Woman Overboard: How Swimming in a Rooftop Pool Saved Me From Addiction

Even if I wrecked my back in the process.

FREIZEITSPORT/SCHWIMMEN: Hong Kong, 03.04.99

After graduate school, as a single,  broke freelancer, I spent years of hot months in the big city partying and sweating  in a black bikini with a series of bad boyfriends atop my unpaved Manhattan building, christened Tar Beach. Apartment hunting the July I turned 35, seeing the lovely landscaped rooftop with a pool above  the Greenwich Village high rise that my (sweet) fiancé and I could barely afford, I yelled “It’s Roof Hampton! We have to take it.” After we married and moved in, he said: “Now you have to stop smoking and drinking,” I laughed. He wasn’t joking.

Quitting my long-term cigarette, pot and alcohol habits required an all-out assault: psychotherapy with an addiction specialist, nicotine patch, daily exercise—hard to juggle as a journalist by day who taught four evening classes. The upstairs pool became key. It was love at first stroke. With my overzealous personality, I rearranged my schedule for 120 laps a day, a mile in my small oval pond. Way cheaper than an island share, the swim club cost $450  annually.

Every morning from Memorial Day through September, I’d wake up praying for clear skies and run to my aerobic routine. Unlike the pill-popping swimmer NurseJackie on Showtime, my wet haven was outdoors and I never relapsed.

My pale workaholic mate hated the sun. But I didn’t need him, a car, or jitney to share a Sag Harbor beach pad like my more successful friends, or substances to enhance my mood anymore. Bliss was just 34 stories away. I wasn’t a graceful swimmer, but I was steady. The hour workout calmed me. I’d don a cheap, well-made Kathy Ireland  black two piece ($22 at the Astor Place K-Mart) and rush upstairs at 10 a.m. I warned little kids to keep out of my invisible swimmer’s lane, pushing floating toys and plastic noodles from my path. Weightless and free, I floated way above the city. I was proud of my tanned, toned arms. On windy days I fought the tiny waves, imagining I was endurance master Diana Nyad, wrestling through a 60-hour swim on shark-infested seas.

As a teenager, I’d loved the pool my father built in our Michigan backyard. Puttering with the heater and whirlpool was how Dad, a busy doctor, unwound. He and I were the only olive-skinned Shapiros in a Jewish family of freckled-faced redheads. Lying on a raft while he raked the leaves from the drain was a way to connect with him. The first Chesterfield I’d tasted, at age 13, was his. Becoming a chain smoker like he was, I’d felt bonded in our method of self-destruction. Dad stopped smoking around the same time I did.

Over the years, age changed my urban sports program. In my 40s, my size eight black string top and bottom became a size 10 Nike black one-piece, then a slimming black Miracle Suit. Baby oil and tanning lotion turned to sticky spray-on 50 SPF sunscreen—and even with that, my nose and chest sunburned. My eyes needed protection with goofy goggles that left a 24-hour imprint on my face. Chlorine clashed with my hair dye, so I wetted my tresses under a swim cap I’d wear on the service elevator zooming me up. Still, I persevered past laziness and vanity.

When my addiction specialist moved away three Junes ago, I exercised more, speed walking around Washington Square Park nightly. Then I added the exhilarating buzz and calorie burn of kickboxing—apparently not smart for a bookworm welcoming her fifth decade. Suddenly, swimming one short lap, I felt sharp pain in my back. The orthopedic surgeon reading my MRI said I’d torn two ligaments in my lower spine that might never fully heal. I couldn’t run, bike, box, walk without pain. At least I could still swim. Everybody said “Swimming’s great for back problems,” right? Not mine. It seemed I’d incurred the only back injury in history worsened by backstrokes. What an inane tragedy—I was the rare apartment-dwelling urbanite with a roof pool, my own little fake patch of nature, that I couldn’t use.

It was my first physical impairment and pool laps equaled intense spinal agony. Ninety-year-old neighbors with worse medical traumas beat me at the crawl and breaststroke. I tried underwater leg and arm lifts and dog paddling. Then I became one of those annoying Florida grandma-types who walked the pool’s width instead of quickly crawling the length. Gliding my arms like I was breast-stroking, I longed for the down sweep and floating feeling I missed. I tried to look at the upside: my head wasn’t submerged underwater, so I didn’t need a bathing cap and the chlorine didn’t screw with my hair.

But I missed the aerobic benefits and endorphin rush every day. I gained weight, felt depressed. At my lowest point, I looked outside, wishing for clouds so I wouldn’t be tempted by the rays or laps my body couldn’t handle. Swimming—my one healthy compulsion—was now detrimental to my body. “Just when you think you lost everything, you find you can always lose a little more,” Bob Dylan sang.

“I’m so sad swim-less,” I told my husband, in pool withdrawal, fearing that my best summers were behind me. He held me close, whispering “I hope this doesn’t mean you expect me to entertain you.”

After my doctor dad advised against surgery or steroid injections, I made an appointment with Kenan, a young Bosnian physical therapist. When I told him how I’d hurt myself, he scoffed in his thick accent, “Kick boxing! At your age?” Reading my chart, he said, “You are 50, college professor. Not athlete.”

“Why don’t I just kill myself now?”

“No. Do not!” He looked alarmed. “We will get you better.”

He showed me weight and “core strengthening” exercises that were painful and tedious. For distraction, I interrogated Kenan like the nosy journalist I was. It turned out he’d survived the Balkan War. When he was 12, his karate coach came to his door with an AK-47 saying, “You have one hour to leave or be killed,” friends and neighbors turning on his family overnight. He was like the male Muslim Anne Frank who lived to tell the story. It  knocked me out of my self pity. “You should write about your escape,” I said.

“I do not write. I fix backs,” he told me, trying desperately to fix mine twice a week for a year.

That Memorial Day, sure my spinal muscles were mended, I jumped right in, quickly swimming 50 laps. I felt elated. Until sundown, when I couldn’t move.

“Why not five laps first?” Kenan asked at my session, icing the soreness.

I feared my addictive personality could overdo anything, turning positive hobbies into toxic obsessions. It even bothered my back to schlep my black straw tote up the steel stairway to the pool.

I thought I knew who I was, but I had to face who I wasn’t: the female Michael Phelps or the Jewish Kathy Ireland. I listed the benefits of aging: A dozen years clean had enhanced my career and marriage. I got to sleep nightly with a sardonic spouse who got me. We were well-respected in our little 14-block radius. How many New Yorkers were simultaneously lucky in work, love and real estate? If my bronzed, buff 120-lap days were history, I’d be fine, I told myself. When colleagues asked about my back trauma, instead of kvetching, I could share a new kicker to the story: I wound up coauthoring a Bosnia memoir with Kenan that made a splash.

This summer, the morning the pool opened, I woke up early, not ready to relinquish my aquatic love affair. I sprayed 100 SPF, donned black bathing cap and Ninja goggles, the first fish in the water. I swam the length of the pool 20 times, hardly hurting. I heard Kenan’s voice say: Don’t risk re-injury or sun poisoning. You can swim more  tomorrow. I stole 10 more laps. Then I stopped for the day—for once not going overboard.

Susan Shapiro is the author of eight books and coauthor, with Kenan Trebincevic, of The Bosnia List, recently published by Penguin Books.