Something odd caught my eye as I stood poolside, surveying the vast blue. A woman’s hair, long and uncapped, snaked free in the middle of one of the long, 50-meter Olympic lanes as she dog-paddled in languid circles.
Mine is not just any pool. It is the Meadowbrook Swim Club in North Baltimore, the place where Olympic champion Michael Phelps got his start (and he owned at one point). Meadowbrook is where schools of sleek minnows vie to be the next Michael P. or Katie Ledecky. Olympians’ portraits line the wall, all splash and striving, goading us to greatness. Or at least, smugness. My pool is where moms in the locker room say, “Ally placed third in butterfly, and I said, ‘What happened to first?’ Oh, I’m just kidding, honey.” Ally and I know she was not just kidding.
And dog paddling? That is acceptable for children and the noodle ladies, the elderly dames who ride pastel steeds the length of the indoor pool in a stately aquatic parade. It is not a stroke for lap swimmers and certainly not one I have seen in the coveted outdoor 50-meter long-course lanes.
Although Meadowbrook consists of two adjacent Olympic pools, one indoor and one outdoor, a large chunk of water is reserved for team practice and class, leaving only a few delicious long-course lanes
for solitary lappers like me. There are numerous 25-meter lanes, sure, but the long lanes let you stretch and soar, focus on the reach. Anchor, pivot and pull, over and over, before you hit concrete. It’s as close to the bubbly zen of open-water swimming as a city allows.
There is an etiquette to the 50s: You must announce your presence to those in the lane before you jump in, and you must circle, not split. Circling allows more people in the lanes, with the fast passing slowpokes like me. I have swum all my life and even competed in a triathalon, but not until I took private stroke lessons did I consider myself a respectable enough swimmer to take my place in the gorgeous long lanes. I respect the masters who glide past.
But here was the mermaid, no cap, no goggles, no earplugs, no pull buoy, no nothing, frolicking around at the far end of the 50-meter lane. While most of us had spent hours learning to roll our mouths out of the water just so, the mermaid didn’t even put her whole head in. She just swayed it side to side, letting her brown hair drape over the silver surface. She was not splitting or circling or obeying any of the tacit pool rules. She was as out of place as a tricycle on the Beltway.
She stayed on one end, and there was no way I could signal to her that I’d like to join her lane. Instead, I stood in my Type A gear, watching. Usually, there are a few swimmers hovering, but this particular afternoon was deserted. They had roped off far more of this urban lake for recreation — noodling and jostling and rafting — than any other day I’d been there. My teenage daughter and her friends splashed happily in the deep. And still the mermaid chose one of the two 50s for her private water ballet. She was oblivious, she was immersed, she was shimmering. I was mesmerized.
Finally, I asked the speedy Speedo-ed man in the other 50 if I could join, and he said yes, of course; he only had four more laps to go. When I reached the end of the lane, I was next to the mermaid. I had considered telling her the lane etiquette, but I knew there was no way my words would come out as friendly or helpful. My subtext would be: You don’t belong here.
I looked around. The day was cloudless, the water and sky cerulean. I could hear my daughter’s laughter. The mermaid’s brown hair floated behind her, she had a slight smile on her face. I adjusted my goggles and pushed off from the wall.
I, too, swim because I love the water. I, too, am a mermaid of Meadowbrook.
The city sea was ours to share.