Control, chaos, and conversion in the Uris Pool.
By Sona Wink
My first experience in the Uris Pool was one of abject humiliation. It was November 2021, and I had never put on a swim cap before. It’s no intuitive task. With the added pressure of the chuckling grad students not-so-subtly watching me, it took about 10 minutes to accomplish the measly result: ears out, accompanied by a few exhausted strands of hair. Smeagol-like, I waddled out of the locker room.
In the water, I realized that, while able to swim, I knew little of “strokes.” Freestyle: exhausting. Backstroke: disorienting. Butterfly: not even close. I settled on an extremely slow breaststroke, keeping my head above the water. Despite feeling ridiculous, I swam about once a week for much of the fall. I never stayed for longer than 15 minutes, and most of that time was spent catching my breath. I viewed the Uris Pool with detached (likely defensive) irony: a strange hovel where I went to exhaust and embarrass myself. It merited little serious thought.
A day after moving in for the spring semester, a mirror fell on my head. Two hours later, I fainted (likely because of the mirror), leaving me with double head trauma. Every concussion is different—some combination of visual, auditory, or vestibular effects—and mine happened to unravel the link between my eyes and brain. Any visual stimulation, including looking at a screen, reading, or peering out too bright a window, would send me into hour-long bouts of nausea and headaches.
For the first two weeks, I lived in constant terror that my brain would never be the same; most days it felt like a mush sloshing between my ears. I felt fragile. I became incredibly superstitious, obsessed with cracking the sequence of seemingly arbitrary events that led to the fateful one—perhaps if I had properly recycled that takeout container, the cosmic overlords wouldn’t have tipped over the mirror. I struggled to understand how events I had no control over could uproot my life so quickly. How do I rely on a sense of stability? How do I stave off chaos? Is the world governed by raw entropy, a cavernous maw of randomness set out to slowly devour us? I saw a comrade in Murphy, his namesake law my new credo.
I returned to school slowly, painstakingly, over the month of March. When my brain finally felt solid enough, I became more motivated to exercise than I’d ever been before. I was aware of the complex behind it: Losing control over my body made controlling it feel especially gratifying. My new routine involved one to two hours at Dodge every night, half that time spent in the Uris Pool.
After a while, my disjointed breaststroke of yore evolved into something comfortable. I started to swim in uninterrupted intervals so long that time melted away. I felt like an Alka-Seltzer tablet dropped into water, dissolved and purposeful. In the pool, the concussion and its associated anxieties melted away. I was in control of my body, mind, and environment. What was formerly a mundane pool became a sacred space, a shrine to order’s triumph over chaos.
I started to wonder what was behind the mystical experience I had had, whether there was something uniquely meditative about the Uris Pool. Was I alone in finding it a special place, or did it affect other users similarly?
Its formal name is the Percy Uris Natatorium. Aside from some light cosmetic changes, it has stayed the same since 1974. On a given day, the pool is occupied by a wide array of characters, all of varying degrees of talent: The varsity swim team meets as early as 6:30 a.m. onto 9, and sometimes in the afternoon; the Beginner Swim PE class (mandatory for those who fail the swim test) meets sharply at 9 a.m.; recreational swim is afternoons and nights; club teams take over past 9:30 p.m. and practice late into the night.
Recreational swimming is open to anybody with a Dodge Fitness Center membership. Lucy Arico-Muendel, BC ’23, lifeguards at the pool three times a week. She enjoys the crowd’s unpredictable composition, which consists of undergrad and graduate students, professors, and the oldest man you’ve ever seen. The pool fosters a fusion of socialization and athleticism, and a heartening cultural synchronism between faculty and student life.
Then, of course, there are the seniors taking their swim tests. They’re easy to spot: often giggling and in gaggles, anxious to complete Columbia’s most infamous exam. Those who fail must take Beginner Swim with James Bolster, head coach of the men’s swimming and diving team. Bolster spends his days toggling between Olympic-level athletes and students that failed to swim three continuous laps—a combination I found incredibly charming.
Bolster’s pedagogy seems just as much mental as it is physical, focused on building his students’ confidence as much as their swimming ability. “They start, they’re petrified, they don’t even want to get in the water. By the end of class, they’re completely comfortable and they really feel like, ‘Wow, I got a skill.’ It’s wonderful for their self-confidence, and it’s really a class that I enjoy teaching.”
Lifeguards monitor these classes as well, watching students improve over the course of a semester. “I’ve seen a few swimmers from the classes come back during rec swim,” says Arico-Muendel. “This one guy even went above and beyond and learned butterfly, even though that’s not necessary.”
These stories I found heartwarming, but I needed to dive deeper: What about the pool felt so profound to me?
Most people I spoke to noted the location of the natatorium, buried four floors into the already subterranean Dodge gym. “I don’t want to be four levels underground,” says Arico-Muendel. “It’s a little miserable … if we drilled into any one of the walls, what would we encounter? The subway?”
Her comment evokes either claustrophobia or perhaps some sort of reverence: Trudging down all those stairs feels like a pilgrimage to the core of the earth. The pool becomes a sort of cavernous, echoing pond. Stalactite cones protrude from the wet floor while stalagmite flags hang from the ceiling. I thought this, at least, until Coach Bolster burst my bubble. “It does seem like it is four flights underground, but in actuality when you are down on the pool deck you are on street level.”
Deep (or perhaps not so deep) below the earth, Newton’s fourth law reveals itself: No one looks hot in a swim cap and goggles. It is truly incredible that the most collectively naked spot on campus happens to be by far the least sexy. However unappealing as it may sound, I’ve found that looking like a prenatal alien around my peers is oddly liberating. It changes the social pretext. Bald, vision-impaired, and suspended in fluid, we return to an embryonic state—the pool a communal womb on whose walls we kick and spin. In utero, we cast our focus inward. “It’s an activity that promotes this introspection,” says Coach Bolster. “The opportunity to sort of immerse yourself and get away from the rat race.”
In my conversations, I found that many people experienced the timeless effect of swimming that so moved me. Coach Bolster seemed to share my reverence for the water: “It’s an incredible form of meditation … You hear the rhythms of your own body, you have this sense of freedom to do whatever you want. You're in charge of everything.” I was surprised by how closely his description recalled my own experience of swimming as a means of control.
While Arico-Muendel doesn’t often swim in the pool, she told me she experiences a similar meditativeness from the stand. “When I’m watching I have to put my phone down and stare straight ahead … I let my mind wander. With the lap swimmers, it’s almost relaxing to watch them do the same thing over and over again. I know it’s relaxing for them, so I’m sort of experiencing that secondhand.”
A week ago I was swimming a slow backstroke, jellyfish-like, and contemplating this very article. The blue and white tile like … the flag of Denmark? like Chani’s eyes? Enwrapped in meditation, I lost my grip on spacetime and bumped headfirst into the wall. I felt shocked and betrayed by the Percy Uris Natatorium: After all my dedication, this is how you reward me?
I remembered something Coach Bolster told me about his experiences freewater swimming. “There’s this wonderful sense of freedom, freedom of expression. It’s you and nature, and to a certain extent, you’re controlling nature.”
Up until that moment, I agreed with him. I felt that, through extreme bodily discipline, I could somehow warp the world around me to my will. While swimming, I felt impenetrable. Yet as my head smarted through my swim cap—a much more benign version of the pain I had endured months ago—I realized that disorder is unavoidable and that sense of control is illusory. We all age. We all suffer damages.
I sought to understand what made the pool special, but I came to recognize its universality: a microcosm of the human propensity for imposing arbitrary structure to preempt the chaos we most fear. We place lanes for people to swim in, station lifeguards to watch over us. We perform our daily regimens with machine-like repetition. The pool is a tamed reproduction of oceans, lakes, and rivers, those bodies which fall under the unpredictable domain of mother nature. The water is so chlorinated that, according to Arico-Muendel, “Covid can’t survive a foot above the pool.”
But as hard as we try, water simply cannot be forced into our prescriptions of order. Randomness increases as atoms are given more freedom to roam around. Liquids are governed by more chaos than solids are, but less so than gasses; in that sense, their fluidity provides a sort of entropic middle for humans to explore. Above ground, we are crushed by the weight of gravity, academic expectations, and bookbags. In the water, we experience the foreign freedom of the liquid state. We may attempt to mitigate the pool’s water with buoys, safety precautions, and goggles, but we can never truly control it. Water is consistent in its entropy, just as chaos is reliable in its pervasiveness.
In Paradise Lost, chaos is an enemy of creation; yet hasn’t Darwinism shown that the two are one and the same? The world is indeed governed by raw entropy, but that entropy is creative just as much as it is destructive. The invisible hand that tipped over the mirror also, perhaps, placed me in a class with a future close friend. There’s no use fearing chaos; in many cases, it deserves our welcome.
Once more, I looked around the Percy Uris Natatorium: two students moseying by on flotation pads, talking about their day; an undergrad thrashing past an old man; a woman treading water in perfect equilibrium. An ecosystem of its own, a primordial soup of human limbs, naked, in slow-motion.
Staring chaos in the face, we can either cower in fear or continue living. When students of Beginner Swim stand at the pool’s edge gripped with fear, Coach Bolster’s job is to talk them in. “The water will support you if you let it,” he told me. “Important that you respect it, but not that you fear it so that you’re afraid to jump in.”