Swimmer’s Shoulder

I made a list of any number of ways I could start this blog off, from thematic (deep thoughts on the nature of physical activity), to chronological (first moments I became aware of my body, or thought about exercise), to stylistic (a smattering of disconnected yet crystalline vignettes, adding up over time to an organic whole). Then I sat there, produced a lot of sentence fragments, wrote the word “fuck” a number of times, and watched the cursor blink.

So much for the lofty notions. I will have to start with what’s easy and let this thing find itself if it can.

What’s easy? After 21 years, writing diary-style comes pretty naturally.

Yesterday, we swam. Someday later I will describe the pool. It’s a wonderful, peaceful place, the kind of semi-secret spot I’m almost reluctant to tell people about, lest it become better attended than it is. It is outdoors, six lanes, standard size. 1960s architecture, a wall of round quartz pebbles on one side, simple with an old clock, tall adn leading straight to the sky; on the other side, the same wall but lower, and behind that a row of pines that catch and spread the late afternoon sun.

It belongs to a local high school, and is open for public lap swim between five and six p.m. each weekday. I like this limited window of opportunity. You have to commit to going, and then you go, and then it’s all over before you’ve even thought it through.

I never swam before this summer. I knew how, from childhood, kind of, but I’d never liked it. I associated swimming with lack of agency (being dragged to the pool), with vulnerability and with social awkwardness (having to take my glasses off, not being able to see anything). The pool was shrieking kids. It was a reminder that I didn’t feel at home among my own kind—and having no clothes to cover that sense of alienation. It was loud whistles, and a dressing room full of larger, naked female bodies, with painfully nubby rubber mats underfoot and a faint whiff of something like cheese.

The first time I went to the pool here, at Emeryville High, was with Jesse and E—. They are both beautiful swimmers, but E— especially. He used to be a lifeguard, did the whole master’s thing, and in his mid-forties still swims competitively, sometimes in open water.

That day, I told the two of them I could barely swim; I told myself it would be all right if I could manage to stay in the water for twenty minutes.

I don’t remember what made me go back, first once and then again and again. Twenty minutes became thirty; twenty laps grew to forty, then fifty. I remember Jesse urging me to swim seventy, which is a mile, and telling him to fuck off. And then, one day, I did. Then I did it again. My paisley J. Crew bikini from seven years ago, already losing its elastic, became indecent. I bought a serious navy blue Tyr “workout bikini.” Goggles and contact lenses have revolutionized the visibility problems I remembered from decades ago.

(For years, one of my key emotional memories around swimming was the memory of hauling myself out of the Arlington Forest pool, padding over to my towel, plopping wetly down on it and starting to talk to my family, carrying on a monologue for a minute or two, until the uncomfortable silence that was beginning to permeate the spaces in between my words made me squint hard enough to realize that they were somebody else’s family entirely.)

When my hair, which is growing out again, began to get in my face, I stopped by the campus store on Bancroft and bought a latex swim cap. My transformation was complete.

I swim that mile two or three times a week now. It takes me between 38 and 42 minutes. Sometimes I do a little more, once in a while a little less. I swim the crawl. Jesse gave me a few pointers on my stroke early on, but mostly I have been figuring it out for myself. I taught myself to breathe on opposite sides, once every three strokes, rather than only on the right side, first on every other stroke, then alternating every two strokes and four, as he does it.

At the beginning of any little ache or pain there’s a period of plausible deniability. It seems the pain might be imaginary, might not be related to anything you’ve been doing, or might go away on its own.

So it was with the pain in my left shoulder. It began with a twinge when I reached behind myself to get the travel coffee mug out of my backpack. Then it showed up at night, when I lie on my stomach and raise my left arm, trying to make it into a pillow for my head. By now we’ve settled into a kind of cozy symbiosis.

It didn’t hurt egregiously when I was swimming, but it didn’t not-hurt, either. I have accepted, or at least decided for now, that that’s what it’s from.

As pains go, this shoulder ache is low on the scale of bothersome and terrifying. But because I miss the head-on-pillow gesture at night, and because the pain simply arouses my curiosity in some kind of pubertal, ‘Your Changing Body!’ kind of way, I have been looking for leads online and on YouTube.

YouTube—which turns out to be totally amazing for all things sports, including injuries—has helped me diagnose this grief as “swimmer’s shoulder,” a catch-all term for a problem whose existence debunks the myth (it was my understanding, at least) that swimming is so low-impact there’s basically no way you can hurt yourself doing it.

You can totally hurt yourself swimming. Your poor little shoulders are especially vulnerable. Extend your arm too far, clinch the shoulder joint too tightly, you’ll over-work the shoulder muscle and squeeze a nerve on every stroke.

I have poor form, or that’s what I must conclude. I’m supposed to rock my body from side to side on each stroke. I’m supposed to lead the stoke with my elbow, not my hand, by sort of languidly dragging my stroking hand across my body sideways, and then plop it into the water, instead of thrusting out in front of me, far and straight, like I was trying to feed a debit card into a distant ATM machine. Then I’m supposed to push firmly backward, trying to use my pectoral and back muscles more than the shoulder itself, moving forward by shoving water behind me.

So I tried that in the pool yesterday. I felt faster, mostly because of the pushing-behind motion. (Often, when I feel that I am swimming well, I imagine the sensation that I am on dry land, lying on my stomach and trying to drag myself across a carpeted floor.) My shoulder only twinged a couple of times.

One video I found said that tight chest muscles are partly to blame, and keeping a shoulders-forward posture, in the manner of people who work at desks, and on computers. Demonstrating on a shirtless and compliant Australian beefcake, a swimming coach showed the way to achieve a neutral posture. Move the shoulders upward and back firmly, squeeze the shoulder blades together, and then release. I’m trying to do this now, multiple times a day. I notice that it requires a slight engagement of the core muscles, the ones I neglect too much. So I’m trying to remember and retain a good posture—to keep swimming even when I’m not.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.