Back in the Swim

Learning to swim: When injuries made exercise painful, this over-40 woman took the plunge — and unleashed her inner athlete.

By Jeanne Safer
Jeanne Safer

Learning to Swim All Over Again

I learned to swim at the same time I learned to walk, by toddling directly into the Gulf of Mexico 57 years ago. My mother used to say I stayed in hot water ever after, something I recalled as I submerged myself in the 86-degree chlorinated water of an Endless Pool, which has a built-in current. I was about to start learning to swim all over again.

I’d had informal coaching from a lifeguard at my health club years ago, but swimming well had taken on an unexpected urgency. Over the past five years, a series of orthopedic injuries — heel pain, metatarsal arthritis, wobbly kneecaps and shoulders — had rendered most forms of exercise painful or difficult. Long walks, Pilates classes and, hardest of all, belly dancing (which I had studied for 15 years) were not part of the foreseeable future. I longed for the fluidity and freedom I could no longer experience on land. I signed up for a refresher course in the basics, but I really wanted to learn the glorious and gravity-defying butterfly stroke. I confess I picked my school, Total Immersion, because of its logo: a swimmer inside a dolphin’s body, promising piscine ease and grace. "Discover your inner fish" is one of the school’s catchphrases. I wanted that.

Beginner’s Mind and Body

My pulse quickened and my hands got cold as I was about to get back in the water. I wasn’t bad, I thought, for an amateur — friends had complimented me on my swimming — but what would a professional, someone who coached triathletes and Olympic contenders, think? I was going to be exposed on several levels. Every flaw of my physique as well as my technique would be videotaped by an underwater camera and projected on a TV monitor for my coach to critique.

My nose-ringed, curly-haired instructor, Cari, was young enough to be my daughter. When I told her I was interested in form and pleasure, not speed, she said, "I love that. Too often, getting faster is the only thing people care about."

Cari’s warmth put me at ease, although the cold eye of the camera took some getting used to. "I see a lot that’s good here," she said after we viewed the tape of my first session of freestyle. "Your body’s balanced, your head position is good, and the coordination’s almost there." "I have trouble with the breathing," I said apologetically. "Everybody does," she assured me, to my great relief. Then she had me videotape her, so I could compare her stroke with mine. I saw more precision and economy in her movements, even though I couldn’t yet identify the specifics.

After our first lesson, Cari remarked on how quickly I picked things up; all those years of dance classes hadn’t been wasted. The teacher’s pet in me was thrilled, but the perfectionist worried how Cari would react if I didn’t learn a new skill quickly, or at all. Happily, she was nonjudgmental. The impatience was mine alone.

Reforming My Form

The Total Immersion method is more radical than I imagined, more of a makeover than a touch-up. It’s based on a series of drills, with evocative names like shark-fin and sweet spot, that teach the skills (such as body balance, head position, arm position and breathing) that make up all the strokes, as well as the movements specific to each of them. With TI, rather than kicking your legs and pulling with your arms, as most of us do when we swim, you learn to use your body in an integrated way, like fish do. Power is generated through weight shifts, not muscle, and movement originates in your core, just as in Pilates.

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