Glasses resting on his face mask, swimming instructor Muzio Micalizzi is holding an electronic thermometer while standing next to a hand-sanitising station. He is standing sentry-like at the entrance of the Delfino swimming club in the Roman neighbourhood of Nomentano, where I started to swim a couple of years ago when I moved to Rome to work for the FT.
I come from coastal Liguria, so water has always been essential to me — I can’t stay away from it for too long. Wherever I am, I seek it out.
During the seemingly endless seven-week Italian lockdown, swimming was by far the activity I missed the most. Now it has lifted and summer is here, I couldn’t be happier to be back in the water, and now I’m back to a routine of going four or five times a week (two indoor, two or three in the sea or open air pools).
The lanes are only 20 metres long at Delfino, but there is a great atmosphere and my swimming mates are a fun bunch of young professionals and students. I swim in a group of young men and women under the age of 33, and after training we often hang out, cook and eat together — after all, any self-respecting athlete deserves a proper meal.
After months of inactivity, it was an adjustment for all of us to be back in the water. We all noticed immediately how heavy we felt after the first dive.
Swimming pools too, along with other indoor sports venues, are having to readapt to this new world. In pools throughout Italy, whether interior or exterior, every swimmer must wear a mask, have their temperature checked and disinfect their hands before entering the building. And there are a few additional safety measures to follow before getting into the water.
My coach and two of his colleagues form a sort of assembly line by the door, providing those who pass the temperature test with equipment for the changing areas: shoe covers, giant plastic bags in which you must put every personal item, including rucksacks, helmets and jackets, and smaller bags for keys, wallet, etc. “It's almost like airport security!” says one young man in the queue.
Swimmers are asked to minimise time spent in the changing rooms — sitting next to each other is prohibited, and they must have a mandatory shower with the official soap before and after swimming.
Also, the number of people in the water is limited — according to government guidelines, only one person every seven cubic meters is allowed, and several swimming pools, especially the small ones, had to drastically reduce the number of swimmers per lane.
“A month ago it seemed unthinkable to be able to reorganise our training and swimming lessons,” Micalizzi tells me. “But here we are, even though there is still a lot of uncertainty about the future, and if we don’t go back to normality in a couple of months, it won’t be economically sustainable.”
“The activities of our sports centre are strongly connected to the trend of the pandemic,” he says. “If the virus spreads, we shrink. If the virus recedes, we expand.”
While in the pool, swimmers are asked to avoid physical contact with others and maintain a distance of at least two metres. Class sizes have been halved, and the sessions are now 15 minutes shorter. For the time being, water polo matches and other types of games are also banned, and younger swimmers aged between one and six, who aren’t allowed to swim unaccompanied, won’t be back until at least September.
Most swimmers are not deterred by the new strictures. I certainly couldn’t wait to swim again and still find it to be the most enjoyable way to unwind after a long day at work.
Several friends and colleagues have asked me if it feels safe — and it does. While swimming, everyone keeps their distance and, as part of our training, if we pass someone else in the same lane we alternately swim under water so as not to bump into each other. The same rules apply at the outdoor pools I go to, even if the atmosphere is a little more relaxed.
As the temperatures rise, it is only at the beach that arguments flare up, as finding enough space to lay out your beach towel without compromising social distancing can be hard. If you do your research, however, you will find there are spots away from the usual crowds — and in any case, once you are in the water, there is all the space in the world.
Have you been back to your local pool to swim? How did you find it? Let us know in the comments below
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