Jog no more - pools are the new cool

Vanessa Thorpe reports on our sudden passion for swimming
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The Independent Online
The army of executive joggers who once pounded out their commuter angst along suburban streets have a new addiction. Trainers and sweatbands have been traded for goggles and trunks as heavy-duty swimming becomes the hip way to take exercise or wind down.

Pool managers are reporting record attendances this summer despite recent weeks of cool weather. Now a series of books and articles has weighed in. Oliver Sacks, the psychiatrist turned beflippered swimmer, has written in the New Yorker of the pleasures of the pool. The writer Roger Deakin is chronicling for publisher Chatto & Windus his efforts to swim around Britain, and this month saw the publication of the American swimmer Sally Friedman's Swimming the Channel about her attempt to do just that.

Without going as far as the Victorian poet Swinburne, who found swimming erotically reminiscent of being flogged at Eton, Friedman's intimate story details the masochistic appeal of long-distance swimming, especially in hostile conditions. "It is a mystery to me," she writes, "as I return to the dock feeling undeniably wonderful, how I could have made it past the point when it hurt so cruelly, how I trusted I would benefit from the cold once past the initial pain."

For Alison Streeter, the 32-year-old foreign exchange dealer from Surrey who holds the world record for the number of successful Channel attempts, marathon swimming is also a form of escape. "It is a very good way to get rid of the stress of work. You switch your brain off. It must be a little like yoga, I imagine. I started because I had asthma quite badly when I was a kid. I went for distance because sprinters were bitchy and competitive, whereas long-distancers had a lot of camaraderie. I found there was such a satisfaction in getting from A to B." On 29 June this year she swam the Channel for the 35th time and plans to try again before Christmas.

Next month is peak season for distance swimmers, but those inspired by Flaubert's description of outdoor swimming as "fornicating with the waves" while enjoying the sensation of "a thousand liquid nipples travelling over the body" now have fewer than 65 British lidos to chose from. Many of the art deco municipal palaces that went up in the 1930s as part of a German-influenced interest in good health have been shut.

Recourse to lakes, rivers and canals as favoured by Byron is not advised, however, due to pollution and the spread of Weil's disease. The mad, bad Lord may have swum home to his palazzo from a party in Venice, but when Katherine Hepburn tried the same thing for David Lean's film Summer Madness she developed an intractable eye infection.

For the hard-core enthusiast, the major British challenges are still there, of course: Coniston at 51 miles, or perhaps doggy paddle to the Isle of Wight and back.

To tackle the big one, however, a swimmer has to be officially recognised by the Channel Swimming Association and stump up at least a pounds 1,000 for an accompanying boat.

In his 1992 book The Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero, Charles Sprawson, who emulated Byron's swim of the Hellespont, paints a picture of the obsessive swimmer as an outsider, even a misfit. "The swimmer's solitary training, the long hours spent semi-submerged, induce a lonely state of mind ... he becomes prone to delusions of neuroses beyond the experience of other athletes."

With pathos, he tells the story of the first successful Channel swimmer, Captain Matthew Webb, who was born 1848 and died in 1883 as he tried to swim the rapids at Niagara in a bid to revive waning public acclaim.

It seems that while physical fitness may be the excuse, lust for glory is the real spur. Byron wrote after his dip in the Dardanelles: "I plume myself on this achievement more than I could possibly do any kind of glory political, poetical, rhetorical."

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