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The quiet place on Harbord Street

Swimming at U of T is a time-honoured method of de-stressing and staying fit
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SHERENE ALMJAWER/THE VARSITY
SHERENE ALMJAWER/THE VARSITY

There’s a special kind of quiet that can come about at the pool. 

It’s not that pools themselves are quiet places; the act of swimming itself is actually quite loud. After a few reps, the sound of your arms splitting water might start to feel like a metronome. There’s that signature pool-talk echo, and you’ll probably hear someone about 20 strokes to the left of you splash at a buddy. Some dude with squeaky slippers might make little squelches as he walks away. It’s kind of like a symphony. 

But when you’re down under — for those brief, fleeting moments in between each breath — it kind of just goes quiet. Like the whole symphony stops, like the only person left playing is you.

And it’s a special kind of quiet. 

From the outside, the Athletic Centre at 55 Harbord Street looks a bit like a monolith. You’ll recognize it as the gargantuan cinder block with grated red indentations slated at the top that looms over pedestrians and storefronts.

Inside, it houses two pools: the 25-yard Benson pool and the olympic-sized 50-metre Varsity pool. In the latter gym, the walls are lined with banners memorializing championships across the decades in both men’s and women’s competitions. You’ll find that the pool gets quite busy in the afternoon.

And why wouldn’t it? Swimming is good for your heart. It burns calories at an efficient rate, helps you sleep better, and tones your muscles — just ask any regular swimmer. 

It’s not just an aesthetic thing — staying in shape is good for your head. Stress relief research showed that regular swimming significantly reduced stress in about four out of five individuals who reported feeling mildly depressed and anxious. Access to the pools is free for any U of T student. In other words, swimming might just be one of the most cost-effective methods of stress relief you can find in Toronto if you are a U of T student.

So the pool is a place of recreation for students at U of T, but it’s also an opportunity to perform impressive athletic feats. Members of Varsity Blues compete at the highest levels, and at the absolute upper echelon, former student athletes like four-time Olympic medallist Kylie Masse dominate the field. 

I asked Annie Li, a first-year student at Trinity College who swam back in high school, what her favorite thing was about the sport. Back then, she opted out of competition to focus on academics and lifeguarding. 

Now, she just smiles when you ask her about the pool. She agrees with me about the quiet: “I feel like [with] a lot of other sports, it’s just a lot of noise and a lot of sound. But when you’re swimming, you’re under the water and you can’t really hear anything at all, right? It’s just the water. So it is pretty relaxing, to be honest.”

But if you ask Li about the best part of swimming, she’ll say that it’s about the way your body moves in the water. “I like the way my body moves in the water, because on land I’m pretty awkward… but when I’m in the water and when I’m swimming, it’s like [it] doesn’t matter because you’re moving your arms and your legs and going forward, right? So I like the feeling of always moving forward.”

Come down to the pool. Stretch, work out, and relax. There’s a lot of seconds in a day. Most of them are spent thinking, talking, breathing in air, or marching your feet. But for a finite amount of time, you have the unique opportunity to be somewhere else entirely — a restricted area. Head up, head down. You’re back under water now.

You’re in the quiet place.