Getting Into the Swim of Things

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Learning to Swim as an Adult: Why a Journey of a Thousand Miles Begins With a Single Stroke

Once a week, I swim at my favorite community center pool and the other three days I swim at my health club. When I first decided to learn how to swim two years ago, I went to that community pool right before my lessons started to begin to familiarize myself with the world of swimming — something I knew absolutely nothing about. When you can’t swim, you don’t exactly spend your time hanging out at pools. In fact, you avoid them. Well, at least I did and I live in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” (Minnesota) to boot — a double whammy of self-inflicted water avoidance.

I hang out at pools now! (Well, and I usually swim in them, but this was on vacation … requisite lounging by pool.)

That particular day I went to the pool during open swim which meant a lifeguard was on duty. I remember getting in the pool and having no idea what to do. I didn’t know how to float on my back or put my head underwater. I tried a little doggie paddle (I even did that badly) and generally just hung out in the water reconfirming I had no swimming skill whatsoever. None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Clearly the 16-year-old lifeguard could see that as well as she eyed me as a potential rescue. (As if!) Embarrassing.

In a moment of inspiration (or desperation), I thought maybe we were born with some kind of innate swimming skill that I had somehow overlooked all these years, but after several attempts of “letting nature do its thing” in the water, I quickly realized we do, indeed, have to be taught how to swim. That stunt earned me an even higher level of scrutiny from the lifeguard. And so I left the pool more ready than ever to learn. (SIDE NOTE: The idea [myth] that you can just throw a child into the water and they will “figure out how to swim” is ridiculously naïve. Many adults who were treated that way as a child never did learn how to swim and developed a fear of water as a result. Formal swim lessons exist for a reason!)

But back to my story at the community pool. I absolutely hated having no ability to safely (or productively) be in the water. I was deeply frustrated by that and wondered if that pool would ever stop feeling so completely foreign to me. What’s that line for on the bottom of the pool or the “+” on the wall? How many swim strokes are there? Which stroke was I going to be taught? Why are there flags above the pool? Do I have to wear a swim cap? I couldn’t conceive what it was like to be a swimmer because that goal, at that moment, felt as if it were a million miles away. Mentally I had lived in the land of NonSwimmerstan for 40 years. What was it like on the other side in Swimmerland? Could I really, finally get there — to become one of THEM?

Fast forward to today where I am now the proud recipient of 9 months of swim lessons and a year and a half of lap swimming. Recently, when I was at that community pool for my weekly Sunday swim, I stopped for a minute and reflected on just how far I had come. It was time to acknowledge that the journey had been long and hard, but oh so absolutely, fantastically worth it! Looking at me now you would never guess that I haven’t been a swimmer my whole life. I’ve even had a few people ask me if I swam competitively in high school with my backstroke. That’s funny, but a wonderful compliment! (And yes, my backstroke is THAT good. Who knew!)

I now swim during lap swim (no lifeguards) and switch back and forth between all four strokes (although butterfly is still physically challenging for me — I’m working on it!). The strange thing is … now that I am a good swimmer, I find it really difficult to remember what it was like to feel so utterly useless (helpless?) in that pool. Now I don’t know how NOT to swim. That doesn’t really make sense to me because the beginning was excruciatingly hard; how can my 40 years of non-swimming have faded so quickly? But here’s the thing about that initial embarrassment and frustration. You can either allow it to stop you (and you can quit) or, like me, you can use it to push yourself through the learning process. Decide if you will let it help or hinder you. Better yet, decide that Swimmerland isn’t such an unobtainable destination after all.

Learning is a lifelong process that applies to absolutely every subject and skill in life. “Learning to swim and overcoming that fear made me realize that I could do anything,” said Algernon Kelley in a recent learn-to-swim article in The New York Times. Learning something you perceive as impossible or difficult, once achieved, will open up a whole new world of opportunity for you. And that’s a mighty powerful payoff in the game of life. What are you waiting for? Swimmerland is a whole lot closer than you think. Come on over, the water is great here! 

Need help starting the process of learning to swim as an adult? Visit Swimmunity!

How Do We Get More Adults to Learn How to Swim? By Setting Them Up to Succeed

In the last few weeks, swimming has taken center stage. In large part we have the Olympics to thank for that because swimming is typically one of the most watched summer Olympic sports. This has led to abundant media coverage — not just of the world’s best swimmers — but of all of us with our average, mediocre or non-existant swimming skills. I couldn’t be more pleased to see this issue finally get some attention. What issue? The fact that more than 60% of U.S. adults don’t know how to swim (and that stat is even higher for minority populations). Check out this recent local Minneapolis article about how I learned to swim at the age of 40 (Aug. 6, 2012), this national story about adult swim lessons in the Wall Street Journal (Aug. 7, 2012) and this story on diversity and adult swim lessons in the L.A. Times (Aug. 10, 2012).

While there are many complicating factors to getting more adults to learn how to swim (awareness, fear of water, time commitment, etc.), one challenge needs immediate attention because it’s affecting those adults who have taken that critical first step towards seeking out lessons — they give up after only a few sessions. I have heard this story over and over again and to be honest, if I wasn’t so highly motivated to finally turn myself into a swimmer, I would have quit too. The culprit, in my opinion (what I have experienced myself and with my lesson-mates who quit) is the lack of appropriate expectation setting. If we’ve spent our whole lives avoiding the water as a non-swimmer, how could we possibly know what to expect? Learning how to swim as an adult is a journey and one that should be demystified for those who are brave enough to take it. We need to be setting up our new adult swimmers for success, because the end result matters.

So, if I had to do it all over again, here are the things I wish I had known going into swim lessons:

  • Learning to swim is hard work. There are no shortcuts. When you see people swim, they appear to effortlessly glide through the water (and if they’re kids — they’re likely frolicking in the water making it look even more fantastic and fun-filled on warm summer days). But if you’re watching an experienced swimmer, it looks effortless because their technique is good and they are conditioned for the resistance of the water. It looks easy; accept the reality that the effort required is much different. You will feel tired, out of breath and frustrated. That first 25 yard swim across the pool will feel like a mile to you (and many times you will ask yourself: “Will I ever reach that wall?!?!”). Even if you’re an experienced runner or athlete, you will have to start over on your conditioning.
  • Arms and legs are secondary – always. I see a lot of new swimmers work so hard at coordinating their arms and legs for a stroke that their body position shifts (usually to a 45 degree angle), and they start sinking and have to stop. The most basic element of swimming is always the float (horizontal on the water — either face up or face down). Master that first.
  • Time in the pool matters. A lot. Your time spent in swim lessons is not nearly enough. Add in one or two practice sessions on your own each week and get “homework” from your swim instructor. The more time you spend in the pool, the more comfortable you will become in the water. Repetition builds muscle memory (movement without really having to think about it anymore) which is what you’re aiming for by practicing. You will also progress in your lessons faster the more you work at it.
  • You’re learning. As with all new endeavors in life, you’ll screw up and maybe even be a little embarrassed by it. It is what it is. Really. At first I swallowed pool water, completely flubbed strokes, got winded, had little kids at the pool ask their moms why I was taking lessons … the list goes on and on. Suck it up (tough love). Eventually you will move past all that. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable and don’t let it stop you.
  • The right instructor makes all the difference. I cannot stress this enough. If you are with an instructor that you don’t feel comfortable with, switch. You have every right to do that and you should. Look for someone who will balance pushing you outside your comfort zone with giving you support and encouragement. I had a fantastic instructor and he turned me into the swimmer I am today! Every success story I have ever heard has included having the right instructor.
  • Be patient. It takes time. Adults often wonder how long it takes to learn how to swim. That’s a hard question to answer because it depends on the person. However, plan on at least three months of weekly lessons to give you one good stroke. (I spent 9 months in swim lessons, but I wanted to learn all four strokes and how to swim them really well. I could do my first lap swims about 3 months into my lessons.)
  • Get in the right frame of mind about your swim instructor. We see swim instructors with little kids, so it’s easy to think we don’t belong with them as adults. Wrong! They are fantastic experts. Think of them more like a personal trainer in the water. They can guide you to your goals. You can move on to swim coaches after you’ve learned to swim. They will help you refine your stroke(s), train you for a particular event (like a triathlon or Masters Swimming swim meet) or help you achieve whatever you’d like as a swimmer. Swim instructors and coaches aren’t just for kids! Use them — early and often!
  • Set a series of small goals. Achievement is incremental. Relish it. Go ahead and regress a little to childhood for a moment. In this one instance it will help you. Set small goals each week and when you reach them, feel great about it! Then set the next goal. We did it in grade school and it worked. If you don’t feel like you’re making progress as a swimmer, you’ll get frustrated. Small goals help you see movement in both your effort and result.
  • The mind usually trumps the body – beware. Sure, swimming is a very rigorous activity, but don’t get too frustrated at your body – it’s usually your mind that jumps in and tells you that you can’t do something. For example, you will swim a length of the pool and you’ll be convinced that you need at least a 5 minute rest or you’ll pass out. But then your swim instructor tells you that you can swim another length immediately and suddenly you have to do it. And then you do. You accomplish it! Why? Because no one let you talk yourself out of it. Beware the power of your mind to say “I can’t” and constantly challenge it in your lessons to say “I can.”

The first couple of months are the most challenging, but don’t quit. Hang in there! Anyone can learn how to swim, but you have to go into it determined to succeed. My favorite quote and the one that got me through my lessons is simply this: “No one ever said learning to swim was easy; they just said it would be worth it.”

Need help finding adult swim lessons? Visit Swimmunity!

Olympic Swimming: Why I’m Playing Along at Home!

Today marks day three of the 2012 Olympic games, and although the internet (and social media) has tragically and repeatedly ruined my tape-delayed TV viewing plans of the swimming events every day so far, I nonetheless am grateful for the opportunity to see the world’s best swimmers. (Eh, who needs suspense and live-action underdog upsets anyway? I still haven’t yet recovered from not being able to see Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps swim the 400 IM live on Saturday afternoon. By the time it was shown on TV hours [it felt like days] later, I already knew Ryan had won the gold medal. Curses!)

My not-quite-Olympic-size lap pool

If you don’t know my story, I learned to swim between Sept. 2010 and June 2011 (yes, 9 months and all four strokes — say it: overachiever!). I was 40 years old when I started. Since completing my lessons last summer, I faithfully swim four days a week and cross-train on the other three days (some combination of running, biking, strength training and personal training). Backstroke and breaststroke are my strongest and best strokes and I learned the flip turn last summer.

I’ve been reluctant to learn the backstroke wall turn because I remember what it took to learn the regular flip turn (a pool noodle, dizziness, and a lot of water up my nose!). Fortunately, I mastered that turn in only a few days and only had to rely on a nose clip the first day. I really hate using swimming aids of any kind, but in special situations I will relent … BUT only for a short time.

The wall turn for backstroke is in some ways easier because you don’t have to rotate back to face down after pushing off the wall, but remaining face up and resurfacing has gravitational challenges. Said another way: excessive water up your nose! But here’s where the Olympics come in. Last night I was watching one of Missy Franklin’s preliminary backstroke swims and I saw that she uses a nose clip. I love Missy Franklin. Not only is she an amazing swimmer, but she has a fantastic personality. She’s nothing but smiles and that’s infectious! (Well and we’re the same exact height … tall girls rule … especially in swimming!)

So, with newfound Missy Franklin inspiration, I went to the pool for my swim after work today and decided I was going to learn that backstroke wall turn once and for all (so help me, God!). Out came the nose clip, which made the turn ridiculously easy and fun! I’ll admit, I was feeling ever so slightly Olympic for a moment or two. Figuring out when to flip on to my stomach going into the turn after passing the flags took some time, but in the end, the wall turn was MINE. I even stopped using the nose clip after about 20 minutes. (Yes, I still got a lot of water up my nose, but probably less than I would have without first using the clip!)

Personal challenges are a beautiful thing. They make you work hard, force you to adjust your attitude and insist that you push yourself out of your comfort zone. In the end, you get a great new skill and take one step closer to becoming the swimmer you’ve always wanted to be. Today was a good day! Now, time to turn on the TV to watch the swim events I already know the results for. Yeah, whatever. Go, Team USA! ;)

Inspiring Olympic Swimming Commercials

The Olympics are here and that means athletes as spokespeople for various brands. I’ve seen some great swimming-related commercials the last couple of weeks that I found inspiring – especially for new adult swimmers. Here are a few I think you might like. Enjoy! (Have one you love? Post a link here!)

AT&T – Ryan Lochte

Kellogg’s – Rebecca Soni

Gillette – Ryan Lochte

Winning at Swimming Doesn’t Have to Mean a Gold Medal – Just the Belief You Can Learn

One of the things I pay close attention to with my blog are the search terms people use to find it. More and more, I’m seeing searches for some iteration of “embarrassed to learn to swim as an adult.” That always frustrates me because NO ONE should feel that they’re ever too old to learn how to swim. Sure, the aquatics industry pretty much targets only the child segment of the learn-to-swim market, but that doesn’t mean they don’t offer adult lessons – it just means that the law of unintended consequences (and insufficient marketing) can create some pretty significant barriers for those adults who want to learn. Swim lessons aren’t only for children and everyone should know how to swim. It’s never too late to give yourself that life-saving skill.

Summer is a great time to revisit the idea of finally following through with those swim lessons that you may have been contemplating for years. And with this being an Olympic year, swimming will capture the spotlight as one of the most popular and heavily watched Olympic sports in the U.S. That’s particularly interesting when you consider that more than 60% of the U.S. adult population doesn’t know how to swim. It’s fun to watch, but it’s not impossible to become a participant also. That’s a really important message more adults need to hear.

Those elite swimmers will be the first to tell you that it’s only through years of hard work and practice that they’ve developed such swimming skill. They also recognize the need for far more people to learn how to swim and are among some of the biggest advocates for our nation’s learn-to-swim programs. (Check out the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash program [lean-to-swim programs for reducing the disparities in swimming rates for minority populations] and USA Swimming’s swIMPACT [local community learn-to-swim advocacy by our national swim team] and SwimToday [a national learn-to-swim campaign].)

Swimming is a great spectator sport, but it’s also a life-saving skill everyone should have. Learning how to swim can potentially save your life someday, get you into great physical shape and help you enjoy (much more safely) a variety of fun water-based activities. When you cheer on your favorite Team USA swimmers this summer at the Olympics, remember that swimming was once hard for them too! And they would be among the first to tell you that you’re never too old to learn. Champions in swimming aren’t only the gold medal holders — they’re also the everyday people who overcome fear or inertia to acquire a really important lifelong skill.

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