Usually a childhood pastime, swim lessons also benefit adults
It wasn't as if I couldn't swim. Drop me in an ocean and I can splash with the best of them. At the hotel pool I usually knock out a few laps. Nothing brings a bigger smile to my face than a water slide plunging into 8 feet of chlorine.
But I didn't swim with much efficiency or grace, and I tired easily. My stroke was stuck somewhere around my last lesson, which came at about age 10. And — most relevant — running several times a week was starting to feel rough on the knees and joints. I wanted to mix in another form of exhaustion, and, based on swimming's reputation for a thorough, but gentle workout, it seemed like an ideal solution.
So I paid $225 for five 25-minute private lessons to improve my stroke and maximize the workout. I wasn't sure adults took swim lessons, but the people at Chicago Blue Dolphins, a local swim school, assured me adults do it all the time.
But when that first lesson neared, I had almost convinced myself I didn't need it. I could swim. I had no fear of the water. Why waste my time and money? It's just swimming, right?
Not so right.
The first lesson began with John Fitzpatrick, owner of Chicago Blue Dolphins, whom everyone simply calls Fitz, pointing me to one of his two pools that are too small for a swimmer to go anywhere but that generate enough resistance to swim in place. Minutes before, a handful of 6-year-olds had been splashing in that same pool with a bunch of bright floating toys.
I waded into the 90-degree water and Fitz followed me in for what I learned would be hands-on training — literally at times. As I tested my new black goggles by swimming around the bottom of the pool, he positioned an underwater camera that would project my stroke onto a flat-screen television just outside of the pool. Before anything, he wanted to see how I swam. No problem. After all, I wasn't even sure I needed the lessons.
Fitz cranked up the jets, stepped outside of the narrow current (there is room for two swimmers at different speeds in the pool, plus someone like Fitz to stand by and watch), and off I went, chugging hard in the water for about 45 seconds. I felt good. I even started to think I looked quite good. What was I doing there? Then we watched the video.
My first realization is that it is strange to see yourself underwater (So that's what fish see!). The second was that I was a dreadful swimmer. I had thrashed through the water like a frantic hippo — arms pawing, legs bent and flailing, body barely aloft. I seemed to be expending more energy trying to float than trying to move forward.
It wasn't encouraging, but it also wasn't uncommon. Fitz said about 40 percent of lessons at Chicago Blue Dolphins are given to adults. Many are in the same, ahem, boat as I was. Many more can't swim at all, or are overcoming fear of the water.
For the next half-hour Fitz began the process of reteaching me to swim. He broke down the freestyle stroke piece by piece, making me aware for the first time of swimming's complexity. Though half the body does most of the work for biking or running, I realized, swimming is more like swinging a baseball bat: the legs, arms, hips, feet and head all have specific roles in success and efficiency. Unlike swinging a bat, though, swimming isn't finished in two seconds; it's motion on repeat, making the body a constant and intricate machine.
There was the first advantage of adult swim lessons. Kids just do. Adults think.
Fitz started me with simple kicking, facedown in the water with my arms at my sides. It was a simple beginning but immediately taught me the importance of letting go. Becoming light and relaxed allows you to focus on the work of swimming. The water wants to keep us aloft. Let it. Spend your energy moving forward.
Below and ahead were mirrors that allowed me to remind myself of the importance of staying long and light. I had been working too hard and against myself.
I said as much to Fitz. He nodded.
"Exactly," he said.
Next we moved on to floating facedown while kicking and pulling my arms from my sides to straight ahead. Simple, but it also taught me how to float well with my arms engaged. Then I went facedown with my arms ahead, brought one hand back and brushed my thumb along my thigh before bringing it back up top and repeating with the other arm. It was 90 percent of swimming, but without the breathing, and with emphasis on form more than speed or distance. Fitz was truly taking me apart before putting me back together.
At the conclusion of our first half an hour, Fitz offered simple instruction for practicing at the public pool across the street from my home: "Think about how you move through the water. Don't worry about how far you go."
Over the coming weeks, the learning curve was steep and the strides swift. Fitz slowly integrated wrinkles, like forcing my chest deeper into the water and turning my body — chest, hips, legs, feet — almost 90 degrees to the wall with each stoke. I was already feeling stronger, lighter and more confident. The lessons routinely ended with Fitz recording video of me and us reviewing it together.
"You're 100 percent better," he said after the second lesson.
But with literal and figurative miles to go. I had initially wanted to work on breaststroke and backstroke, too, but it was obvious that I would need all five lessons to refine my freestyle stroke. Fitz agreed.
As the weeks went on, my strides became straighter, smoother and more consistent, propelled by each of Fitz's encouraging words — "Good!" or "Much better!" or "Excellent!" — whenever I popped up from the water. It was like being 10 again.
I couldn't remember the last time I had learned so much in such a short amount of time. Probably it was childhood — which is when we tend to leave bettering ourselves behind. We do it all day at school, then often after school with music lessons or sports. As adults, we tend to operate as if who we are somehow became immutable. A handful of swimming lessons has given me, I hope, a new hobby for life. It turned out to be liberating just to learn something new.
Jumping back in
Advice from John Fitzpatrick for adult swimmers who haven't had a lesson since childhood:
Get the right equipment. There are many goggles out there, so find a comfortable fit.
Get a suit that fits snugly. Women, get a one-piece with a "butterfly" back. Men, put away the oversize shorts — they have too much drag and can weigh your legs down. If you have long hair or if you don't want it filled with chlorine, get a cap.
Bring a water bottle. It's easy to forget, but we sweat into the water. Stay hydrated.
Swim at the right time in the right lane. Visit the pool during adult lap rather than family swim so you are with like-minded adults. Many pools designate lanes as walking, slow, medium or fast. Picking the right lane will make things easier for you and will be appreciated by water walkers and college swimmers alike.
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