Swimming to Scotland

Professor Joe Goldblatt

When I began swimming some sixty five years ago, my father was my coach and inspiration. I recall how he treaded water in the Samuell Grand Park swimming pool and encouraged me to jump into his arms. Papa was a keen swimmer and in his youth had been a popular life guard and swimming teacher at local swimming pools.

I stood upon the edge of the small diving board, looked down and finally, persuaded by papa’s boundless encouragement, screaming all the way, I jumped into his arms. He and I then paddled over to the side of the pool and then I did it again. And again. And again.

Over fifty years later when I arrived in Scotland I decided to take up swimming as a form of exercise that would not cause further pain to my ageing knees. Fortunately, the Commonwealth Swimming Pool, which is known to locals as “The Commie Pool” was located within a five minute walk of my front door.

My wife and I made our first visit in 2008 and we were both amazed at the size of this pool. It was built in 1970, the year I graduated from high school, to host the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh and it was opened by Her Royal Highness Princess Anne. The Commie pool is Olympic size, 50 metres in length. After Nancy and I dove into the giant blue monster I suddenly became quite nervous due to the size of this enormous vessel of water. My fear was reconfirmed when I soon realized that when it was time to go that I had lost my wife of thirty years within this oceanic body of water.

Over the years, more and more people joined me in my swimming sessions and finally the Commie pool was closed for a couple of years for much needed refurbishing. When it finally re – opened, the changing area which had featured privacy for the swimmers had been trasnformed into a “changing village”. This change meant that all swimmers, regardless of gender or age shared common lockers and then ducked into small cubicles to change into our swimming costumes. I was a wee bit embarassed to become suddenly a member of the ‘village people’ and eventually sought a more private, modest and intimate swimming experience.

I found my nirvana at the Balmoral Hotel within their luxurious underground Rocco Forte spa. As I walked down the ornate steps from the ground floor, with each descending interval I inhaled the sweeter and sweeter smells of massage oil intertwined with cholorine and was deeply intoxicated and soon completely captivated.

The Balmoral Hotel pool is a wee fifteen metres in length and I suddenly felt as though I was an Olympic swimming champion as I was able to swim more lengths that ever before and often I had the entire pool to myself. My initial twice weekly swim soon became a daily necessity and I always felt greatly refreshed upon exiting the dressing room to begin my return home to further enjoy my evening dram of whisky.

And then all hell broke loose.

In late March 2020, the Scottish Government announced a total lock down and all public spaces were soon closed. I received an email one day from the Balmoral Pool staff apologizing for the closure of their pool and asking me to collect my swimming costume. It felt as if it was a break up of a long and passionate marriage and I was being asked to suddenly come and collect my personal belongings from my personal home.

For the next long snd lonely six months, I awaited with great expectation an invitation to return to the Balmoral Hotel to swim in my Tanqueray Gin coloured pool. I received nothing but silence. When the hotel finally re – opened I inquired about when I might have a wee dip and was told that the pool would only be open to residents (guests) of the hotel for some time and that if I wished to book a sleeping room I could swim for a thirty minute session each day. I thought this might be a good idea and asked what the room rate would be and was told it was approaching £400.00 per night. I quickly calculated the cost of my weekly swim and realised that the price had increased from £15.00 to £2000.00 per week! However, I did have the additional privilege of also sleeping in one of the grandest hotels in the world.

Simultaneously, during my daily city walks, I often peeked into the now long closed Commie Pool building through their dusty and dark windows and noticed that my oceanic body of water remained firmly covered by a thick mat and it appeared to be in hibernation and finally enjoying a long sleep. And then, one day I read with great delight in the local newspaper that the Commie pool would soon reawaken and welcome swimmers once more. My heart began to beat faster both from excitement and also trepidation. Would I be able to make the transition from fifteen metres to fifty metres at my advanced age?

I signed up for the senior citizen membership and told my wife that if I did not feel comfortable due to concerns about health, safety or hygeine I could always resign and await the reopening of my wee old friend The Balmoral Spa pool. However, I quickly found that my concerns were unecessary when I witnessed a veritable army of young men and women cleaning, scrubbing, hoovering and polishing every inch of the Commie pool each time that I visited.

Upon re – entering the Commie pool, I set a modest goal of swimming 200 metres or four lengths of the giant blue monster that stretched into infinity before my small quivering body. I soon realised that although I was in the lane for slow swimmers, I was the absolute slowest swimmer in the entire pool. Over and over again I was passed over, albeit politely, by female swimmers who were nearly two decades older than myself. I begain to wonder if I should finally give up.

I persevered by swimming close to the edge so that others could easily pass me by. Week after week I continued to increase my goal of swimming 200 metres, then 400 metres and finally achieving 500 metres in one months time.

This week I realised that I would never be able to achieve my goal of swimming 700 metres in one single swimming session of 45 minutes duration and when I whinged about this to the life guard he kindly suggested that I book two sessions back to back. I had no idea that this option was available and quickly took advantage of his invitation.

This morning I completed 1000 metres.

The lifeguard smiled and said “Well done. I have watched you build up your endurance week after week. You are going about this in the right way.”

I was totally chuffed and delighted as I returned home to report my achievement to Nancy. And then as I sat down to write this memory of my recent accomplishment I suddenly began to fondly remember the sweet smell of massage oil and chlorine as I descended the stairs toward that temptress, the Tanqueray Gin coloured Balmoral Hotel swimming pool. Now, I am feeling great guilt. It is as if I have been caught cheating upon my long time lover after having been seduced to seek a new and more exciting adventure, at least for the time being.

These are the kind of challenges and opportunities that some of us experience during a global pandemic. Spalding Gray, the actor and essayist who wrote the theatre piece and American concert film Swimming to Cambodia in 1987 stated that when finally leaving war torn Cambodia after acting in the film The Killing Fields he had these feelings that are similar to my own.

Farewell to those beautiful smiling people. Farewell to that single, fresh rose in a vase on my bureau in the hotel every day. And just as I was climbing into that first-class seat, and wrapping myself in a blanket, just as I was adjusting the pillow from behind my head, and having a sip of that champagne, and just as I was adjusting and bringing down my Thai purple sleep mask, I had an inkling, I had a flash. I suddenly thought I knew what it was that had killed

Marilyn Monroe.

I hope with all my heart, that today’s achievement is not farewell to my fifteen metre former lover and rather it is a temporary diversion until she welcomes me back into her massage oil and cholrine scented arms to envelop me in that Tanqueray Blue wee sea of saphire dreams that I deeply long for. However, in the meantime, I shall continue to revel in my success in taming this giant ocean around the corner and knowing in my heart that Swimming to Scotland has many different future currents that I hope to continue to conquer.

2 thoughts on “Swimming to Scotland

  • October 16, 2020 at 5:32 pm

    You tell such interesting & remarkable stories, Joe! I got a bit sentimental when I read about your father teaching you to swim. My dad grew up in Chicago and, as a young man, was a lifeguard at the Evanston YMCA. Because of him, I learned to swim at age six. Not too many of my friends in Pleasant Grove learned at such a young age. I have continued to enjoy this lifetime exercise which is gentle on the joints.

    • November 22, 2020 at 9:47 pm

      Aye. I swim three times every week and am so grateful for this gift given to my by my Papa when I was a wee boy.


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