Returning to swimming

by Rob Tiller

Swimming has always seemed to me  like it should be easier and more fun. Our distant ancestors were all water creatures, and our bodies are mostly water, so it seems like something we’d enjoy naturally.  Immersion in a different element is naturally exciting.  Water does all kinds of interesting things, and splashing in it is fun.  But actually traveling under human power for any distance is hard.  I find it much more difficult than running.  Also, it evokes in a small way a primal fear (drowning).

I first took swimming lessons at age 9 at a YMCA.  Initially, and in retrospect, it seemed strange that they required the little boys to take the class naked.  The stated explanation for this was that it was for hygienic reasons.  More likely, of course, it was a matter of some adult pedophiles getting a thrill.  At any rate, I was never molested and had no lasting ill effects.  I was initially successful in the class, and won the prize for holding my breath under water the longest.  But moving from one end of the pool to the other was hard.  Our graduation ceremony involved swimming the crawl up and back for our assembled families (with suits, despite the possible risk to health).  I hit the exhaustion/panic wall on the last (that is, the second) length and had to get towed out with the long handled hook.  It was an embarrassing disappointment.

But I did not give up.  I participated in the swim team at our pool at age 13.  The practices were exhausting, but it was good to be with other kids and talk to girls.  I’m confident I never won a race,  but I believe I collected at least one ribbon for third place in the breaststroke.

The next summer, at Boy Scout camp, I obtained the swimming merit badge and undertook the mile swim with my friends Jimmy and Don.  The mile was across the Raven’s Knob lake and back, and was done with a row boat escort.  Jimmy and Don quickly determined that we could possibly set a new camp record, and we began to pass other groups and their boats.  Unfortunately, I hit the wall again, and had to limp along with some side stroking to regroup.  We didn’t set a record.  I’ve always felt I let the team down on that one.

Perhaps that feeling of a job undone was always in the back of my mind.  Certainly I’ve always believed that swimming was a healthy exercise, with low risk to the joints and large benefits to the cardiovascular system.  Last January I decided to take the plunge and do some regular swimming in the pool at Lifetime Fitness in Cary.  I quickly discovered that it was every bit as exhausting as I remembered.  My heart felt quickly reached the red zone.  I set a goal of swimming a mile.  Two or three times a week I got up at 5:30 a.m., headed to the pool, and pushed ahead.

This summer I observed a group of master’s swimmers at the pool being coached by a young fellow who seemed both knowledgeable and pleasant, and I asked him if he’d give me some private instruction.  He agreed, and ultimately I took four lessons.  It was a good move.  There are definitely better and worse ways to move through the water.  I learned some better ones.  It didn’t suddenly become easy, but it was definitely more pleasant.

My coach advised the following approach to the 1500:  25 meters (one length) and 5 seconds rest, 50 meters and 10 seconds rest, 75 and 15 seconds, 100 and 20 seconds, 125 and 25 seconds, 100 and 20 seconds, 7 and 15 seconds, 50 and 10 seconds 25 and 5 seconds, and repeat till finished.  It worked.  Last week I set a personal best for 1500 meters of 33:07.

I’ve had a small taste of the satisfaction of greater efficiency and grace in the water, but it’s still true for me that the best thing about a hard swim is the aftermath.   The endorphins are terrific.  It feels good.