Many triathletes are familiar with the Total Immersion (TI) swimming method, which has proven to be almost magically effective for many “adult onset” swimmers, and a source of controversy among those with a competitive swimming background. What many don’t know (and I didn’t either) is that TI founder Terry Laughlin is living with Stage 4 prostate cancer.Last month, I had the opportunity to interview Laughlin as he passed through Ohio.Regardless of your personal results with Total Immersion (TI) or your opinions, Terry’s current athletic schedule in the face of his medical diagnosis is worth understanding.In November, Laughlin said his most recent swims were 10K swims on Nov. 4 and Nov. 5 in the Red Sea.He had low expectations for the event, considering his physical state toward the end of the summer.“I have lost a lot of strength, speed and stamina,” said, he had been feeling worse as his cancer metastasized to his pelvis. “I was only able to do a mile at a time. My arm muscles and chest muscles would burn. So I had to swim super easy,” he said.He was doing very little swimming from the end of summer until he left for Israel to meet with the Total Immersion coaches there and participate in Three Seas, Three Days. He planned to swim on Day 1, rest on Day 2, and swim a little on Day 3.The Mediterranean swim on the first day, however, was cancelled due to sea and weather conditions. Laughlin swam Day 2’s 10K very easily, to his surprise. He imagined he would have to drop out without completing the full distance.Thinking it was a fluke, Laughlin entered the final day swim expecting to falter, but performed even better. “We had feed stops at 4K and 8K. I ate just two Medjool dates and a little drink,” he said, and finished 30 minutes faster for the 10K than he had the previous day.“The reason I think I was able to do this, is that my stroke is super-efficient. I can really swim in such a way that I use almost no energy,” he said. “And I was in the fat burning heartrate zone, and I have a fair amount of fat stores,” he said, smiling as he glanced down at his moderate belly paunch.(Of course, this is the key reason many triathletes adopt his methods. They don’t produce the most force or the fastest stroke, but they are great for conserving energy during the first event of what can be a long day for a triathlete.)Laughlin said he also kept attention on his stroke and off how he was feeling because he was with a group who knew him as an instructor, and he was working at demonstrating good technique at all times. “I was consciously putting on a stroke clinic,” he said.Unlike in a race, the groups in this event were committed to swimming together, kind of like a pace group in a marathon. “You start together and you’re committed to finishing together. It really changes the whole experience when you’re swimming together instead of against one another. You draw a lot of energy from that,” Laughlin said. “I’ve done a number of races, but I endure them more than I enjoy them.”“I was conscious of swimming next to others with the most perfect form I could,” he said. “It doesn’t take anything out of you, unlike running a marathon.”Laughlin says that Day 3 swim was his best day since he was diagnosed with cancer.Laughlin says he concentrates more now on the meditative qualities of his swim technique than the performance-boosting ones.“Everything we teach is counterintuitive,” he says. “If [our clinic students] are not very intentional and very mindful” it does not stick.“People started to comment to me about the mindfulness aspect,” he said.At first, mindfulness was simply a solution to being drawn back by instinct to inefficiency, the same way runners must become mindful of their gait if they are trying to make a change to address an imbalance.“People were making comparisons to martial arts or dance or a musical instrument,” Laughlin said, as athletes from all walks of life completed Total Immersion swim clinics.“I started to look into those things. Then I became more intentional about making that a more central part of what we’re teaching,” he said.Now the quiet, introspective quality of monitoring form during the swim is what seems to save Laughlin from being as mentally ravaged by his diagnosis as he may be physically.At his blog < http://www.totalimmersion.net/blog/defining-event-life/> Laughlin says his swimming helps him fight the cancer in his body because he feels vibrant in health and strength as he swims. In addition, the visualization and affirmation he uses as part of his strategy as a patient feels “most genuine and powerful as I swim.”Laughlin continues to swim competitively, recently setting a record for his age group on his Master’s team this month.
Editor at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.