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.

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.

Since what swim teachers tactfully call my buoyancy (meaning that my generous derriere sticks out of the water when I do the dolphin kick) limits the efficiency of my butterfly, I’ve started working on a hybrid stroke called the butterfrog (butterfly arms with a frog kick), which is less euphonious and streamlined but more suited to a midlife body. It’s legal for racing at adult and masters levels, and I may decide to try the kick. I like having an alternative, but I haven’t given up on turning my legs into the fishtail that I love so much.

The feeling I get from swimming is different from any other physical activity. This is the first time I’ve experienced the intense power of a real athlete. I never thought that I would. At no time in life could it be more welcome. For my 60th birthday this month, I’m going to get an Endless Pool of my very own.

If You Want to Get Totally Immersed…

Total Immersion Swimming is ideally suited to midlife bodies — beginners and more advanced swimmers alike. For more information, call 800-609-7946 or visit Total Immersion’s Web site. Private or semiprivate instruction with TI-trained coaches (see the Web site for listings) is available in many cities and countries; hourly rates typically range from $50 to $100.

Originally published in MORE magazine, June 2007.

First Published Mon, 2009-04-06 18:09

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