Swimming is Teaching me about Learning

Story time.  I want you to experience my joy of learning to swim and the fascination with how my body is just learning to “do it”. Enjoy some fun life reflections along the way.  

The year is 2009 I believe.  The Boyce Park Wavepool was one of the premier social spots in high school as a teen.  One of those places you got to spot out your future bae’s in a setting that allows you to flaunt.  Of course at 17 being in a pool, one of the ways you showed your prowess was being able to swim.  I was fresh from “learning” to swim in a friends pool plus some gym classes I had in 10th grade with a kickboard.  

I was solid, I thought.  But I was hoping really hard that no one was going to ask us, or at least me, to jump in the deep end.  All the cuties hung out by the deep in.  

They did.  And so I ran up & jumped. 

I still remember the laughing freshly.  

They said as soon as I jumped in the air, while others did tricks or just dived properly, I immediately started moving my arms and legs to start swimming mid-air before hitting the water.

I was told I looked like a dog swimming before and after hitting the water.  

That was the last time I tried that.  

I also recall in college I was learning how to swim to do a mini triathlon that featured a timed pool swim.  This swimmer was teaching me how to front crawl/freestyle.  I actually could go down and then back as exhausting as it was.  We had maybe 3 lessons.  

When the day of the triathlon came.  I didn’t show up. 

Oh yeah, then in 2022 I went to Jamaica for my cousin’s wedding.  There’s this waterfall area you can walk up that has a small waterhole.  It’s a 2-3 second slide that leads you underwater for 1-2 seconds and then you pop up.

Yeaaah nah I didn’t do that, I just watched.  And was so annoyed at how fearful I was.  

Sandcastle?  I’ve passed plenty of times.  And the times I have gone, absolutely no to the big slides that go into deep water.

As you have put together, I haven’t had a great relationship with water. 

Now as a full blown adult I’ve decided to take up the call to arms against my fear.  Because I really want to complete a “real” triathlon.  

So, at the beginning of 2023 I’ve begun the physical, mental, and certainly emotional challenge of learning to swim.

Learning to Swim 

There have been a few stages of learning.  It’s truly beautiful to see how the body learns and becomes more efficient as well as how my sense of awareness have grown.

This journey starts in Jan 2023.  I had set up a swimming lesson with Carrie, a member I was training at the time, who in the course of convo told me that she used to swim back in the day!

So I showed up to Carnegie Homestead pool to meet with her for my first swim.  I expected to be hitting laps..

For the next hour we worked on..holding my breath in the water and exhaling.  I hate to say it but that was a challenge for me.  When we tried back floating I almost lost my mind.  I had a long way to go.  I might have drowned if we did laps. 

In February I mostly practiced calmly exhaling underwater.  I also begin working on my stroke.  I should note, I’m referring to front crawl/freestyle.  I don’t know any other swim strokes.  I recognized that I needed to reach, put my hand in the water, swing it under, and kick.

I was practicing without goggles so I had no sense of direction.  I also would practice without breathing because it was a 15m pool and I didn’t know how to roll and breathe. 

Noe, a friend and member from the gym, offered me a swim lesson in around late Feb/early March.  She’s a self identified fish and experienced triathlete. 

We did a bunch of drills to work on kick and arm stroke.  I was introduced to a pull buoy which would later become my favorite tool.  We almost reached an agreement where she’d be allowed to gently kick my head down if I kept lifting it so high to breath while drilling.

She opted out of that.  

In March I began in the Kingsley pool and started getting more serious and consistent.

I started (and still am) watching Global Triathlon Network, Effortless Swimming plus a variety of other swimming channels on Youtube to learn about strokes, breathing, drills, and buoyancy.  

I soon after finally, just swam to the other side of the pool.  I was triumphant.  And exhausted.  And mildly embarrassed.

See, one of my HS kids I coach track for at Obama Academy is a lifeguard there. I’m “Coach Donald” so I felt it’d be really embarrassing if said kid needed to come save me.  Her watching me struggle in the pool and then me an hour later going to coach her about running the 400m dash was a humbling life experience.  

Humbling also because she was kind enough to not make slights at practice. 

I was really struggling. 

Over time, I began to calm my breathing.  I started treating breathing like hurdling rhythm in track and it immediately made more sense.  I improved at keeping my head in the water much of the time and slowly improving at not letting my legs drop so much.  My comfort swimming to the deep end (6ft) grew.  It wasn’t until mid March that I actually swam to the other end of the pool.

Soon thereafter at the beginning of April I completed a mini triathlon that Coach Eden held at Chatham.  During the 10 min swim, I completed a whooping 4 laps! I got dead last in the swim, the winner completing 28 laps.  I did not in fact get last overall due to a decent cycle and the 4th best run overall.

I was getting nervous though.  I spent nearly $150 for the spring Might Moraine Man triathlon in May.  To what?  Risk dying?  Get embarrassingly rescued?

I couldn’t (still cant at the time of writing this) swim 100m non stop.  How am I going to swim 750m?  In a lake. And live to tell about it.

I had (have) to step it up. 

All April, I’ve been swimming 2-4 hours a week.  Somehow fitting that in with half marathon training, lifting, and ultimate frisbee.  Not to mention track season and operating GHP during a busy season.  

Through April I’ve had the most dramatic changes happen.  I’ve been using the pull buoy a lot.  That has increased my awareness of my hip and leg height.  My leg kick has become so much more efficient with this tool.  I learned about 2 beat, 4 beat, and 6 beat kicks.  I was a… frantic kick.  Just kicking away without any intention.

I began practicing 2 kicks for every catch phase (putting hand in water).  My fatigue dropped instantly.  I learned to breathe every 3 strokes and then every 2 strokes.  

With my front crawl, I to do reps with and without the pull buoy.  I was able for the first time in mid April go down and back for 50m without stopping.  Mostly due to just wasting less energy.  

Mid-late April, Noe came back to the pool (and Greg came too) to review and help me learn breaststroke.  I’m told I’ll need it for navigation and fatigue management.

I literally almost drowned practicing breaststroke.  

The lifeguard rushed over as I flailed in the 6ft deep water until I found the lane separator.  I burped for several minutes.  

How bad was it?  When I went to relieve myself before starting, my color was light yellow suggesting okay hydration.  

It was clear when I got out of the water!

Sorry reader, I still can’t breast stroke.  Maybe I’ll practice this week. 

But what did happen was a life changing moment - just before my near life ending moment. 

I learned to tread water!

And then learned to float on my back!  Two things I’ve NEVER been able to do.

With all of these techniques that Noe and Greg were trying to teach me and Youtube Academy, you know what I did?

I ran in the water in slow motion.  And perfection.  Well, not perfection but I floated until I got too uncomfortable with my head just barely sticking out.

A lesson in doing what you know well.

While treading at one point I was alone, went and leaned my head back, pulled my legs up and started floating on my back.  Something I was told I was too muscular and thin to be able to do.  I hadn’t really planned to, I just..did it.  I called Noe over ecstatically!  

My life literally changed at that moment.  I could actually be in the water and had technique tools to not die. 

This was actually the weekend before writing this.  

I went to the pool again this week (it’s late April now) and with that confidence in the water.  I went from a total volume of 600m in the pool in 1 hour, to 1100m in 2 hours, to 1300m in just 1 hour.  

I also experimented with breathing every 4 strokes and adjusting my breathing as fatigue adds up.  I’ve been able to physically feel my hand enter the water at my fingertips and propel myself with my hands pulling under and not with my legs.  

I’m beginning to sense the glide.  

I still mistime my breathing and take in water, but I panic “less” and can go back to swimming instead of stopping.  

I can feel what my different body parts are doing in the water. 

Currently, I can only do 50m at a time.  But today, I’m going for 75-100m.  I feel good about not dying in a life guarded community pool that doesn’t have many distractions.  

My current goal is to be able to swim continuously for several minutes as if I were out on a run.  This mostly requires a lot of form clean up and frequently swimming to continue becoming more comfortable in the water.  

With these different learning stages, it’s hard to put into words, but these improvements kind of just, happen, by way of deliberate practice.  

My body just knows better how to kick.  Better how to not let my legs sink.  To actually pull the water.  

And as I write, my upper back muscles have been getting more and more sore!

Now, I’m a month out from this triathlon, and this article will be out before that.  So, cheers to a victorious email in May/June or sheer sadness.  Hopefully nothing worse than embarrassment haha!  

As my fitness grows for constant swimming, I’ll get some practice in May up at Moraine State Park in the lake to get a feel for that.  

Thanks for sharing this experience with me.  Being witness to your own growth in real time is such a beautiful experience.

What have you been working to grow on?  It doesn’t have to be physical.  It could be emotional, intellectual, spiritual, or some other domain.

Share with me, I’d love to learn your journey.  

And if you aren't, what is something you’d like to be growing on?

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