I’ve been at the pool three days a week lately, triathlon training, and I developed this sort of confidence that maybe I was getting to be a pretty good swimmer. Despite my affinity for water, up until recently, I considered myself a not-so-good swimmer. I hit the pool regularly for a whole year leading up to the two sprint triathlons I completed last summer, and I still felt as though I was half drowning on race day (partly because I was). Regardless, I got through the 700-meter swim portion of the race – twice. But you can’t ‘get through’ a two-kilometer swim, the half ironman distance I’m now training for; or rather, you can, but it’s not advisable. I want to feel like a mermaid in the water, otherwise I’m not going to be able to ‘get through’ the ninety-kilometer bike ride and half marathon to finish the ironman.
With a coach, I now have so much of a better idea of how to prepare in the water – of course I do! I used to jump in a lane and swim for distance, completely ignoring technique, interval training, and speed work. It’s swimming! I’ve been doing it since I was a kid! What’s there to know? As it turns out, a lot. The mermaid bit, those aren’t my words. Let me explain.
So I’m hitting the pool about three days a week, as per my coach’s plan, and feeling pretty good about myself. If you ever want to feel good about yourself, this is how you go about doing it: look the part. Get properly outfitted, in other words. I bought myself two snazzy new suits that actually fit me correctly and goggles that were made for my face. I also snagged a cap that has extra room for hair pulled back in a bun – genius design! About the suits, bathing suits should fit you like a second skin. I had no idea. I was wearing a bathing suit that was about four sizes too big for me before, I kid you not. The bathing suits I squeeze myself into now feel like they were made for my kids’ dolls, but the kind woman at the swimwear speciality store assures me they are the correct fit. I can tell you without a doubt that tighter is better when it comes to swimwear, especially after a friend recently shared her swim story with me. On her first day back to the lane swim in years, she got eyeballed for choosing the ‘medium speed’ lane (there are complicated pool politics) and rudely asked, “are you sure you’re fast enough to swim in this lane?” As if that wasn’t bad enough, poor woman, determined to prove the bugger wrong (in yesteryears she was a competitive swimmer) she took off down the medium lane, determined to make a good pace. On the way back, in the middle of her exertions, both of her breasts popped out. I’m sorry, there is no redemption in this story – my friend hasn’t gone back – but we will honour the incident as a cautionary tale, the moral being to wear a suit that fits snug in the chest.
One of my weekly swim training sessions is part of a Masters swim class. The beauty of these classes is there is a coach on hand, and we are presented with a set amount of drills. There’s a camaraderie with the other swimmers and best of all, you usually have a lane to yourself or with only one other person. At the onset of the Masters swim class I was feeling good about myself because a) I looked the part, with my skin-tight suit and shiny new goggles, and b) I was finding Masters relatively easy, while some of my peers seemed to find it hard. To give you a sense, the harder workouts my triathlon coach provided including almost an extra kilometer of swim work in the same amount of time as the one-hour Masters class. On top of that, at Masters we are allowed to wear fins. If you aren’t familiar with the awesome power of fins let me tell you this: they give you turbo power in the water. It’s like going from a rowboat to a yacht. I flew through the first few weeks of Masters swim and didn’t I feel so high and mighty. Then it happened.
On the third week of Masters swim class we got a new coach. At the end of class, he suggested the workout he was assigned to give us seemed too easy for some of us and that he would be stepping it up a notch the following week. I clearly thought he was talking to me. I approached him when the other swimmers went to get changed and told him I was training for an Ironman and he said he’d help me get there. Surprisingly, he made no comment about what an outstanding swimmer I was.
Fast forward to the next week. The new coach gives me a few pointers about my stroke. I’m not getting it. I’m not lifting my elbows high enough out of the water, but my arm is going too high. This is really tricky to try and fix when you’re trying to keep up with a pack of swimmers and the pace of the workout, but I did my best. I couldn’t help but notice for the first time that whenever we did a drill holding a flutter board and using only our legs, I was generally the first one across by quite a few seconds (yay running legs!), but when we threw arms into the equation, many swimmers were finishing close to the same time as me and some before me. Some who weren’t wearing fins like I was.
Here it comes. “Hang back a minute,” the new coach said, as he sent the others on their way. “I want you to watch her technique over there, do you see how her arms and hands barely skim the surface of the water? You are lifting your arms up way too high.” I stood there and I watched, and I learned from someone who was doing the work better than I was.
“I am going to record you so you can see what you’re doing,” new coach told me.
Oh. My. God. So that’s what I look like?
I was grateful for the new coach’s honesty. He was so kind about it too, not making me feel bad in the slightest in front of the others. Clearly, he doesn’t want me to drown in the two-kilometer portion of the race, either.
I walked up to the woman afterwards who was oblivious at having been my good example of how to swim, and I told her in a friendly tone, “he told me to watch you.” I was pleasantly surprised when she explained that I will know that what I am doing in the water is right because I’ll feel like a mermaid. I want to feel that way. I’m working toward that ease and delight. I told her my frustrations with my arms, and she explained that when she gets tired, she tells herself, “think eleven and one, arms at eleven and one” that is where she aims in front of her. I found that to be a helpful piece of advice. I regularly find it helpful to defer and inquire of those who possess more skill than I do. In other words, it’s beneficial, as a learner, to stay humble. Keep yourself in check.
After giving a talk about Down syndrome in a school with my friend Emily, where hundreds of kids screamed, clapped and cheered for us, I hit up the pool. Nearing the completion of the hour-long lane swim, I was one of the only ones still out there, if not the only one. An older gentleman who has been kind to me in the past sat there watching me, and as I took my ten second break between sets, he called out, “I don’t know how you do it!” which made me laugh. I felt like ducking my head under the water. “She’s a wonder woman!” he called out to no one in particular, as I blasted off away from him, propelling myself through the water to the other side of the pool. On my way back, he called out one last sentiment, “You deserve a gold medal!” And with that, he left, leaving me to figure out the mechanics of my stroke.