Every morning, as the sun rises over San Francisco, the city shakes itself from its foggy slumber. Some people roll out of bed and make their coffee before dressing themselves for work. Others, perhaps, go for a morning run to stimulate the nerves and pump blood into their heart and brain. These are universal ways of waking up.
But there is a certain group of individuals who select a different morning routine, something unique to San Francisco. Rather than brewing coffee, attempting the daily Wordle or going on a jog, they slide themselves into the San Francisco Bay and they swim. They wear nothing but speedos and bikinis, even on the coldest winter days when a submerged limb initially feels like it is being rubbed in crushed glass, a sensation which eases into a gentle sting after about 20 seconds.
I tried to join them once in the winter of my freshman year. The year was 2019; I was preparing for my ocean lifeguard tryout and wanted to get some practice swimming in the open ocean. I woke up in my dorm room at 4:30 a.m. on a Monday and drove with a couple of companions toward the Golden Gate Bridge, feeling the whole time a sense of doom in my stomach. I’d been loaned an ill-fitting springsuit because the water temperature was 49 degrees.
Standing on the dock in front of the Dolphin Club at Fisherman’s Wharf, I observed the muster of the regulars. These were mostly people in their 60s, 70s and 80s, many of them women, many of them entering the water without flinching. None of them, of course, were wearing wetsuits. The swim club, I later found out, has been there for over a hundred years; for a hundred years, I imagine, this morning ritual has been left unchanged — though, blessedly, nylon has supplanted wool as the swimsuit material of choice.
The bay was steaming on the surface because the air was colder than the water, and my lurking sense of doom was suddenly brought to the surface. This was the hardest way to wake up. When you enter water this cold, your body reflexively contracts your lungs and you gasp; your pupils dilate; your circulatory system starts siphoning blood from your extremities (considered nonessential) to your heart and lungs. You have, in a sense, begun a process of death. The only thing I could do once I was in the water was swim, hard.
You have, in a sense, begun a process of death.
These days, it’s a little strange to imagine a morning routine where you defy death. In fact, it’s completely antithetical to a lot of the ways we (and by “we” I refer broadly to the youth) are supposed to take care of ourselves. The Berkeley Wellness Newsletter (whose latest piece of advice centered on making “na’cho average nachos”) encourages us students to practice self-care and to be mindful. We’re supposed to do things that make us feel good and comfortable. Exercise (though it may be difficult) is framed as a convenient endeavor with the purpose of producing endorphins. Rarely are we told to enjoy the pain. Rather, workouts are “quick,” running is made “easy” and the high that comes after makes it all “worth it.” This wellness paradigm seems braided with new technology and new ideas about human psychology; we don’t really look to our elders for wellness advice.
I think it was about the 20-minute mark when I lost control of my face. I stopped swimming to check in with one of my partners and I attempted to say something (“When are we turning back?”) but my lips wouldn’t work, and noises spilled out incoherently. My companion was slightly alarmed, but seemed to understand my question and suggested we turn back. I headed toward the dock, kicking my legs as hard as I could to maintain blood flow and inadvertently breaking the early-morning serenity of the swim zone. I remember lifting my head to breathe and seeing a group of elderly women looking at me quizzically.
By the time I arrived at the dock, my arms and legs felt like inert rubber cylinders. An older man exited the water after me and chuckled as I stood on the dock, hands under my trembling armpits. The next hour was a blur. I remember being instructed to stand in the warm shower, and I spent 30 minutes shivering and scratching my legs as blood began to flow back into my extremities. As some of the speedo-clad, nonplussed regulars came in, I remember feeling that my hypothermia was buffoonish.
It occurred to me that, though they may not have known it, these people were carrying out a quiet resistance: a form of anti-wellness wellness.
Eventually, I got better. As we left the boathouse to grab a coffee, my body hummed with post-hypothermic contentment. I saw a group of regulars smiling and laughing as they leisurely float-swam, and I was struck by their strength. It occurred to me that, though they may not have known it, these people were carrying out a quiet resistance: a form of anti-wellness wellness. Theirs is a wellness exercise in which you start your day with the defiance of death, which makes every flake of life afterward taste that much sweeter.