Magic Waters by Sam Elkin

Image of a person in a swimming pool, adjusting their yellow swimming cap. They have swimming googles on and no tshirt.

This personal essay discusses the visibility of trans bodies in public swimming pools and the performance of gender in Australian culture.

I’ve found that the best way to deal with the considerable anxiety of taking my clothes off in public is to act just like the entitled white man I am perceived to be.  Anything less attracts unwanted attention.

My local pool had just reopened after lockdown 2.0, and my efforts at this carefree affect were being hampered by the need to adhere to strict new safety protocols upon entry. Each step was a potential for self-betrayal. First, I had to sanitise my small hands at the hygiene station and then gaze at the image of myself in a video camera until it had recorded my body temperature. Next, I had to project my name loudly enough through my mask for the fit, young man at the reception desk to tick my name off his booking list. I then confirmed to him that I hadn’t been overseas in the last fourteen days, wasn’t feeling unwell and had no reason to believe I might have been exposed to COVID-19. Finally, he affixed a neon pink paper band around my wrist with the time I had to exit the facility by, and gave me the all-clear to enter the pool area

Once inside, I strode right over to thirty vacant plastic grey chairs lined up neatly on the grassed area, as though the pool staff had prepared for an audience of ghosts to watch a synchronized swimming show. I dumped my bag and mask on the first available chair and stripped down quickly and confidently. Why would I be at all concerned about my too-large hips or the pink scars slashed across both sides of my chest like The Joker’s mouth? I’d elected to have the ‘pie wedge’ mastectomy technique, where the surgeon keeps your nipples attached to your body and makes horizontal incisions around them in an effort to retain their physical sensitivity. It had worked, and my nipples stood to attention, responding to the still cool weather.

My fellow patrons were silent, entering the pool like it was a cathedral. Pools and most other things had been shut for months as the virus lingered in Victoria, and the freedom to immerse our bodies in water seemed something that should be taken seriously. Talking was frowned upon, and bodies were colder and paler than usual, having been bundled up inside over winter.

I put my tinted goggles on, I eased myself in in one quick motion, and plunged underwater, feeling the cool water enveloping my soft, furry body. As I popped my head out of the water, I could hear the almighty daily COVID-19 numbers being announced on commercial radio. Currently, a good day was a day of cases in the teens, and so today was a good day because we only had 12 new cases.

There were numerous yellow and red clad lifeguards on duty and they all seemed anxious about the very real possibility of getting infected by a patron mid-rescue. It made me feel a need to impress them, to show them that I was fit, healthy and absolutely not a drowning risk, so that they could leave me alone and hover near a more vulnerable swimmer. But as I took stroke after stroke, making an effort to kick my legs enough to keep me horizontal as I took my breaths, I found myself in a private communion with the distorted tiles below. They reminded me of Balga swimming pool where I’d learnt a basic approximation of swimming back in 1990 after my family migrated from Great Britain to Perth, Western Australia.

In 1990, my family had moved from a working-class town in South-East England to the new working-class suburb of Marangaroo, full of Anglo Australians, Indigenous families and new migrants from all directions. We bought a cheap, three bedroom, one-bathroom single storey brick house that looked almost exactly like all of the others, except that it had a letterbox shaped like a koala that I was very taken with.

When my parents turned up to the local primary school to enrol my older brother and I in year 2 and year 4, the school administrators asked if we knew how to swim. My mum explained that we’d so far learnt a basic doggy paddle.  It was on a freezing cold day at an English aquatic centre’s one-off trial lesson; since my brother and I had shown little interest in going again, it had fallen off the list of things to do. The administrators told our parents that as new Australians, it was vital that we get enrolled in the vacation swimming program so that we could join age-appropriate swimming lessons with our classmates when the new school year started.

 On the first day of Balga swimming pool’s summer holiday program, I reported to the light blue wading pool with a bunch of kids half my size to learn to hold my breath underwater. I wore my brother’s old swimming trunks and an oversized white T-shirt, because I refused to wear a girl’s swimming costume. My swimming instructor, an older man with white chest hair, initially praised me for my commitment to ‘Slip Slop Slap’, but when he realized that I didn’t have girls’ bathers on underneath, he told me that I could finish the first lesson but that I’d have to get my parents to buy me proper bathers before the next one. I cried on the way home, and vowed to my mum that I wouldn’t learn to swim at all if I had to wear girls’ bathers. My dad couldn’t stand me wearing boys clothes and drove me straight to the local St Vincent De Paul Op-Shop where he insisted on buying me whatever was there in my size. The saggy old black one-piece with neon yellow and pink frills cost 20 cents.

The next day at the pool I felt clownish and awkward in my ornate girls’ bathers, and I again refused to take my T-shirt off when I got into the wading pool. When the swimming instructor came near, I dunked my head in the water and blew bubbles as hard as I could in the hope that I would be promoted to the next level, where there might be a nicer teacher who’d let me wear what I wanted.

I was promoted to a bigger pool, where the water was a darker navy colour. My new swimming instructor was a young woman with blonde hair. She immediately told me I would never be able to pass her class without taking off my T-shirt as it wouldn’t be able to swim up and down the 25-metre pool with my shirt bobbing all around me. I kept my shirt on, and instead tried my best to avoid her disapproving gaze during lessons. As a result, I never really got the hang of breathing underwater. For the rest of the summer, I failed to be promoted again and again while smaller and smaller children joined me in her class, only to move on to the big pool after a week or two. At the end of a lesson she told me that if I didn’t learn to swim properly, I’d end up getting sucked into the “Blue Hole” – a naturally occurring death trap at our local Trigg beach, like the other silly children that hadn’t learnt to swim.

I hated these days at the pool. We couldn’t even go home after the classes finished since my Mum didn’t know how to drive yet, and it sometimes took Dad hours to come and get us even though our house was in the next suburb over. I’d pester Mum to buy me popcorn or a bag of sour cola bottles, which I’d sit and eat under the taut white umbrellas on the grass while my brother splashed around in the pool. I looked around at all the other children like they were a foreign species as they ran around pushing and shoving each other, diving in and then screeching gleefully while apparently trying to drown each other. I scanned all of the surf brands attached to the boys’ board shorts that were completely unfamiliar to me. Mambo, Hot Tuna, Billabong and Quicksilver. I yearned to have a pair of my own.

The Balga Swimming Pool was effectively segregated. The Aboriginal kids would splash around on one side of the pool, and everyone else stayed on the other side. It was as if there was an invisible forcefield between the two groups of playful and seemingly carefree kids. There weren’t any signs enforcing this rule, and so I asked Mum why it was like this. Mum, never one to mince words, said that she’d decided that Western Australians were very racist, and that as far as she could tell, the children were even worse than their parents.

Everything in Western Australia was about water. We went on trips to Underwater World, where I loved to rub the heads of the port Jackson sharks in the touch pool. We went to Mundaring Weir and read about the tragic hero C.Y O’Connor, who was said to have designed a magnificent pipeline to pump water from the weir all the way out to the goldfields, but then tragically shot himself at Fremantle Beach because the pumps wouldn’t turn on.

The number one topic on Channel 7 news was water restrictions and the ongoing drought, and the number one community talking point was when you were allowed to water your lawns. Perversely though, Western Australians were absolutely terrified of the rain, which bucketed down about four times a year in huge sheets, unlike in England, where it was common to drizzle on and off all day for six months or more.

In 1992, my brother and I, trying to be the best new Australians we could sat glued to the TV to cheer on the green and gold clad athletes at the Barcelona Olympics. Still, why they were always showing the swimming, and not something interesting like basketball or Tae Kwon Do. Kieran Perkins’ quest for gold in the 1500 metre race was so all encompassing that his signature even ended up on the side of our milk cartons for the rest of the decade – a permanent reminder that in this country, the swimming champion was king. Even so, I made it my life’s mission to avoid the pool.

As I considered all this while launching myself back up and down the 25-metre red and blue roped lanes. As I struggled to catch my breath by the side of the pool, I noticed a woman in her late twenties with long brown hair looking at me with a strange smile. I didn’t understand the meaning of this expression until I realized I’d pulled my chest out of the pool to take the air. She had obviously clocked me as trans, and was giving me the consciously inclusive ‘you are welcome here’ look that cisgender people sometimes give to trans people in an effort to convey that they support our right to exist. It’s hard to know what to do with a smile like that, so I returned the briefest of smiles and dunked myself back into the water. I held my head under the water for long enough to feel alone, but not long enough for a nervous lifeguard to attempt to rescue me.

Of course, I knew she meant well, but all it did was confirm my suspicions that people were in fact staring at my chest. Did I care? I wasn’t sure anymore.

After years of avoiding the pool, I’d taken up swimming to address the lower back pain which was starting to take over my life. I felt nervous about doing this, as I tried my best to avoid gendered spaces wherever possible, such was my dysphoria. I hated using women’s changerooms, in which, as an androgenous looking person, I was regularly stared at and made to feel unwelcome. But as local swimming pools started offering gender neutral change rooms and an annual trans and gender diverse swim night, I started to get my confidence up about swimming, and my right for my body to be at a public pool.

Before I had top surgery in 2018, I read scores of other trans masculine people writing about how liberating it was to finally swim shirtless. But after I underwent the same procedure, I realized that my scars would continue to mark me out as different, either as trans as or as a presumed victim of a horrific car accident.

Did it matter what the woman who’d noticed me thought? Perhaps my atypical body would inspire her to worry a bit less about what she looked like in her bathers. Perhaps she hadn’t even seen my scars at all, and I was just nervous and hypervigilant after ruminating about my childhood.

And what did my body have to be ashamed of? It had managed to take me up and down the pool for thirty minutes, despite me hardly having moved it for 6 months during lockdown. I tried to feel thankful for my body, and grateful that it wasn’t battling the illness that had taken so many lives and shut down our city for so long. And there, in those aqua depths, I felt a moment of self-acceptance, and even a moment of love.

It comes and goes of course, this bodily contentment. While every ambling lap of the pool in my highly idiosyncratic, largely self-taught stroke might not turn me into a scar-free bronzed Adonis, it may just bring me closer to the emotional equilibrium that I have longed for since I first stepped into the troubled waters of Balga swimming pool.

About Sam

Sam Elkin is a writer, radio maker and event producer living in Narrm. Sam is the producer of the podcasts Transdemic and Transgender Warriors, and you can read some of his other essays in Anthithesis Journal, Bent Street and Overland Literary Journal. Sam was selected to be a part of the The Wheeler Centre Next Chapter scheme in 2019, and is currently working on a debut essay collection.