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Taking the plunge: swimming lessons #1 & 2

Friday, August 12, 2016by  Derek Wing

As you may remember from a previous post, I recently decided to learn how to swim. The timing was good, since I was inspired by the amazing and history-making swimmers I saw in the 2016 Rio Olympics. My coworker Jessica told me Michael Phelps used to be scared of the water, and now he has like 20 bazillion gold medals. So there may be hope for me yet.

Lesson #1 

My first lesson was more of an assessment. I looked around and noticed there were no other swimmers joining me. I wasn’t sure if a private lesson was a good or bad thing: It’d be great because I’d get much-needed individual attention, but I wouldn’t have anywhere to hide if I got scared or needed a break.

Instructor Trevor reviewed my skills, then went through the basics. I learned how to glide, kick, use my arms, and breathe. I attempted to follow his instructions, in my mind hoping I looked smooth, but knowing that I probably looked more like a clumsy walrus.

After the half-hour lesson was over, Trevor declared I had basic “survival swimming” skills, meaning while I wasn’t particularly efficient and definitely didn’t look good doing it, I could technically swim if I had to. He also told me I needed to work on a number of things before the next lesson. I had a week to recover and prepare.

Lesson #2

Feeling like water was in my nose, a headache and muscle cramps: Three things I most remember from my second swim lesson.

This time I had different instructor (Martha) and a pair of new classmates, a couple of teenage girls - all the better to make my embarrassment complete. Martha had us practice swimming from one end of the pool to the other. I got to the deep end and stopped, so Martha brought out a plastic pole about 10 feet long and instructed us to take a deep breath, go down hand-over-hand to bottom of the pool then slowly come back up. We did this a few times and she asked me what I noticed. I told her that besides feeling pressure in my sinuses (hence the feeling of water in my nose), the lower I went, the more my body tried to float back to the top. She smiled, the lesson hitting home: Let nature do its thing when you’re in water, and you’ll be okay.

We then did a few laps back and forth with some flotation devices as Martha watched over us. At one point she noticed I was still tense and not breathing particularly efficiently (which caused the headache). She asked, “Don’t you trust me?” to which I answered, “I trust you – I just don’t trust myself!”

That is the catch-22 of learning to swim: You can’t feel comfortable if you’re not relaxed, but you can’t relax unless you feel comfortable. And when you’re tense, you get tired a lot faster and cramp up – a lot.

Later, while practicing the sidestroke, I got frustrated with my lack of progress and told myself, “Pretend you’re going to sleep on the water.” After doing that, I was much more relaxed and did a better job of swimming. Martha noticed, too and gave me a high-five to end the exhausting lesson.

When I got home, I thought about how the psychological component of swimming factored into learning. I’ve focused on the mechanics of swimming; now I need to trust myself, Martha and the laws of physics. Hopefully I can do that in lessons 3 & 4.

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Comments on this post

personKaren06/05/2017 05:00 PM
In your first article you mentioned nearly drowning as a child, and also all the unhappy reactions in your body when you get in the water. Your articles tell us the mechanics of what you learned in lessons, but those are largely steps that any new swimmer learns.  To really help other adults who cannot swim, it would be helpful to read more about how you addressed and overcame those fear reactions from nearly drowning as a child.  How did you force yourself to put your face in the water?

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