On arriving in Melbourne, Australia, I had a number of skills that I wanted to either begin or improve. One of them was swimming.
I remember being a decent swimmer as a kid, spending a lot of summer days at the pool and taking swim lessons. But at some point I stopped swimming, and actually forgot how to swim entirely. It got so bad that I initially failed the swim test requirement at my university, and almost didn’t graduate because of it.
During my last teaching job I came across Tim Ferriss’ glowing review of the Total Immersion swimming system, and I was excited to try it for myself. At that time I had no access to a pool, but I kept the idea in the back of my mind.
(Now that I look at it again, having worked with TI myself, I feel his title is somewhat deceptive: “How I learned to swim effortlessly in 10 days and you can too.” Words like “effortlessly” and “10 days” can give the impression that the technique is some kind of “magic bullet”, but I guess the title grabs the reader’s attention).
Upon arriving in Melbourne, I found out that there was a gym/pool complex less than a five-minute walk from my house. Perfect. I immediately signed up for a membership, got ahold of a couple TI DVDs, and got down to business.
In the beginning it was slow going. The pool was Olympic size and had about a dozen lanes, divided into “Slow”, “Medium”, and “Fast”. Then at either end were the lanes designated “Aqua Play.” I initially spent all my time in the Aqua Play section, practicing the drills from the DVDs.
Without going into a lengthy discussion of the TI system, it focuses on three main aspects: Balance, Streamlining, and Propulsion. There are a lot of exercises focused on the crucial element of becoming more balanced, relaxed, and comfortable in the water. I found that I was having a lot of trouble attempting to submerge my head without panicking, so I also picked up the Breathing DVD. For more information on the TI system, check out their website:
Some of the drills I felt more comfortable with than others, but after a few weeks I started getting very impatient. Bobbing around trying to get comfortable was all well and good, but I wanted to start swimming some laps, dammit. So I thought I’d start pushing myself into lap swimming, see where I was getting messed up, then go back to the basics to correct.
So one day I slipped under the plastic floating barrier into the Slow lane, and made my debut with laps. I almost made it halfway through the pool, before panicking and having to turn back.
But I kept at it. The videos of the guys fluidly swimming the TI method were playing in my brain, and I tried to continually modify my stroke in the water to match what I could remember. Eventually I got something of a rhythm down and was able to complete a full lap, though I was exhausted by the time I reached the other side of the pool, and had to take a several-minutes breather while clinging to the side. For a stretch of several weeks, I got to the point where I was swimming twenty laps in an hour. I would swim a lap, take a few minutes’ breather, then swim the next one.
Finally one day, I said to myself, “Fuck it. What will happen if I just keep swimming and try to do two laps without stopping? If I can’t make it, I’ll just roll over onto my back and kick for awhile.” So I tried it…and I made it. Then I did it again. In that one session, I cut twenty minutes out of my time, completing the same twenty laps in forty minutes.
I was very proud of myself. It made me think of the historic progression towards running a four-minute mile. Times got closer and closer until Briton Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four-minute mile in 1954. In subsequent decades, the once difficult achievement has become the standard for middle-distance runners. In my case, I’d adopted a mental rule that I had to stop for a breather between every lap, based on my previous athletic capacity. Once I pushed myself to do two laps in one go, I never thought about stopping in the middle again.
I continued like that for a good while. I was pretty tired by the time I finished my twenty, but I dutifully went in and did them three times a week. I felt good. I had a regular thrice-weekly cardio routine. Moreover, as the Melbourne summer had turned to winter, the outdoor pool had stopped being a warm day’s community hangout. Now there were only a dozen or so of us swimmers there; the hardcore ones, the ones there for fitness and commitment rather than just passing time. I was part of an elite band of brothers and sisters, laughing at the chilly winter air in order to better ourselves.
One day I was dutifully on my way to completing my twenty. While on the last few, I suddenly got a surge of energy. Stopping seemed ridiculous. I wanted to keep going. I finished my twenty, and for the first time ever, started on twenty one. Then twenty two.
Suddenly I felt like Superman (or more appropriately Aquaman?); I clawed hungrily at the water, daring it to stop me. I reached each end, and immediately lurched into the next lap. I finished thirty, and even though I felt I had a couple more in me, I stopped at that round number and got out.
It was an incredible feeling. I’d had a similar breakthrough during certain meditation sits, when towards the end the pain and fatigue had disappeared and I’d entered a strange bliss where I felt I could have gone forever. I felt powerful. I felt like a champion.
Thirty laps, three times a week, became my new standard. While I was very proud of my achievements, I was also sure that my stroke was highly inefficient. Though my stamina had increased, my speed had stayed the same. Even in the Slow lane, I would periodically get lapped by other swimmers.
When I’d first arrived in Melbourne, I’d done some research and found that there were TI instructors in the area. But I’d procrastinated signing up for lessons, and eventually I’d just forgotten about them. Now, I thought that it would be a good idea to take advantage of the resources available to me in Melbourne and get a private lesson from a TI instructor. It would be expensive, but much cheaper than doing a full TI beginner’s course, and the investment in improving my stroke would be invaluable.
I took the train out to a pool in the inner suburbs and met the instructor, a very nice guy with a nephew who plays Major League baseball in the U.S. He had me swim a couple laps while videotaping me with a small digital camera, to assess my current progress. I knew my stroke was terribly inefficient, but when I finished my couple laps, I could see by his face that I had just provided a truly sad spectacle. His first question was, “So…what aspects of the TI system have you been working on?” When I looked at the video, I understood why.
I looked utterly ridiculous. My head was perched high, and my legs were sunk way down, creating an absurd amount of drag. While I had visualized myself swimming like the guys in the TI videos, slicing along with basic form, I actually looked like a T-square pathetically trying to plough through the water.
The entire hour lesson was spent on the most rudimentary exercises from the videos, the Balance exercises. Nothing close to approaching a full stroke, or even breathing while swimming. Just repeated drills with the aim of getting relaxed and comfortable in the water.
Since that lesson, I’ve been back at the pool most mornings. The Aqua Play lane has welcomed back its wayward son. The lane is quite less busy than I remember it; not so many people come out to do “aqua play” in the winter. The chilly air isn’t too bad, provided one stays submerged under the water for as long as possible.
I’ve also been doing a more intense core workout routine each morning. The coach attributed my badly sinking legs to weak core strength. I was also surprised by this, as I thought that I was keeping myself in decent physical shape. But I took his advice, and have really stepped up the core exercises.
I would be fully justified in being angry at the situation, and especially at myself. I wasted months swimming with a completely atrocious technique. I skipped over the crucial early exercises and forged ahead on a terribly inefficient path. Any progress that I thought I’d made was an illusion, a waste of time.
And yet it wasn’t. Over those few months, I saw how I improved when I regularly and diligently applied myself. I went from being fearful and uncomfortable in the water, unable to take a breath with ease, to plying my way across the pool for the better part of an hour. I faced down limitations, and exposed them as fictions within my own mind. I experienced the feeling of being Superman in the water.
Most importantly, I learned several key lessons in the only way that truly matters, the experiential level.
I learned that learning foundation skills are necessary, and as boring and repetitive as those lessons may be, they are skipped over to the learner’s detriment. Procrastinating on learning the basics simply results in a bigger misery down the road. Face the pain now, or face a much-amplified pain later.
I learned the importance of relaxation in becoming a great swimmer. Relaxation is at the heart of so many other skills that I have studied. Salsa dancing, improv comedy, meditation, and so many others. It seems like a paradox, because there are so many things to keep in mind, things that you are supposed to be doing. “How can I relax and remember to do x, y, and z all at the same time???” Yet you come to realize that all the teachers are right; that you do see the most improvement when you totally relax and go with what’s already inside you.
Finally, I learned that I have an incredible power to persevere, even under highly inefficient conditions. Hell, I was swimming 30 laps, in under an hour, in an Olympic-size pool, with an atrocious posture. I am all the more grateful to myself, to the progress that I made, while making it so much harder on myself. Like doing jumping jacks with a lead vest on. Imagine what kind of distances I’ll be able to swim when I get the efficient TI stroke down.
Sure, I regret not signing up for a TI beginner’s course or getting a private lesson early on, thus catching my mistakes then and allowing myself to work on correcting them over these past few months. But as I’ve pointed out, the path that I did end up taking has still provided me with plenty of value; just value of a different kind.
My journey to become a strong, competent swimmer continues. Now with greater insight, I look forward to the continued lessons with which the water will doubtless provide me.