September 29, 2007

Living A Full Body Life

For the first 37 years of my life, I had the swimming talent of a one-winged egret. I could get from one side of the pool to the other, but not without a whole lotta frustrated flapping and general mayhem.

I remember the first triathlon I raced back in 1992. It was one of those nifty backwards races where you run first and swim last. The pool swim was only 400 meters, but it might as well have been 400 miles with the way I was swimming. In fact, I hasten to call it swimming. Flailing might be better. Not waving, drowning.

It felt like a good two hours before I finally reached the end of the swim. I was breathing so hard I wouldn't be surprised if somebody made a mad dash for the defibrillator, just in case my ventricular valves took a turn for the worse. My arms were so incredibly tired, I couldn't even lift myself out of the pool. I tried but, egret-ably, I ended up splashing back into the water.

Assuming that nobody was allowed to help me get out, I figured I'd spend the rest of my life in that pool. I cringed at the thought of the finger wrinkles I'd have to live with.

It took two people to link their arms under my shoulders and hoist me out of that dreadful water. I collapsed on the grass and laid there for awhile, wondering if I'd ever be able to lift my hands again. It was fairly dramatic in my own mind.

Over the next 10 years, my swimming didn't get a heckuva lot better. I managed to swim a little further, but it wasn't any prettier.

In about 1999 I took a swim lesson at the YMCA. You gotta love the YMCA. I won't go into details about the swim instructor I had, suffice to say, I question if he knew how to swim. After watching me splash about the pool for a few minutes, he said "your swimming looks good. Keep it up."

Excuse me? I must have water in my ears. I thought you said that my swimming looks good.

Oh, you did? Don't take this the wrong way but, umm, are you by any chance blind? I mean, like a bat? Can you see anything at all? Because my swimming does not look good. My swimming looks like shit. I know that and I can't even see me swim. I can't believe I'm actually paying you for this.

I walked out of there partly in a huff and partly with an inflated ego. After all, the swimming instructor told me my stroke looked good.

I soon took to ocean swimming. A couple of Friday's each month, a few friends and I would do a one mile jaunt. My friends were fairly decent swimmers, always leaving me in the dust. They'd be breezing along ahead of me, only to have to stop and wait for me every few minutes. I'd finish those swims in a frustrating 40 minutes. It was horrendous. I pushed and pushed but didn't go anywhere. I couldn't keep this up.

Somewhere around 2003 I decided enough was enough.

I called up my coach, Tony, and told him I needed to learn how to swim. Teach me, I said. Great, he replied, we'll do one lesson.

One week later I met Tony at the local park for my one hour swim lesson. At the park, you say? Yes, the park.

There at the park Tony put me through all sorts of arm movements and head turns. I inhaled and exhaled and practiced moving my shoulders in circles. He had me lay down on the baseball bleachers and flail about like I was in the water. But I wasn't. I was on the bleachers.

See how your right arm is moving like that, he'd say every now and then. Do the same thing with your left.

Sure, Tony. Whatever. Where's the water?

Finally he said an hour was up, the lesson was done. Whaaa?!?

What the hell am I paying you so much for? I complained in my best cheapskate tone of voice. I ask you to teach me how to swim and we don't even get in the water?! This is meshugas! (It seemed appropriate, in this instance, to throw out the one Yiddish word I knew even if I wasn't sure about the context.)

Trust me, he said. This is going to help you.

Yeah, whatever.

A few days later, it was Friday. Time to hit the ocean. Same one mile swim with my same friends. The swim started off just like it always did... we jumped into the ocean and swam out to the end of the pier before taking a right hand turn and heading north for one mile.

As we started heading north, something seemed different - it was me. I was actually keeping up with the fastest of my friends and it didn't seem difficult. In fact, it felt great. I kept pushing harder and going faster and it still felt wonderful. Soon I looked up and scanned the water for everybody else. I didn't see them in front of me. Lo and behold, they were behind. Holy cow! I kept swimming. Ten minutes later I looked back and saw them even further back than they were before.

What the hell is going on here?! I didn't quite know, but it felt so good.

A few minutes later I reached the end of the swim and climbed onto shore. I looked back to see my friends still swimming towards me. I glanced at my watch to see my time. Holy moly. I looked back in disbelief. 30 minutes. 30 MINUTES!?! In one week I had cut 10 minutes off my mile swim time. TEN minutes? You hear me?!?! This was huge. H-U-G-E HUGE!

As my friends came up on shore they were incredulous. Holy shit! one of them said. What the hell happened to you?!

I...uh....ummm....err....I'm not sure. I shrugged my shoulders and looked at my watch again, still in a bit of disbelief.

And then it hit me. My lesson came flooding back to me. I remembered myself sprawled out on the baseball bleachers, stroking and kicking and flailing. And I remembered Tony's voice - do that with your left arm, he said. Your left arm.

My left arm, I uttered to my friends like a crash victim emerging from shock. My left arm. I haven't been using my left arm. I started swimming with both arms today. Both arms! I used my left arm!!

My swimming took a huge turn that day - the fateful day that I suddenly realized I could swim faster if I push with both arms. That day was the moment when swimming suddenly emerged as one of my stronger sports. In the next few years I worked harder on my swimming and got better. I improved my stroke and streamlined my body. I shaved another 3 minutes off my time and even won an age group award in my first open water swim race.

I've achieved results beyond anything I could imagine. And it all goes back to that one day in the park where I flailed like an idiot on the baseball bleachers. It's amazing what can happen in the oddest circumstances when you put your whole body into it.


Anonymous said...

Haha, there must be something in the water...I just wrote a BLOG on SWIMMING today too!! Great post!
Jen Harrison

Melissa said...

i think i need to borrow Tony! great job on your improvements - great accomplishments to be proud of! rock on!

1HappyAthlete said...

Can I have tony's contact info?