Tackling a Challenge: Learning to Swim
By: Susan Roberts
Watch out, Dara Torres!
I would like to take a moment to look back at one of our 12 Healthy Habits from earlier in the year—the February directive to get moving. Because we are supposed to continue these new habits throughout the year, aren’t we?
I have always done a halfway decent job of getting moving. After a youth and young adulthood spent dancing (ballet, modern), I got into running in my late 20s, and then added some classes such as spinning in my 30s. I’ve always enjoyed my cardio.
This year I turned 40, and I found myself facing a new challenge: My knees and lower back hate me and are plotting revenge. They have let me know, in no uncertain terms, that they are not interested in any more high-impact aerobic exercises. If I wanted to continue to challenge myself with cardio, I would have to make a truce with my joints and find something that doesn’t involve a lot of bouncing up and down.
Enter swimming. I had always heard that swimming was great exercise—low impact, involves the whole body. I belong to a gym with a couple of very nice pools. Of course, I didn’t know how to swim, but I’m not the type to dwell on trivial details. My gym sent out a few e-mails advertising summer swimming lessons. These lessons were all designed for children, but I brazened it out and called about adult lessons anyway, got the numbers of some instructors, and was soon on my way.
Well, long story short, those early swimming lessons were the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in a very long time. I was used to going into a new exercise class and, while certainly not being able to do everything perfectly right off the bat, being able to follow along somewhat, and then improving with practice. When it came to swimming, I felt like nothing I was good at translated to this weird new activity. The one thing I was counting on—having decent endurance—didn’t even apply. Swimming was so much harder than I expected, and the whole “not being able to breathe at just any given moment because you’re underwater” thing really messed with my head.
I didn’t have good upper-body strength—something I’ve tended to neglect with my other activities—so of course that didn’t help when it came to doing strokes. One side of my body is considerably stronger than the other, which led me to swim in a dead diagonal across the pool. And for some reason—bad swimming instincts, lack of understanding of hydrodynamics, or perhaps bad karma—when I first started doing the breaststroke, I went backwards.
And let’s not forget that oftentimes I was surrounded by children—children swimming around like little guppies. They weren’t actually part of my private lesson, but they were around. Watching me. They seemed so full of joy, as opposed to fear of imminent death. I was jealous.
After a few weeks of this, I was quite demoralized and ready to throw in the towel, assuming I just wasn’t meant to be a swimmer. But I just hated to quit so soon, and besides, I definitely got a good workout. My saintly teacher, Coach Rafael, has the patience of Job. He specializes in teaching children, but he also does extremely well with recalcitrant 40-year-olds. He’s very good at analyzing the movement and breaking down exactly what I’m doing wrong. And he’s very reassuring. He has told me time and time again that the main things I need to work on are my patience and my timing—two things I have never, ever been known for. He is also wise.
So, I’m not going to tell you that everything suddenly came together and gelled and now I’m a great swimmer. For one thing, lightning would probably strike me at my computer. However, in recent weeks, I have become considerably less terrible. I can now do real laps back and forth across the pool like a grown-up (not like a kid—I’m not that good yet). I absolutely love the fact that no matter how hard I work out, swimming doesn’t make any of my joints hurt afterward. (Yet—I know that may change, but don’t curse me yet.) I have a stronger upper body and core. And the more improvements I see, the more inspired I am to practice. Lately I have begun to feel like I’m on a roll, and I want to keep that good momentum going as long as possible.
I would like to encourage you not just to get moving, but to get out and do something you’ve never done before. Sure, it might seem impossible at first, but imagine the sense of accomplishment you’ll feel as you start to get control of it. If you have children, you probably push them to try new things all the time, but when was the last time you pushed yourself? If you have overuse injuries, learning a new activity can be good for your body. But the psychological benefits of taking on and mastering a tough new sport may be the things that really get you hooked.