"Nothing is more terrible than activity
I didn't learn how to swim until 1997. I was 29 years old.
Since then I've become a pretty darn good swimmer and I mentioned
this recently to a group at an ocean swim clinic. The response
was more than I expected and it was suggested to me that I
share the tale. Let me first explain how bad it really was!
My Grandmother, Gertrude, was so afraid of the water that
she took only baths. She refused to shower because she was
scared to have water in her face. That kind of fear can really
affect a child, I took her lead and developed some deeply
rooted water terror early on. My older brother, who often
tired of my inadequacies, took it upon himself to teach me
to swim by throwing me into the deep end of our home town
pool. The panicked doggie paddle that I used to survive that
incident at age 6 wasn't to different from the stroke I used
nearly 20 years later in the 1996 Santa Monica sprint race
- my first triathlon. It all had to change and in January
of 1997 I decided I wanted to take command of the water. I
probably should have called a family therapist but instead
I called the YMCA in the Pacific Palisades.
My first day at masters was brutal. I was placed in lane
one (their slowest) along with a septuagenarian and woman
deep in her third trimester. I had a hard time keeping up
with their pace. It didn't matter if we were to swim a 50
or a 100 or set of consecutive laps - I had to stop after
every length and wait for my heart rate to drop below 205
before I could go on. It took some time for me to understand
what it takes to swim well, but that comprehension is what
leads to good technique and good technique is what makes one
In every good athlete's past are certain names, specific
times or big milestones that mark development. Some of those
that haunt my brief swimming history include
Paul Henne. Paul's is a swim coach who, early on, told me
"Ian, you have to learn to be able to swim from one end of
the pool to the other as slowly as you could walk". That really
struck a cord with me. I was so busy trying to swim "hard"
that I hadn't considered the alternative: swimming easy. Swimming
easy is the key to good swimming - learn what it takes to
swim slowly and calmly and you will develop what it takes
to swim fast.
Another is Will Douglas, Will is a swim coach who was fanatical
about "stretching it out". He was the first to wake me up
to getting the body as long as possible. I sailed a bit as
a teen and I knew that the fastest boat had the longest hull
- so his words rang true, speed comes from reaching, rolling
and do everything one can to get long.
Scott Tinley added to that element when he wrote on my schedule
one week "DPS". It took me a days and days of phone calls
to get him to elaborate and explain that DPS meant Distance
Per Stroke. That was the first time I counted my strokes per
25 yards. The logical goal is to be able to swim a decent
time (ie. not too far off your normal pace) and swim it with
fewer strokes. That yields greater efficiency.
Terry Laughlin made a huge impact when I attended his Total
Immersion camp. Never had so much attention be put to me about
swimming on ones side. For hours at that camp I floated on
my side without swimming a stroke. I kicked hundreds of yards
that weekend and not one of them was flat on my stomach. Terry
taught me about the power stored in my hips and how to access
speed by timing the movement of the hips from one side to
the other. It changed everything I was doing and I haven't
kicked with a board since.
Escape From Alcatraz June '97 was a breakthrough. I had
moved up to lane 3 or 4 in my masters group by swimming three
days a week and demanding the attention of the coach everyday.
I felt like I could make the swim from "The Rock" to Crissy
Field. I exited the water with other athletes that I knew
to be fast than I. That swim gave me such confidence that
when I returned to masters I dropped into lane 6 (their fastest)
and worked my ass off to hold on to the time standards that
Mike & Rob's August '97 was a race that had me shaking in
my boots. The race was on a Sunday and during the week prior
a huge swell was hammering the shores of Southern California.
My swimming had improved but the surf still terrified me.
I went to see Will Douglas while he was guarding on State
Beach in Santa Monica. He took his phone off the hook in his
tower and we approached the shore break that was well over
head and powerful. Will showed me how to dive to the bottom,
grab sand and pull myself out the back of the wave. After
a couple of ins and outs I had gain confidence because I had
survived and felt good about that. I still had trepidation
as we arrived at the race site. I parked and ran across the
beach to check the surf. It was dead flat - Lake Pacific.
It made me think of what Mark Twain said about worrying: "Most
of my biggest troubles in life never even happened".
Ironman '97 I'd never swan 2.4 miles non stop and thought
it would take forever - 1:09 Every Olympic Dist Race seemed
to have me held at 25 minutes until I decided I could handle
the rough housing that went on up front then I went 22 minutes.
There are breakthroughs out there in swimming but you have
to be dedicated to find them. Take a clinic once a year, get
put on tape and watch yourself swim, observe the best swimmers
in your pool underwater and emulate, and above all get coaching.
I'll see you in the water.