Off these feet (Part 3): Chicken or fish?

I’ve always been somewhat scared of the water. I know how to swim. I can get from one end of the pool to the other and maneuver for short distances in a lake or the ocean. But I would harbor varying degrees of anxiety doing it. I was a chicken.

I hated feeling this way. It limited my enjoyment of the natural world, and now that I am a mother of boys who have no fear of the water, it limits my ability to keep my kids safe or at least have fun with them. I needed to set things right.

In July I signed up for evening adult swim classes for a week — one hour a day for five days. The morning of day one, I got a call from the instructor. I expected to hear that class was canceled due to underenrollment. Instead she told me that because I was the only person enrolled, I could pick a more convenient time to have the lessons if I wanted, and, yes, they would be one on one. Panic. I should have been thrilled but all I could think was that I did not want all that attention on me.

The place I grew to know well
pool

Day one of the lesson: I met my instructor. Her name was Anna and she was a competitive swimmer through high school and college. She also coordinated all the summer swim lessons for our neighborhood recreation center. Teaching qualifications – check. She asked about me. I told her about my panic attack in Donner Lake last summer 20 yards into my swim (basically I got early stage hypothermia, felt like I had a piano on my chest, and could not get any power in my limbs). So my goal, I told her, was not to be in that position again. I wanted get better at swimming, to feel comfortable doing it, and ultimately, to do a triathlon. She responded that the first step was to get a wet suit if I wanted to attempt Donner again. The rest she would help me with. She asked me to swim a freestyle lap so she could assess me. When I finished, she said I was actually better than some students she has had who had triathlons under their belt. Huh. Who woulda thunk it? She gave me tips on improving my freestyle then moved to breast stroke, which she was excited to work on because most triathletes use it as a fallback when they need a break. It turned out the breast stroke was the farthest thing from a break for me. It is powered by all the areas where I am weak: chest, upper back, abdomen, glutes and inner thighs. I also had been doing it all wrong, breathing at the wrong time, pulling my arms back the wrong way. What a mess.

Day two: I rushed through 8:30 a.m. drop offs at soccer camp, then rushed home to get my swim stuff. With 10 minutes to go before my lesson, I plopped my gear in the back of my SUV, went to close the tail gate and heard a loud BONK! Just as I pondered where that noise came from, a dull ache came over my skull. That bonk was the sound of the corner of the tail gate door slamming down on my head. I touched the spot that the pain radiated from, looked at my fingers, and saw blood. I called Anna, “Um, I’m sorry to do this but I think I have to cancel today…,” explaining my predicament. She understood, hoped everything was okay. Then I went upstairs to look in the mirror. Yep, definitely still bleeding. I got on the Internet, googled “head laceration treatment.” I wanted to know if I needed to see a doctor or if I could just put antibiotic and a band-aid on it. The rule of thumb, apparently, is if the cut is longer than 1 1/2 inches and “smiles” (gives way and curves) when pinched, you need to seek medical attention. Dang, I thought. How was I going to get this done and pick up my kids in three hours?

Day three: Seven staples, a good night’s rest, and a swim cap later, I was back at the pool. The nurse told me I could swim as long as I covered my head and kept the suture dry. The order of the day was more freestyle, working on turning my body to face the opposite direction as the reaching arm (not staying flat), keeping the hand of the reaching arm close enough to graze the side body from hip to armpit, then extending the arm as far forward as possible before pulling back, not spreading my fingers apart while doing all this, and keeping the legs lifted as close as possible to the surface of the water (not letting them drag down). I also worked on breast stroke fixes — snapping the legs together so that they touch and shooting the arms straight ahead quickly after the pullback.

Day four: I was sore. My chest and inner thighs killed, evidence of having swum more breast stroke in 72 hours than I had my entire life. Anna reminded me that the only way to get over the soreness is to get the muscles accustomed to doing the work. So we did more breast stroke. Then she figured she’d give me a break and try out a couple fun things. Well, unlike the breast stroke, where I felt I had some potential to improve, two swimming skills my body simply was not designed for were the side stroke and flip turns. The side stroke was a sinking exercise for me. And my flip turns came out lopsided every time. I was so hopeless, it was comical. “So when you’re doing a triathlon, you’ll want to stick to the freestyle,” Anna advised.

Day five: We went to the back stroke. On the demo lap, I rocketed across and back, realizing something odd — it felt like no effort. I asked Anna, “That felt easy – why?” She chuckled and said, “Because you’re a runner. That stroke is powered by legs, not arms.” Eureka – I found my fallback stroke! If only I had eyes on top of my head.

Make up lesson: Anna gave me an extra day because of the day two debacle. We reviewed freestyle and breast stroke. Both felt more natural now. My rhythm was still off for breast stroke but I felt nimble and lithe doing freestyle. “You look comfortable and you’re actually getting fast. Remember to slow down to a pace where you can keep swimming longer,” Anna reminded me. Yes, of course; basic endurance strategy. She videotaped me doing freestyle and proudly announced that I had improved by leaps and bounds in just a week. I graduated. Frankenfish (yes, the staples were still in my head) was freed to practice swimming on her own.

I needed no egging to go to the pool. First of all, the Summer Olympics were happening at the time and Team USA swimmers were sweeping up medals left and right. When you see folks swim so powerfully and elegantly, it takes your breath away. It makes you love the sport. What’s more, the pool became my refuge. It was a warm, refreshing and peaceful place to retreat to after a hot grueling run. Swimming was also something new and therefore interesting. I had no expectations and therefore could go easy on myself. Every lap in the pool was a personal best. That’s the beauty of trying new things. You can only get better at it.

My eight-year-old still swims better than me (he’s the one who did the kiddie triathlon this summer), but at least I feel like the swimming pool is my friend. Next I need to make friends with the open water. I’ll save that for next summer. This chicken might one day become a fish after all.

To be continued in Part 4: Tough as trails

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