The Transcendental Workout

Olympic open water swimmer Alex Meyer finds clarity on Stiles Pond.

Gliding through the deep blue waters of Massachusett’s picturesque lakes transcends fitness for Olympic open water swimmer Alex Meyer—it’s freedom. “Don’t get me wrong, I like swimming in the pool,” says 29-year-old Meyer, who competed in the 10k at the 2012 London Games. “There is something that I really enjoy about looking at the clock and trying to bring down your time, comparing yourself to what you’ve done in a quantitative way. But it’s not nearly as free-feeling as swimming in a lake or a pond or an ocean.”

As a kid growing up in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York, Meyer became bored of staring down at the black line of the pool. “I don’t like to stay in boxes, I don’t like to be caged. So that’s why I prefer to swim in open water—I can go wherever I want.” Years later, at a camp hosted by USA Swimming, he met Mark Warkentin, the first American Olympic open water swimmer who competed at the 2008 Games in Beijing, and a spark was ignited.

“A few days after that meeting, I made my first national team while doing my first open water 10k—I had only done 5ks up until that point,” he recalls. “I placed fourth and made the team to swim the 25K at the 2009 world championships in Rome. That was the beginning of my serious open water career.”  

His short resume includes several appearances (and medals) at the open water world championships, a 10th-place finish in the 10k at the 2012 London Olympics, and a 2016 victory at the prestigious 32K Traversee du Lac St. Jean. “That race was my swan song, for several different reasons,” says Meyer.

Nowadays, as a professional living and working in Boston, a typical workweek could involve three or so trips to the gym pool, a half hour or hour workout per visit. But on weekends, Meyer returns to his roots. “On either a Saturday or a Sunday, I’ll get up, sit in my garden and drink a cup of coffee for a while and mosey over to either Walden Pond or Stiles Pond,” he says. “I usually bring my hammock with me, bring some company from time to time, some speakers, something to eat and drink because I like to make it a full-day thing.”

In addition to his routine, his relationship with the water has changed. “I don’t have to go to swim practice, I don’t have to get up at 5:30, I’m not training for something,” he says. “Now that that’s gone, I’ve been able to grow my relationship with the water. Just gliding through and feeling a nice full armful of water, it just feels good.”

To the uninitiated, open water swimming may seem like a mere survival skill (cue the “Jaws” theme). To Meyer, it’s meditation. “It’s almost like my yoga,” he says. “I have a pretty slow tempo, a pretty long stroke. I take one stroke about every second, so for me it’s almost like repeating a mantra. You get into this Zen-like state where it’s the same thing over and over.”

Communion with nature—with a side of mental clarity—is a great payoff for an athlete who is still looking for a robust workout. “I’ve lifted weights, I’ve gone for runs, and it doesn’t quite do it for me like a good, strong swim does,” he says. 

“Sometimes in the middle of a swim, I will take a pause and float out in the middle of the pond and just take a look around and have this feeling of, man, there’s no place I’d rather be, this is really beautiful. It’s just the best high out there for me. Nothing really beats it.”