As a kid, I was a natural little swimmer, rising through the ranks of the YMCA swim program from guppy to minnow to fish to flying fish. After a twenty-five year hiatus, I went back for more swimming lessons last winter, hoping to improve my surfing. Little did I know I was in for one-on-one classes with Edmund, an Albanian champion swimmer. He was a big bear of a man—over six feet tall, barrel-chested, hairy front and back with an ease in the water unlike any person I’d ever met.
Edmund was an exacting teacher with high standards, and boy did he understand swimming. He had watched me swim half a length of the pool freestyle when he stopped me and said, “Of course you can’t breathe when you swim, you’re turning your head not your body.” And I felt that clunk of recognition, like when I hear an on-target critique of my writing—like of course, that’s what I’m doing wrong. He taught me how to stretch, how to use gravity, how to position my head to look down and not ahead, how to use my arms to move myself forward, not just my hands.
My freestyle stroke and breaststroke gradually improved, but my backstroke was hopeless. I understood the arm motion of the backstroke, which we practiced standing up in the shallow end, but I couldn’t get the floating or the kicking. I actually went the wrong way when floating on my back and just kicking. “It would be better if you just used your arms,” he said, not quite with disdain, just as a fact.
He gave me some exercises to do to fix it, which I tried, but when the end of our time together arrived my backstroke was still abominable. I continued swimming at the local high school pool, doing mostly freestyle and breast strokes, throwing in a few laps of backstroke when I had a lane to myself, suffering and tense, water going up my nose, but determined to keep trying.
Over the summer I traded surfing for swimming and when I got back in the pool this winter and revisited the backstroke, I was surprised to note that something had shifted. I didn’t dread it as much, and after awhile I began to look forward to it, because I could feel progress, and I love feeling progress.
Then last week while reading a book about Duke Kahanamoku, the Hawaiian surfing icon and champion swimmer, I came across this advice of his about swimming: “Relax. Let your muscles be soft. When they tighten up from fear, you are as heavy as a rock and you sink.” I felt another clunk of recognition. I was so tense during the back float—so afraid of getting water up my nose or hitting my head on the wall, of sinking, of flailing, of looking bad—no wonder it was so hard.
The next day I took Duke’s words into the pool with me. I focused on relaxing while I swam—which isn’t easy by the way. I would relax, but then need my muscles to move forward. So I tried relaxing my core, just using my arms and legs. Then I tried relaxing whatever muscles I wasn’t using. And something awesome happened—I enjoyed my swim more than I ever had before. It felt better, more natural, less forced.
As I swam I thought about the balance between relaxing and engaging, and that sometimes what is needed isn’t more effort, but less. Less effort feels to me like letting go, trusting that I will be okay. I’m starting to do this in my life outside the pool too. The more I do it, the more I see it works. The more it works, the more I do it.
Edmund would be so proud. Maybe I’ll go back next winter to learn the butterfly.