Below the Surface

“The Magic Circle.” Hearing that phrase, my mind began to drift off the pages of J. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens and into a world of imagination. I was taken to the Olympic games, cheering on each country’s greatest athletes as they walked around the track at the Opening Ceremony, waiving with pride and honor. Next, I was sitting front row in New York City at a Broadway play, watching the world’s finest actors bring a story to life through dancing and singing that took many a year’s work. Back on track and reading on about what the author defines as play, I began to see similarities arise in my own experience as an athlete in what happened to be my own, personal “Magic Circle.”

Huizinga highlights three important characteristics of play that particularly leaped out at me because of their close relationship to swimming and what makes an ordinary 25-yard pool transform into a “Magic Circle.”

“It was a time to imagine myself as a champion, a warrior, a leader.”

First, Huizinga defines play as being a freedom from reality. We can all infer that this “play” is a limited phase and doesn’t last forever. For me, I entered and left the “Magic Circle,” our training pool, every day for four years. Three hours a day I would dive below the surface into a new, quiet, and peaceful world of play. To be quite honest, I don’t remember the specifics of those daily practices other than that it was a time to imagine myself as a champion, a warrior, a leader. I recall looking forward to that time each day where I could simply take my mind off of what was happening, good or bad. Even better, my closest friends and I were all together, in the same mindset, something that is a rarity in the high school world. Although this was a time for social serendipity and sharing our love of the sport, the setting was definitely very serious and structured. We were all working collectively to achieve individual goals we wrote out at the beginning of the season. As we spent each practice imagining ourselves reaching those goals, we blanked out the stresses of everyday life and worked toward something we loved. We kept swimming relatively separate from our personal lives, something I believe kept us excited and motivated about the sport. By keeping swimming in the pool, it evolved into a “Magic Circle,” full of laughter, tears, and countless water bottles.

Building off of the last point, Huizinga does not limit play to just mental boundaries, but to physical ones as well. In my case, I considered my boarders to be the four edges that made up a six lane, 25-yard pool filled with chlorinated water. But when displaced with a whole team imagining themselves as champions and working towards that, it becomes alive and a part of you. Although I was really happy and appreciative when I was recognized for my aquatic accomplishments outside the pool, I tried to keep the swimming aspect of my life for when I was slicing through the water. I did not want to be known as “the swimmer” when in the classroom. Rather, I wanted to be remembered for my determination and work ethic that derives partly from the structure of swimming, but also from academics, which has greatly impacted my life. Between my sophomore and junior year, I transferred high schools. This actually caused quite a controversy as people began to question my motives for athletics, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Sometimes you just become bored and need a new challenge, which is how I was feeling academically. Through that whole process, that rectangle of water stayed exactly the same. No matter what classroom I was sitting in or what way I constantly had to defend myself, I could go to the pool and enter that mentality I described before. Sitting in a classroom, I imagined myself as “the student,” working hard to do well in class, but when the “Magic Circle” came alive and I was relocated to that temporary world; I became “the swimmer,” working towards different goals that could only take place in my favorite pool.

A similar example of my “Magic Circle,” where my goals were ultimately accomplished

Finally, Huizinga reflects on the fact that all rules are governed by play, and the ultimate objective is to “achieve something difficult, to succeed, to end a tension.” In swimming, the concept is no different. If you want to be the best backstroker, for example, you can only accomplish that by swimming the backstroke, not deciding halfway through the race to flip over and swim the front crawl, which is naturally much faster. Becoming a “spoil-sport,” as Huizinga describes it, only ruins the spirit of the “Magic Circle” and the purpose of play in the first place. During my senior season, I was a member of a school and area record-breaking relay team. Our goal was to accomplish a title that reflected our work ethic of the season. We easily could have jumped early in hopes the official would miss it, but would we really have morally achieved such an honorable award? Part of what makes the “Magic Circle” magic is the fact that we spent such a long time imagining the outcome, and the fact that it was actually accomplished was a reward in itself. If we were to set an example by cheating, everyone would follow, and the greatness of a temporary life would quickly deteriorate. So, swimming also fits under Huizinga’s definition of play when it comes to working towards a goal and doing it by the rules.

By turning what one would view as an ordinary swimming pool into a place where dreams happen, I have truly experienced play as defined by Huizinga