Health

How did you learn to swim?: My triathlon challenge

I believe deeply in the principle that practice makes perfect (just ask my kids). But there are occasions when the principle falls flat. Take the piano, for example: you can practice and practice and practice, but if you're consistently hitting the wrong notes, all the practice in the world won't help; in fact, it may actually hinder, as your muscle memory takes on all the wrong notes.

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I believe deeply in the principle that practice makes perfect (just ask my kids).

But there are occasions when the principle falls flat. Take the piano, for example: you can practice and practice and practice, but if you’re consistently hitting the wrong notes, all the practice in the world won’t help; in fact, it may actually hinder, as your muscle memory takes on all the wrong notes. The same is true for swimming. You can practice and practice and practice, but if your technique is all wrong, you will never really improve.

There are many ways to learn how to swim. Most of the swimmers I know learned as children: at camp, in lessons, or from parents. I skipped that childhood step.

My technique is all wrong.

But I want to learn how to swim, and as a practice-makes-perfect believer, that’s where I begin. I spend a week rising early, cycling to the pool, and “practicing.” I practice and practice, but my crawl stroke continues to frighten the lifeguards: legs thrash, arms flail, back arches, neck cranes as I turn my entire face to the sky to gasp for breath. Because the sky is where the air is. And I need air!

That phrase “going nowhere fast”? That’s me.

It isn’t air that I need; it’s a change in technique.

(You’re thinking: sign up for swim lessons, already, aren’t you? But I am incredibly impatient, and adult swim lessons aren’t offered until the fall. I want to learn right now).

And as fate has it, I’m about to get my wish. Unbeknownst to me, that skipped childhood step is waiting to be completed, about thirty years past due. 

My dad is going to teach me how to swim. 

All of the cliches apply: we are on a family holiday, at a cottage beside a chilly Canadian lake. I don my swimsuit and attempt the crawl stroke. Dad, observing, says, as gently as possible, “I don’t think you’re doing that right, Carrie.” I am not seven years old, but I feel like it, and in a good way: neither self-conscious, nor too proud, I just want to learn how to swim.

Show me, Dad!

We’re both baffled that we skipped this step, way back when. Maybe there wasn’t the same kind of time or opportunity then — I am the eldest of five kids, and my dad worked long hours. It doesn’t really matter now. Because now we’re getting a second chance.

Dad demonstrates a nifty little trick to get started: inhale when one arm is forward and the other arm is back. (Simple? Yes. Intuitive? Apparently, no.) My bicep becomes a pillow for my ear. I glide with one ear in the water, then turn my face to the dark lake and blow out all the air in my lungs, then turn to the side to breathe, every other stroke. The water is not quite so scary. I slow everything down, and discover that slowing down doesn’t sink me: in fact, the more relaxed I am, the easier it becomes. Slowly, steadily. I’m swimming.

Hey! I’m swimming! I’m really swimming! I can swim!

The feeling transports me back in time. This is pretty much exactly how I felt, age four, when Dad took the training wheels off my tiny orange bicycle, gave me a little push, and let go: and I discovered that I could pedal without falling over. It is the thrill of learning something new.

Turns out, it’s never too late.

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