Saturday, June 16, 2007


I've never been a lap swimmer. I grew up with a pool, but we mostly played Marco Polo and other games, got those weighted rings that stand up on the bottom of the pool and swam through them, tried to see how many sticks we could pick up without surfacing for air, that kind of thing. But I never was any good at freestyle swimming, let alone anything harder like the butterfly.

I had to swim freestyle for high-school phys ed, and I dreaded it. Even now I can visualize the high school pool with its eerie green light and the echoes of feet slapping on the tile and the over-chlorinated smell, and it makes me anxious. I really didn't enjoy that at all.

The last time I swam a lap was at Dartmouth, for my swim test my freshman year. I passed. Then I didn't swim another lap for a decade.

I went on a few dates with this guy who is a lifeguard, diver, and swimmer, and he agreed to teach me how to swim in exchange for me teaching him a thing or two about rock climbing. Then the dating didn't work out, but my curiosity was piqued. My friend Ali told me she was headed to Stacy Pool just a mile or so from my house to do some swimming for her upcoming triathlon, and I figured, hey, I've gotta start somewhere. Ali's friend Erik picked up some goggles for us on his way over and I was off and swimming.

That was a rough day. I'd swim a single lap, sputtering and choking my way along, and then have to stop, my heart going like a jackhammer. Then I'd wait several minutes and do another. My breathing was uncoordinated, my stroke was haphazard. Still, I enjoyed it! I could feel things coming together just a little bit, more than they ever had before.

Since that day I've been to Stacy pool three more times. Today I biked over and the pool was marvelously empty thanks to the looming rain clouds, and I had a lane to myself for much of the time. Over the week I've been reading a bunch of websites about proper freestyle form, and really focusing on paying attention while I swim.

Today something clicked. I swam over a mile, stopping only a handful of times. In less than twenty minutes I swam a full third of a mile without stopping!

I still struggle with breathing on my left side, so most of the swimming today I did breathing entirely to my right. I think the breathing thing has two components: first, it feels "wrong," like interlocking your fingers or crossing your legs the "wrong" way, so it's not as smooth, and once I start gasping for breaths it's all over. Second, alternating breathing means only taking a breath every three strokes, and my body really wants me breathing every other stroke right now.

I think the latter will get better in time, and the former will just take work. I swam a couple laps breathing entirely to my left side, and periodically switched for a few breaths during my longer distances, and I'll keep doing that every time I go there until it feels natural.

I credit my yoga practice with this dramatic turnaround, from hating swimming to enjoying it so much I chose it over climbing today. My body awareness has had a massive impact on my ability to pick up the swimming. I can pay attention simultaneously to what my legs are doing, what my torso is doing, and what both arms are doing, pivoting smoothly to breathe while also using as little energy as possible on the arm recovery, then pivoting back down and attentively drawing my other elbow as high as possible for its recovery. It just all feels much more natural, much less overwhelming than I remember.

Of course, now my problem is that I'm trying to simultaneously juggle cycling, bouldering, yoga, and swimming. It was hard enough with 3 sports. We'll see how it goes.



Mike said...

Hey Brian! I majored in swimming in college (literally!) so if you decide you want a little coaching on your stroke let me know.. I used to TA classes at UT etc etc. Struggling with breathing means you arent pulling correctly, straight down instead of in a s-curve..


June 22, 2007 3:37 AM  

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