The process of learning a new discipline in triathlon takes time. There’s the experimental phase in which you simply try running, riding or swimming the first time. That might bring the thrill of trying something new, but also the frustration of having a hard time trying to improve.
Masters coach Chris Colburn captured me checking my watch between intervals.
For example, I love working with people learning the running trade. I’ve coached the sport many times over the years, and offer more than 40 years of experience as a competitive distance runner. So for me, the excitement in helping others comes from identifying problems they can avoid in the learning process.
This is true for people who coach swimming as well. Most are happy and excited to share their experience. But it’s a different process. Because while running is done on land, and the effort is difficult at times, you aren’t exactly at risk of sinking when you’re running over the ground. And let’s face it, not too many people actually fall over while learning to run. You can just stop.
Swimming is a different animal entirely. Pool time comes with the obligation to actually stay afloat. Really rookie swimmers need to start with this simple principle: keep your head above water.
It still astounds me that you can submerge a baby in water and they’ll not suffocate or drown. No fears. The innocents instinctively know from wallowing around in the womb not long before… how to navigate underwater.
So we must ask ourselves: Does the experience of swimming as an adult recall any of those tiny instincts? Hard to tell. When I see my fiance in the water, how natural and smooth she moves, I feel as if there is something aquarian in her soul.
Only when we grow up and develop fears by association do we struggle so much in the water. One could see that as an allegory for life as well. We see and hear others expressing fears and we might see fit to adopt them. Or, some traumatic experience exposes the raw nerves of the inner conscience and a phobia develops. People spend lifetimes in the grip of these fears. Some can be cured. Some cannot.
And in that context, some folks absolutely dread the act of swimming. They either miss the opportunity to learn as a child or find some other excuse to avoid it their entire lives. The water thus frightens them. Even the Sundance Kid perched on that cliff above a canyon stream had to shirk his fears and jump into the water after admitting, “I can’t swim.” But that was as much allegory as a literal statement. The entire movie was about the act of facing fears in life, love and relationships. Sometimes you choose to jump on in. At other times, you have no choice. In either case, you are forced to act.
We must maintain empathy for the fears of others. The great religions of the world are heavily focused on helping people overcome fear in all phases of life. Isaiah 41:10
So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.
Fears alone are never the foundation for personal progress in any category of life.
Entire nations can be caught up in the grip of fear, especially after some traumatic event such as Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 tragedy. In those times, it’s as if everyone is swimming in the same cold pool of fear. Leaders are the lifeguards in those moments, translating the meaning of those moment, and promising to assuage our fears.
In the wake of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese navy, President Franklin Roosevelt spoke boldly when he said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” He recognized the importance of confronting fears first, then taking action.”
By contrast what George W. Bush said after 9/11 did little to assuage fear, but instead encouraged it: “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime.”
It is much too easy to mistake bluster for courage in such times, and fear for patriotism. Because what if you did not accept the administration’s course of action in the aftermath of that tragedy? Did that make you the enemy as well? Thus Bush put millions of Americans in a position of conflict with their own nation. I was one of those people who recognized the falsehood of the tales constructed to justify going to war in Iraq (not with Iraq). In that period, I stood against our own government in that respect. My conservative friends tried to lecture that I was “weak” in my liberal position, and “unpatriotic.” Having been proven right about my doubts over the misdirection and tragedies that resulted in Iraq, I have no fears of resisting further acts of bluster and false courage now on display in the political process. In turbulent times, the pool in which we swim is not a comforting place to be. But you either choose to swim your own path or get drowned in falsehoods and waves of fear.
All my life I’ve lived with an inherent form of anxiety that is wired into my brain. Through long consideration and acknowledgment of this innate wiring, I’ve come to recognize the ruminative quality of thoughts that feed or increase chronic anxiety. I’ve become far more mentally healthy through a cognitive approach to personal, political and religious considerations. But breaches of justice and equality still piss me off. That trait of righteous anger I will never relinquish. It is not liberal guilt, but simple conscience that drives the desire for social justice. In fact, it is our job to live according to principles that honor the equality and assuage the fears of others. Anything else succumbs to the temptations of money, power and corruption.
Through long experience in the workplace and world, I’ve also come to recognize fears in its many forms, and why they come about. The very personal act of overcoming fear is a practiced art. Learning to swim again is just such a journey.
That’s that part of learning how to swim again that feels so real. Conquering fears is a critical part of every person’ personal growth. It’s taken a little longer than I’d like to get confident in the water, and I’ve yet to swim a mile continually. But that is still my goal this summer. The local outdoor pool shut down this weekend with the lifeguards going back to school, but the indoor pool is just as good a place to build endurance.
And, there is an opportunity coming up in a few weeks to participate in an Olympic triathlon. So we’ll see how it goes.
In the meantime, I’m finally signing up for the Masters Swim program at Marmion high school. It’s an early morning commitment that requires a bit of change, because the swimmers in the program gather at 5:30 a.m. before school opens for the day. I’m an early riser by nature, but heading to the pool and swimming two or three times a week is a real commitment at that hour. My fiance does it with panache. So I have a role model. Damnit.
Chris Colburn coaches the program and his sweetheart has improved so much in swimming this past year she is headed for long course nationals out in Portland. I shared a lane with her this Monday morning and enjoyed watching her smooth swimming form. Nikki Marasco has lost a bunch of pounds and gotten to be a really good swimmer through persistent dedication. She’s also a mother of six or seven kids. I’ve lost count because they’re so active and vibrant it’s like counting chicks in a pen. It hasn’t been easy for her to make all this happen. Next she’s going to learn to ride her new triathlon bike, and I’ve offered to help her learn.
Nikki Marasco and Chris Colburn with some creative progeny in the background.
The first thing I realized upon entering the pool this Monday morning is that I’ve learned to like the water much more than I used to. The second thing I’ve learned is that I’ve probably been warming up for swimming all wrong.
Typically I’ve been getting into the pool with a swim buoy and freestyling away for 200-400 meters. That’s not bad, but perhaps it’s not allowing my body to fill those corpuscles with life-giving, oxygenated blood. I get out of breath too soon.
So the shorter intervals of 50 and then 25 meters that we used with punctuated rests at the beginning of the workout worked wonders. So by the time the actual workout came around I was far more ready to participate. That gave me the confidence to do the 125 meter repeats in succession. I took more than 20 seconds rest between, but it all still worked pretty well. Other than the bathroom break in the middle, I did the entire workout. Yay! I didn’t feel like the loser at the far end of the pool getting away with murder.
Pool time is a strange combination of focus on the workout and letting yourself go into the act of swimming. You still need to count laps in a 25-meter pool, but soon enough that becomes a native instinct.
I’ve also learned there are a couple tweaks that need to be done with my freestyle stroke. My left arm swings a little low, and Coach Tim noted that I was pinching my elbows and impinging my shoulder. In fact, I’d noticed on watching swimmers in the Olympics the difference in how world class swimmers flash through the water. Their windmill strokes were different in form and function than mine. So it was interesting to hear how to refine my stroke for the future.
Then I watched the 10K open water swim in the ocean outside Rio. Unreal. Crazy. Waves and shit. Different world altogether. Not sure that will ever be my goal. Ocean swimming? What am I, made of kelp?
And so it will go. Pool time for the fall and winter and spring. And by next summer, confidence in the open water, wetsuit or not. That’s the goal. I can be a good swimmer with practice, dedication and pool time. I have no fear of that.