It takes some courage to go swimming sometimes. Better bodies, better swimmers, better trunks, better everything: everything and everyone seems better than you. So we stick to the slow lane, or if we’re particularly feeling brave, we might try the middle lane. But then we give way to the youthful hovercraft who always seems to arrive just when we’re beginning to feel good about ourselves. No, please pass. You’re better than me!

Swimming as a gay can be fun but also frustrating. Here’s why.

We’re comparing our bodies all the time

Of course, this isn’t only a gay thing; straight people do it too. But as gays, we might be tempted to feel a deep part of ourselves is on the line of judgment when we strip off and go swimming. We know that things tend to go south with age, and we may even preach this to ourselves and others. But when we swim, our philosophy deserts us and crawls into the locker with the rest of our clothes.

On Fridays where I swim, there’s a group of professional swimmers who practice in the fast lanes. Every week I watch their arrival with self-soothing eyes. How do they do it? How does their skin look so flawless, their bodies so taut you could pluck them, and the most beautiful melody will come out? Because they’re young, and because they’ve been swimming since they were sperm, that’s why. We don’t know what their genetic clock looks like hidden inside and the changes they may face sooner rather than later.

Instead of wallowing in that pain and anguish which have stalked many a gay man throughout history, beholding but unable to grasp some fleeting apparition of youth, I try and socialize with some of the men who swim with me and thereby feel connection rather than isolation.

We’re looking for potential friends/dates

I usually finish my swim session with a bask in the sauna. Where I live there are lots of Eastern European men with solid bodies — broad shoulders, thick thighs, buzz cut hair –, and they bring with them a culture of male bonding and talking. When I enter the sauna in my skimpy twinky little flower speedos, I wonder what they think. But it doesn’t matter that I’m a boy compared to their masculinity; I enter into the spirit of their conversation. Often others will join in too. Being in the sauna makes you more aware of your body as the toxins are squeezed out of your pores.

Sometimes I wonder: maybe I could flirt with a man here; perhaps i can touch his biceps, stroke his pecs, suck his cock. I wonder if he’s looking at me. But then sometimes I wish we could simply be friends. We don’t have to meet outside of swimming; he can just be a familiar face to say Hi to and chat about the day. Listening to the conversation going on, we come to realize others have insecurities as well.

We’re concerned about our performance

Maybe you were taught to swim as a child, and now you’re returning to the pool after years of absence. You worry what others will think. Even if in other areas of life you feel pretty competent, in the swimming pool you’ll be back with the learners, with the not-quite-theres. This can be galling. For good reason men often worry about their performance: since time immemorial the male sex has had to survive based on how well he’s done. We didn’t need Darwin to tell us everything’s a competition. And men often enjoy it. I watch how some muscular men come out of the sauna and the power in their wrists is palpable as they shut the door firmly behind them and saunter over to the cold shower. I can feel it shoot up through my legs, now pushed a little closer together.

But competition doesn’t need to rule us or paralyze us with fear.

The point is that we don’t need to join that game if we don’t want to. I can just enjoy watching others compete for prowess. It’s OK to have my own goals, my sense of who I am; I only need to be concerned about those targets which I’ve owned for myself. We certainly don’t need to be soaking up or absorbing the frustrated hopes and fearful longings of others.

It gets better

The more you swim, the more everything associated with it gets better. Your body improves, and so does your confidence. You feel better. The whole process of immersing yourself in water and feeling yourself move becomes like a drug you need more of. And the more you go, the more you become known. Other people start to talk to you. You try the sauna and like it. Then maybe, on your next trip to the beach, you just might wear that confidence which seems so elusive at times, almost without knowing you’ve done it.