Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Behind the scenes: Learning to swim at age 26

You guys, I can't believe what I did tonight!

Damien and I just got back from the local swimming pool—my first time in a pool since we visited the London Olympic Pool in July—and something amazing happened.

Seriously, this night made history (in my book).

But perhaps I should take us back to the beginning, so this moment will have some merit when I share it.

For starters, I am not a swimmer.

Er, I'm going to correct myself here: I have never been a swimmer. (The reason I'm catching myself is because I realize the dangers of putting yourself into a box—"not a history person," "not creative," "not a swimmer"—and on the flip side, I know the wonders of identifying yourself as what you want to be: "I am a writer," "I am a healthy eater," etc.)

Either way I word it, I think the situation's clear.

I usually tell people that if I needed to get from point A to point B in water (and A and B weren't too far apart), I could. But I really only feel comfortable in water when my feet can touch the ground.

Elementary school swimming days

My elementary school was right across the street from the local swimming pool, so every year we had a swimming unit in gym class. On the first day of the unit, everyone always had to swim across the short end of the pool so the teacher could watch and then group students by level. And I always dreaded this part, as I'd be the sole kid in class to slowly walk from one end to the other—while everyone's watching.

I remember being totally mystified the day our teacher took everyone into the diving well. We were all holding on to the edge, and then our teacher slowly drifted into the middle. He told us kids to let go of the edge and pretend we were in thick molasses. I watched in disbelief, clinging to the edge, as everyone else magically drifted into the center too. How the heck were they not sinking?! What was this?

That was my first exposure to treading water, and I wouldn't actually be able to do it until sixth grade.

Sixth grade swimming unit

That year, in middle school now, I was in the lowest group—just me and a girl who was afraid to put her face in the water. Imagine my surprise (and delight) when a week later I got reassigned to a regular group.

Sure, I was with the group in the lane against the edge of the pool—not in a middle lane, of course—but I was still with the rest of the class. Finally. I was so proud.

I think spending some time in our cousins' outdoor pool those summers had helped me get "comfortable" treading. One day everything just clicked when I was at their house. Well, not everything. Far from everything, in fact. But I could jump off the diving board, kick to the surface, and tread/"swim" to one of the edges (which aren't far away in a backyard pool like that).

High school and beyond

I escaped my only possible swimming unit in high school thanks to an ear infection the week before, and my mother then writing me a note for a "doctor's appointment" to get it checked out—even though that had already happened. (Thanks Mom!) Pretty sure I signed myself out on the second day of the would-be unit, and that was that.

Needless to say, in the eight years since then, I haven't made much progress. I still love having my feet touch the ground. I did try doing a swim "lesson" with Cathleen a few years ago, but I kept sinking when I should have been floating. She found this really odd, and we wondered if my fused spine (done at age 16) had anything to do with it.

At some point in the last few years, the line "Be more comfortable swimming" got added to my life list. In one of Tim Ferris's books that I read while in Korea (either "4-Hour Workweek" or "4-Hour Body"), he wrote a section about learning to swim in 10 days with the Total Immersion method.

This put the idea in my head that all might not be lost, and I saved the name of the program in Evernote, filing it away for a later day.

Learning to swim in France

Now we get to flash forward to this past spring in Montpellier, France. After playing ultimate at the beach on Mondays, everyone would run into the sea to cool off. I can definitely touch my feet there, so I'd gladly join in.

One day while talking with this guy Damien in the water, it came out that he was really good at swimming, and I really sucked. He said that some day if I wanted to, he could try to teach me some things at the swimming pool in Montpellier. Ah, okay, cool, I said—thinking this would probably never happen.

Then the final week of my French course, he texted asking if I wanted to go to the pool on Friday afternoon. I was a bit hesitant since I'm obviously not comfortable in the water, but I forced myself to be uncomfortable and said yes. This would be a good chance to work towards my goal with someone who was willing, I reasoned, plus I'd probably never see him again, so there was no pressure in that department.

Despite my rationale, I was still really nervous about swimming that afternoon—especially when he texted saying I should bring a water bottle, and that I could borrow a swim cap and goggles from him. (What had I gotten myself into?! How intense was this going to be? Had I accurately described how little I knew when we first talked about it, or did he think I could swim some?)

I showed up at the pool, we spent maybe an hour and a half or two hours in the water, and I survived. I don't think I progressed in anything—it was at times frustrating and overwhelming to try doing everything he said—but I was proud I'd taken a step towards my goal. And Damien was super patient with me, taking the time to explain things in English and French, and not making me feel bad about how little I could "do." (Pretty sure he was shocked at how bad I was, but hid it well!)

And you know how the rest of that story goes—we started dating the next week, and he visited me in London and Madrid in July. While in London, Damien wanted to swim at the Olympic Pool. Turns out he had brought two pairs of goggles and two swim caps with him for his 5-day visit (!), so we went.

I hated being in the long, deep lanes with "real" swimmers, unable to touch the bottom, so eventually I got Damien to come with me into the "kiddie" pool. What a relief to be able to touch the bottom! I still didn't really feel like progress was made. I got exhausted from all the kicking and arm-wailing, but if my now-boyfriend was a swimmer, it'd be much easier to focus on this goal in the coming months.

Learning to swim with Total Immersion

While back in Wisconsin applying for my long-stay visitor's visa, I checked out the Total Immersion book ("Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster, and Easier") and two Total Immersion DVDs from the library. 

It was definitely not the way I'd been taught to swim, and not the way I had previously thought about swimming either. The author said you should be really relaxed and glide through the water when using his methods. I was never relaxed when trying to swim. After reading the book, I made photocopies of some of the pages to bring with me to France.

While watching the DVDs, I took screen shots throughout so I would remember the recommended exercises with visuals. (The DVDs had pretty outdated graphics/videography, but they were still useful for the content—it was clear what you were supposed to do.)

Although I took that step, I didn't get myself to a pool while I was home this August and September. (I did buy three swimming suits on super sale from Old Navy at the end of summer, though, partly to encourage myself to keep at it.)

A visit to the local pool in Palavas

It was nearing a month since I'd moved to France, so I asked Damien the other week when we were going to go swimming. We checked the schedule and prices and decided to go tonight, because on Tuesdays it's open in the evening, from 18:30 to 22:00.

We took the obligatory rinse shower and then put on our swim caps—which have been required at both pools I've been to in France, by the way. (And men's loose swimming trunks that we're used to in the states are forbidden; guys gotta wear speedos.) Then we carried our water bottles, towels, and my photocopied pages (which I'd put in a sheet protector) over to the pool with lanes.

I wanted to go in the smaller, shallow pool, but it was full of people and kids playing, and Damien thought the lanes would be better. You're sharing them with other people (actual swimmers), which is why I didn't originally want to be in the lanes. And the far end is deep, where you can't stand, which obviously didn't thrill me.

I started with the very first exercise—finding the "sweet spot" on your back, "hiding your head" so the water comes up just below your eyes (you wear goggles), arms at your side. Damien pushed at my feet and helped lift them when my legs would fall. On another down and back he pulled my head along slowly down the lane as I did the same "sweet spot" exercise.

After at least two down and backs, I did the same thing—just kicking in sweet spot on my back—but Damien wasn't pulling my head. He was about a foot in front of me the whole time, in case I needed to stop.

I actually didn't realize that he wasn't pulling or guiding until about halfway through. When I got to the edge on the deep end, I asked "You didn't touch me the whole time?!" "No," he confirmed. "Wow!" I said. Then I went back doing the same exercise, and he followed.

I could tell since we got there that Damien was itching to actually swim—not slowly pull me down the lane—so after this first down and back without needing assistance, I told him to go do laps while I grabbed the pages and read the next exercise.

And then I did it all on my own. And I kept continuing through the exercises on my own, down and back, the rest of the time we were there! I was relaxed down in the deep end where my feet didn't touch the bottom! We were there for almost two hours, and I had done at least eight down and backs by myself (Damien says eight minimum, probably more).

Now, I'm not "swimming" yet—I didn't get to any step where your arms are involved—but this was a HUGE accomplishment for me. Doing laps in actual pool lanes where I can't touch the bottom for over half of the length, and being relaxed! (And going swimming on a Tuesday night? What is this life!) For twenty-six years this was unthinkable!

I have high hopes that this method will be the way to get me swimming, and am looking forward to practicing these exercises and progressing to the next steps. (So while it hasn't happened yet, I'd already recommend Total Immersion to anyone who has never been very good at swimming—or even to experienced swimmers who want to get faster.) 

Damien and I are going to buy a 10-entry pass for the local pool to get a little discount, so that'll guarantee going more often. I'll surely keep y'all updated on the progress, but just had to share the big breakthrough that just happened!
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  1. Does this mean we can't use the excuse that "we can't swim because we're a Thering", anymore? :)

  2. OMG !!! I'm 24 years old but i don't know how to swim :)).

    1. If you want to learn, I definitely recommend Total Immersion!