Salty Triathlete: Swim Etiquette as a Cultural Phenomenon
Kelly O'Mara on the often complicated and confusing experience of visiting different lap pools around the world.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
In Sweden, I had to rent a pull buoy by the hour. In Finland, there was a whole complicated system involving saunas and long walks across frosty grass. In Rome, I was required to wear a one-piece swimsuit and cover up in between the locker room and pool lest my stomach and thighs offend someone. In China, well, I have no idea what was happening at the pool in China, because I can’t read Chinese characters.
Pool etiquette is a complicated thing. It’s complicated in any language and only gets more confusing once you cross international borders. Heading to the pool guarantees a quick jump into the deep end of cultural misunderstanding.
But let me recommend that jump. First off, you’re a triathlete and swimming is part of triathlon; dealing with things is part of triathlon too. Secondly, and maybe more importantly, there’s no need to go off searching or paying extra for authentic international experiences. You want a real crash course in how the locals live? Go to the pool.
Yes, bring extra patience with you when you go, and probably all your own swim gear. Don’t count on things going exactly the way you want or getting in exactly the workout you want the first time. But you’ll learn the system eventually, and you might be surprised what else you learn along the way.
The pool is like a window into a particular country’s soul. Maybe it’s something about everyone being so nearly naked.
Australia has 50m pools in every tiny town and random 8-year-olds who swim circles around you. Europeans head to the pool in far higher quantities than Americans, but it’s more leisurely, more social, less about the exercise. Many of Latin America’s pools are private, high-end clubs—and why aren’t you swimming at the beach anyway? These are vast generalizations, but things I learned in between the travel meltdowns and frustration and confusion—things I learned from swimming around the world.
To avoid similar complications, let me recommend practicing these questions in a foreign language before you go:
How much does it cost to swim? When is lap swimming? Where is the locker room? How long is this pool? Can we split the lane? (Hand gestures help here.) Is this the water aerobics pool or the could-be-mistaken-for-Olympians pool? What do you mean there are separate lanes for kicking vs. swimming freestyle vs. swimming backstroke?
And let’s be real anyway: It’s not like every swimmer in the U.S. understands and adheres to American pool etiquette either. (Please stop talking to me while I’m on the wall for five seconds between intervals.) If a foreign visitor headed to our local pool, they’d probably learn something about the U.S. too: “Why do they take their exercise so seriously and have so many gadgets? Those silly Americans; they try so hard.”