pool.
Often, they frolic as much as swim – like they’ve been mentally transported to a tropical beach. For instance, they might stop randomly in the middle of the lane or decide to leisurely practice their mermaid kicks. Alternatively, they might start swimming along the bottom of the pool, examining the surface with the intensity of a scuba diver inspecting coral shoals in the Great Barrier Reef. That you might be swimming laps above them is of little relevance.
For the record, back-strokers have a tendency to inadvertently become oblivious swimmers, primarily because many cannot swim in a straight line.6 While this makes them entertaining to watch, it makes them annoying to swim with, because it’s basically up to the other swimmers to steer clear of them. This is the primary reason why I avoid doing backstroke in public swimming pools.
3. The social swimmer
As the name implies, this type of swimmer has come to the pool primarily to socialise, except, rather than catching up (or hooking up, as it were) during recreational or leisure swim times, they do it during lane swimming hours.
There are two main types of social swimmers. First, are those who have a chat at the end of the lane, completely blocking it so that no one else can touch the end. Maybe they know each other; maybe they don’t,7 but people regularly get into lengthy conversations in the lane, sometimes with up to three people chatting at the end. While my response is to stop before the end, glare at them, and then turn around and hope they’ve got the message before I finish my next lap, for OCD swimmers who count laps, this is a Big Problem. As an etiquette guide from The Guardian advises, ‘If you’re standing at the end, please make sure there’s room for some obsessive (ahem) to touch the end and push off again. A length doesn’t count unless you touch the end and I don’t want to inadvertently put my hand on … anyway. You get the drift. Move over’.
The second type of social swimmers are those who choose to swim and chat side-by-side – a phenomenon more common in the slow and medium lanes, which are generally wider than the fast lane. As Emma from the Bubbablue & Me blog advises, ‘If you want to swim double abreast chatting away (usually in too fast a lane for your speed) wait until there’s no one else in the pool [or] go to a public swim session’.
4. The hardcore swimmer
As the name suggests, the hardcore swimmer is someone who takes swimming Very Seriously Indeed. They are immediately identifiable based on the sheer volume of paraphernalia they bring to the pool, which is mostly dumped at the edge, within easy reach for them, and providing an obstacle course for everybody else wanting to either swim in the lane or exit it. We’re talking water bottles (gotta stay hydrated!), kick boards (work those hamstrings!!), swim mitts and ankle bands (it’s biceps, baby, yeah!!!). And they always (ALWAYS) wear a sports watch so they can time their laps.
Unlike other swimmers in the fast lane, they don’t stick to freestyle (technically known as ‘front crawl’), but vary their strokes8 from lap to lap in order, I presume, to ensure that they have exercised every muscle group in their fat-free bodies. This means that their speed varies significantly throughout their swim. They’re either tapping you on the ankle because you’re going too slow and need to move to the side; or you voluntarily move to the side at the end of the lane in order for them to pass, only to have them stop because they are between 'sets’, look at their watch and test their pulse for the next five minutes; or they’ve moved onto their kick board and are holding everyone up.9
In my experience, hardcore swimmers congregate most intensively between the hours of 7-8.30am, and you don’t want to be swimming in the fast lane when they arrive en masse. As a group, they definitely skew male, but I’ve seen plenty of hardcore female swimmers over the years. Interestingly, they span the gamut in age: from teenagers to middle-aged swimmers to obscenely fit septuagenarians.
It’s difficult to say which is the worst sub-type of inconsiderate swimmer, although the lane you choose to swim in will determine, to some extent, who you are more likely to bump into (sometimes literally, in the case of the back-strokers with no sense of direction). However, it’s also important to note that the categories I’ve identified are what social scientists, after the German sociologist Max Weber, call ‘ideal types’: a mental construct that rarely presents itself in pure form. In fact, many inconsiderate swimmers exhibit features of several sub-types. For example, frequently the hardcore swimmer is also an oblivious swimmer; likewise, the social swimmer is also often a deluded swimmer, and so on.
The most obnoxious swimmer I’ve ever come across, ‘Mr Budgie Smugglers’, was one such hybrid type: a combination of the deluded swimmer and the oblivious swimmer, with a strong dash of exhibitionism thrown in for good measure. I was reminded of him (and, indeed, inspired by him) when I rediscovered a satiric letter I wrote in 2016 while working on the budgie smugglers piece. Thankfully, I have not encountered his like since leaving Vancouver, but in closing I present the letter that inspired this post.
11 August 2016
Dear Mr Budgie Smugglers,
Every week or two we come across each other at the local swimming pool. You know the drill. Typically, you turn up 10 minutes or so after I’ve started swimming laps and you jump in the pool, making sure to do your warm-up at the end of the lane first, causing me to swerve around you. But we both know that I’m not trying to avoid hitting you because you’re taking up the entire lane – I’m just so overcome by the sight of you in your budgie smugglers, and the manly pelvic thrust you perform as I near the end, that I forget how to swim properly.
After five minutes of warm-ups that would do Elvis Presley proud, the glorious sight of you swimming begins – I love your confidence in choosing to do breaststroke in the fast lane! We then begin our game of stop and start, where you stop at the end of the lane, even though I’m gaining on you, and take off just before I reach the end. I then stop and wait to put some distance between us and then you stop just before I reach the end and we begin the whole delightful cycle again.
We both know that I can’t possibly be swimming faster than you. I’m a lady and you’re a man and men, with your testiclé (yours, of course, being particularly magnificent, as your swimming attire makes abundantly clear) and whatnot, swim faster than women. Ergo, you swim faster than me. That’s just basic science. In fact, I don’t even know why the YMCA started allowing women (especially middle-aged agnostic ones) into their pools in the first place – talk about false advertising!
Also, I’m 41, so well past my prime, whereas you can’t be a day over 60—70, tops. You probably also played football in high school and that sort of muscle memory never disappears. Besides, everybody knows that women and men age differently after 25, when, like cats, we start ageing four years for every man year. That’s why they had to cast Anne Heche as Harrison Ford’s love interest in Six Days, Seven Nights! Sure, he might ‘technically’ be 26 years older, but her biological age wasn’t 30 but 50, so she was basically cougaring.
In any case, I think it’s time we took our relationship to the next level and shared our swimming schedules. Why leave it to the whims of fate to determine when (and, most importantly, if) we will bump into each other at the pool? Please contact me on 000-3825-968 (000-FUCK-YOU, in case that’s easier to remember) to discuss – I’m waiting impatiently for your call.
1 To this day, it’s the only form of aerobic exercise I can tolerate: I detest running and find recreational cycling to be a deeply dubious activity – especially when conducted by packs of middle-aged men in Lycra roving about the countryside on the weekend and taking up the entire road. For the love of God, do us all a favour and learn to ride single file.
2 For example, lane swimming in Canada and Australia is typically clockwise in all lanes; however, in the UK, the direction often varies, depending on the lane (the directions are all signposted, if you bother to read them). I learned this the hard way when I was living in Vancouver and visiting Brighton. Having gone swimming at a local pool, I was swimming down a lane and suddenly realised that there was a woman swimming towards me in the same lane. ‘You bloody idiot’, I thought to myself; ‘You’re swimming the wrong way!’ I was shocked when the woman stopped and told me off for swimming in the wrong direction. Interestingly, I have had this exact same experience while driving in the US. The worst part is that you’re absolutely convinced that the other person is driving on the wrong side of the road, before belatedly realising that the idiot is, in fact, you.
3 While few people can answer abstract mathematical questions like ‘Train A is traveling at 40 miles per hour and Train B is traveling on a parallel track in the same direction at 60 miles per hour. Currently, Train A is 15 miles ahead of Train B. How many minutes will it take Train B to catch up with Train A?’, swimmers are effectively answering such questions in an intuitive and embodied way all the time – as in ‘Swimmer X is swimming 50% faster than me and Swimmer X and I have just crossed each other in the middle of the lane. When do I need to stop at the end of a lane to let swimmer X overtake me?’ The correct answer is, of course, 1.5 laps. As the anthropologist Jean Lave showed in Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics and Culture in Everyday Life, most of us are much better at maths than we think, as long as the questions are asked in the right way and in the right context.
4 I have actually come across one breast-stroker who was extraordinarily fast. I recall the incident very clearly because when I got in the pool and saw a young woman breast-stroking in the fast lane, my first thought was ‘Ugh, a breast-stroker’; my second thought was ‘Ugh, a female breast-stroker’.* She not only kept up with everyone swimming in the lane, she passed us.
*Yes, I constantly judge the aptitude of other swimmers based on their sex and their age. This is because it’s often quite difficult to gauge someone’s swimming speed before you jump into the pool, especially because most swimmers think they’re faster than they actually are (although perhaps that’s just me). Age and sex thus become imperfect proxies for gauging someone’s speed. Of course, everything changes as soon as you get in the pool and you can suddenly compare your own swim speed with that of everyone else in the lane. But make no mistake, virtually everyone makes such judgements at the outset, even if they don’t admit it!
5 This is one of those pseudo-profound expressions, like ‘Live Laugh Love’, that has become ubiquitous in word art for the home. The full statement is ‘Dance like no one is watching, love like you’ve never been hurt, sing like no one is listening, live like it’s heaven on earth’. Frankly, I think it would be improved by the addition of ‘and swim like there’s no one else in the pool’, because it makes the whole thing sound like the motto of a sociopath (which, for the record, it is).
6 Watching back-strokers always reminds me of Monty Python’s ‘Race for people with no sense of direction’. Quite frankly, I’m amazed that this is an Olympic sport, because the (ahem) pool of people who can swim backstroke straight is surely small.
7 People occasionally try to chat to me in the lanes, but my own firmly held view is that chitchat should be relegated to outside the pool. I don’t speak to anyone when I swim. The sole exception is a guy I’ve seen regularly for the past five years. We nod when we see each other and might share a brief ‘Good morning’ at the outset, or a mutual eye roll when a particularly inconsiderate swimmer is in the lane, but that’s the extent of it. I’m confident I would not recognise him outside the pool, although I could identify his backstroke at 50 paces (every swimmer has their own style).
8 If there is someone doing butterfly in the pool, they are, by definition, a hardcore swimmer. The hardest of all strokes, it is also the widest, which is why considerate swimmers – even the rare few who have mastered it – typically avoid doing it in the fast lane, which is generally the narrowest lane in the pool. So if you’re doing butterfly in the pool, then your primary motivation is to show off, regardless of what you tell yourself.
9 News flash, hardcore swimmers: you can’t kick that fast!