It’s 4:50am. I am standing in the gym lobby warily eyeing up those around me to identify the competition . . . or rather other people who want to claim one of the 4 precious swim lanes. There’s Sandy, the ruthless Grand Dame of the pool who will cagily grab a lane by placing her aged swim fins and kick board before heading to the locker room. This is deceitful but she has earned a lane and we let her get away with it. Then there is “the brunette” who is casually looking at her phone but all the while edging closer to the door ready to make her move. Also present is “the redhead”. Some days she swims while others she is a non-threat heading upstairs to the elliptical. But today I spy goggles in her bag. I make a mental note to make sure she gets stuck holding the door for the old guy with the walker. It would be rude to make him struggle through the door on his own but it is just part of the game to make another swimmer get stuck holding the door waiting for him. Finally, there is Bert the only other 5:00a.m. male swimmer who is making small talk with Sandy and Redhead. Sure, he looks like he has a lot to do in the locker room. He is wearing sweats, and a jacket and appears to have his goggles buried in his swim bag somewhere. But I know better. He is like lightning once away from his lady friends. I have learned from Bert. He may think I’m fully dressed but my swim jammers are already on under my jeans, my goggles are in my jacket pocket and my other clothes safely packed in my bag. Hopefully I remembered underwear. Then there is the wildcard of new swimmers. These are the unknowns. The people that think nobody swims at 5:00am and they can waltz in and get a lane.
Suddenly, the desk lights come on. The gym is opened! Sandy flings the door open and makes for the pool deck, Brunette goes through another door and heads for the ladies locker. Bert and I keep an elbow ahead of Redhead forcing her to hold the door for Walker Man. She wishes him a pleasant “good morning” but can’t hide the dismay of realizing she’ll be the last one to the pool.
In the locker room, Bert and I grab opposing lockers picked out for speed and access to the pool deck as well as to keep an eye on each other. We exchange furtive looks each gauging the progress of the other. I see a brief double-take as he realizes I one-upped him a bit by not bothering with a shirt under my jacket.
The new people aren’t in a hurry. Naively, they are discussing the persistent rain, and last night’s ball game while slowly putting on swimming attire. They won’t be so easily fooled in the future.
I grab my googles and towel while Bert is still pulling on his swim trunks. I exit the locker room triumphantly as the first male swimmer to the deck . . . except for the damned lifeguard. He isn’t on duty today but still gets the employee privilege of getting in early. He is already swimming. One lane down. Sandy’s fins and kick board claim another lane. Brunette must be learning. She is already in the water in lane 3 spitting in her goggles. The phone play was definitely a ruse. Happily, lane 1 is empty and I claim it.
Once in the water, the urgency doesn’t end. When the new people come on deck, It is important to give the appearance of having already been swimming for quite some time. The idea here is to demoralize and discourage future attempts at claiming an early morning pool lane.
Inevitably “the new people” arrive on deck along with the delayed Redhead. They survey the pool and realize all the lanes are already occupied. How did this happen? I glance up between strokes on the auspices of practicing open water sighting. One of them sheepishly makes his way to my lane, swim cap in hand to ask if he can share my space. “Of course, newbie. You can share my space. But I was here first and I relegate you to that side of the black stripe and fully expect you to move if a lane opens up”. Okay . . I didn’t really say that. In fact, I swim on one side to start with to make it clear I am happy to share as long as you keep your back stroke to yourself and don’t club me on the head every other stroke.
Bert and I wrap up the morning swim at about the same time. We enjoy a pleasant conversation while dressing. He asks me how Boston was. I ask him about his vacation. We are, to any observer, normal people. As we head out the door toward the lobby Bert says “See you tomorrow”? He asks this with an I-caught-your-trick-with-the-shirt look in his eye. “Of course” I pleasantly reply adding an I’m-sleeping-with-my-googles-and-jammers-on lilt to my voice.