Saturday, January 1, 2011
Learning to Swim
Those familiar with the classic video bit featuring Martin Small and Harry Shearer about two brothers trying to be the first men to compete in the non-Olympic sanctioned sport of synchronized swimming will certainly recognize the above quote. For me this quote has been my auto-reply for those asking me if I was a swimmer. Traumatic experiences including two near-drowning incidents as a child had kept me far away from the pool. Further another experience as an adult in China is fresh in my memory. While visiting a pool in Hefei and upon removing my shirt prior to swimming, I revealed something not frequently observed in China: body hair. The site of this in China is as rare as steak tartar and following this terrifying revelation all of the people who were doing laps in the pool immediately stopped, stared and began pointing at me incredulously. It was just like the scene in Animal House when the Deltas entered the all black bar and the music stopped playing. With these emotional scars, swimming became something I did religiously (and by religiously I mean only on Jewish fast days).
Physically, I am also challenged when it comes to the pool. I am the only person I know who can use a kickboard and actually go backwards. To sum it up, swimming always felt awkward to me. It reminded me of the days when I was a pension actuary living in New York during the hey-day of Drexel Burnham and Investment Bankers.
Compounding my fears for attempting this is the reputation of my home town of Boulder. Boulder is fitness-obsessed place and home to many elite swimmers and athletes of all kind. It is also very non-diverse to the point where I am always taken back when I see Chinese girls that actually have Chinese parents (the preceding sentence has nothing to do with my fears but serves an unrelated aside). Anyway to get back on track and moreover, I am not as familiar with pool etiquette as I am with bike etiquette. For example bike courtesy includes pointing out obstacles on the road or taking pulls at the front of group rides with regularity. Also, and most importantly, apparently if you ride your bike to a strip club it is NOT OK to lock it to the stripper pole. Well excuse me Bambi I am just trying reduce my carbon footprint by not driving here!
With recent events in my life, however, I felt it was time to take my fears and turn them into motivation. As I have regularly avoided this area for improvement in my life the same way I seek to avoid the overzealous coworker that is on his morning coffee high, I now felt that it was time to face my demons in the pool.
Here We Go
Entering the pool area, I was filled with apprehension. My hope was to be as stealthy as possible and ultimately be ignored like the unpopped kernel in a bag of microwave popcorn. I strapped on my goggles and grabbed what I felt were the requisite floatation devices (a kick-board and leg buoy) to make it look like I knew what I was doing.
Getting into the pool was the next step. I dangled my legs in the water trying to get myself psyched up for the first effort. The water is always a bit frigid at first. Knowing this, I had donned my thermal banana hammock to mitigate the initial effect of the cold. After about five minutes, I made the plunge and I was off to my first lap.
I Can’t Breathe!!!
It is truly amazing to me how fitness in certain sports is not immediately transferable to other sports. I can ride my bike for hours and still feel relatively fresh but after swimming 25 meters in a pool I am as winded as a fat guy making his second pass at the Country Buffet.
After completing my first lap I stood breathless aside the pool wall. Thoughts swam through my head (if I could only swim like my thoughts). How am I ever going to do this? Is this another fruitless attempt? Does Julius Caesar’s family get royalties every time a doctor performs a C-Section?
Someone once told me the key to getting over the initial hump in swimming was to push through the breathlessness until you could get in a groove and slowly begin to regulate your breathing. I convinced myself, this is what I had to do. I had to suck it up and push through it. One lap…okay, keep pushing. Two laps…push through, push though. Three laps…this is starting to feel a bit better, breathe, breathe! Ten laps later and still feeling relatively good, I decided to stop and bask in the glory of my personal achievement. Standing at the wall I was celebrating like Michael Phelps (after his record breaking Olympic gold not when he did bong hits at a college party – my matches were too wet). I knew I was going to be able to do this.
Learning to Swim: An Allegory for Life
As a neophyte to the pool, one thing about this type of swimming that makes it different from running or cycling, is that the terrain does not change. With this, one is better able to experience a deep level of consistent breathing which can ultimately produce a sustainable pattern of significant stress-relieving exhales. In order to reach this level, however, on needs to push through this. That challenge ultimately requires self-awareness of one’s body.
For me this is spiritually consistent with the Jewish practice of Mussar which seeks to help one fulfill their potential and live as the unique soul that one is. When one is submerged in one’s feelings as a person learning to swim is submerged and flailing in the water, the ability to “push through” and calmly draw on our self-awareness allows for a connectedness not only to others, but one’s divine soul. As with swimming, this requires much work and numerous techniques. With this, as with my swimming, there is much work to be done.