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

The drills require meditative focus and precision, which appealed to me. But learning them was like starting over, deleting old patterns while at the same time acquiring new ones, and that was seriously disorienting. I mastered the first drill, sweet spot — lying balanced on your side in the water with your arm outstretched — quickly. Zipper skate, which teaches the proper arm and hand position for freestyle, was no problem either. But I struggled with zipper switch — in which you alternate arms rhythmically with your head facedown. The movement of arm, hand, and shoulder was different from what I knew, and I could barely stroke across the pool. Suddenly I had no clue how to do an activity I’d been practicing for decades. For what seemed like forever (it was probably closer to six weeks), I did nothing but drill and wonder whether I’d be able to actually swim again. I felt as awkward as I ever had in my life.

Then, suddenly, it fell into place. This pattern — mastering something quickly, then struggling with the next step, then figuring it out physically and neurologically rather than cognitively, and finally having it feel so natural I would forget what I used to do — eventually became the norm.

Breathing Easier

Real swimmers now breathe both to the right and the left in freestyle. This wasn’t the case in 1954, when I had a few lessons with a genuine Olympian — Charles Norelius, the 1906 freestyler, who as a genial elderly man taught at a resort my family visited. Back then, I called the stroke the crawl, and I learned to breathe on one side only. As an extremely right-handed person, I can’t do anything on my left side — let alone something as complicated as turning my head, snorting out my nose, opening my mouth, taking a "bite of air," and closing my mouth without half the pool going up my nose. It’s not just frustrating, it’s panic-inducing. Working through my breathing fear and my embarrassment about that fear were my greatest challenges. Every time I struggled, I had to remind myself that my reactions were no reflection on my maturity, sanity, or ability. Being older both hindered and, ultimately, helped me: It took me a while to learn to breathe correctly, but I could talk about the problem and get help from Cari — an approach I certainly wouldn’t have risked in my less-seasoned youth.

After three months, I got over the worst of the breathing panic and began to see the common elements in all the strokes. When I started, I had one lesson every other week, but soon I couldn’t wait that long between lessons.

Now I dream about swimming. When I’m frustrated with my various injuries, I remember and anticipate the joy I feel once I’m wet and weightless. And when my husband watches me do the butterfly — "You look just like an Olympian," he tells me — I feel a dolphinlike smile turning up the corners of my mouth.

A Swimmer Is Reborn

It’s been a year and a half since I got back into the pool, and I’m staying for life. I buy bathing suits in multiples; they fall apart in three months. They’re still the same size, but I appreciate the more powerful muscles in my arms and back and the feeling of strength and ease that moving mindfully in the water gives me. The feeling persists when I’m back on land.

I’ve discovered that I’ve got a real knack for the breaststroke — it’s the one that makes me feel most like a sea creature. Recently TI inventor Terry Laughlin, now my primary coach, told me, to my astonishment and pride, "I’ve got nothing more to teach you — the rest is details." He also thinks I have the makings of a distance freestyler, and I’m beginning to agree. Finally, I’ve gotten comfortable (and accomplished) enough to let one of my lessons be taped for a training video.

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