The words “natural” and “athlete” have never before been used in a sentence about me. In gym class, I hovered at the edge, one of the last chosen for a team. My first ski lesson involved falling all the way down a bunny slope while my classmates carved snowplow turns. In my first forays at tennis, my time was spent retrieving all the balls I couldn’t return. But when I see the beautiful 25 yard pool at my new gym, I am enthralled. Let me explain. I am a fish. I grew up in Hawaii, spent my summers at the beach, splashed for hours at the pool. I love the water. In my first attempt at swimming laps, I endured six sputtering lengths, pulling myself out of the pool before the lifeguard had to. I slinked back to the Jacuzzi. This is not at all like bodysurfing at Waikiki. This would take some work. But what I lack in athletic ability, I make up for with tenacity. I keep going back, increasing from six to ten lengths, still sputtering, but at least getting across, and then up to 20. I devise a method of alternating freestyle laps with breast stroke to add to my endurance. After some months, I do it. I swim a full mile, 72 lengths. And by then I have a goal, a big goal: I am going to do a triathlon.I only want to finish. I pick an easy first race. The swim is in a pool, 16 lengths. With several people in a lane, I stick with freestyle so I don’t whack too many and don’t get passed. Part way through the swim, I wonder why I never ramped up my training to straight freestyle. This race is the first time ever that I swim 400 consecutive freestyle yards. It’s hard. I have a month before my next tri which will be in a cold lake and twice the distance. I Google “What kind of wetsuit for triathlons?” and one of the returned links is for Candy Angle. I’ve heard of her. Candy and Andy run the Master’s Swim program at the Weymouth Club, where I work part-time. I email Candy for wetsuit advice and she responds promptly, also mentioning that she sells wetsuits and encouraging me to try the Master’s. “We have a lane for everyone.” I’m there the following Wednesday. Candy says, “I’ll put you in the lane with Gina. She just started swimming with us last year. She needed to start with flippers to get to the other side.” The rest of the swimmers are streaking swiftly from one end of the pool to the other. I was glad to have another mortal to swim with. At the end of the longest swimming session of my life, I ask Candy for advice. “Well, for starters, you should be swimming at LEAST three times a week.” I go home and take a nap. On a cool Saturday morning, I wriggle into my new wetsuit and chat with fellow triathletes on the shore of Walden Pond. A woman my age says, “I used to do marathons. Got tired of them. Want to try something new.” A vigorous fellow eyes the half mile length of the pond and observes, “I’ll need to be able to do that distance times six. I’m training for the Florida Ironman in October.”
A young, lanky fellow mentions, “Yeah, I did the Sudbury tri, too.”
“How did you do?” I ask.
“Oh, I came in fifth overall,” he replies modestly. I had come in 326th. Candy collects the waiver forms which absolve her of all responsibility in the event of our injury or demise. Andy, her husband, partner and fellow professional triathlete, points out the orange buoys set up on opposite shores. “First, we swim to that one,” he says, pointing to the right, “And then across to that one” he points to the far left, “And then back here. We’ll do it four times. Each loop is 600 yards so that will make it a bit over a mile.” Perhaps I was a little out of my league. I look at the longest leg warily. It’s about 350 yards, over 3 football fields. I step gingerly into the pond. I did not know water could be that cold and not be ice. I dive and gamely start stroking. Briefly I can see the bottom and then everything is black except for my pale hands extending ghostlike from the black suit. I reach the first shore and then we set off for the far shore. For a moment, I am swimming with the thoroughbreds but then I am on my own, unable to swim in a straight line, and treading water to pop my head up and sight the shore so far, far away. I make it back to home base and shiver for a few minutes with the marathoner. She had taken a left part way through the long stretch of the swim. “Couldn’t do it. Just too damned scary. And my face froze.” We agree it is reasonable to swim the first leg back and forth a few times, staying closer to shore. After about a half mile of swimming, we stagger out, disoriented from the extremely cold water. In two weeks I would be doing a longer distance without rest stops. What have I gotten myself into?The following Saturday I go back to Walden alone. I need to conquer the beast. To do the following week’s triathlon, I need to know I can comfortably swim in open water. One nice feature of Walden is that it has lifeguards. Another is that triathletes train there. I have developed new respect for open water and would not want to swim alone. I squirm into my wetsuit with a bit more ease. I step ankle deep into the water and after a warm week, it is now a balmy low 60's. Two handsome, strapping, young men stand next to me. One is chatty and friendly. “You do triathlons too? Great sport! Really keeps you in shape. Ah, what a wonderful place to swim.” He gestures at his silent, pale, wide-eyed friend. “This is my buddy’s first open water swim.” I understand the scared look. “Want to swim with us?”
“No, thanks, but have a good swim.” This is meant to be a swim to build my confidence. Getting caught in the wake of two jocks, attractive as they may be, is not the way to do that. I start my swim, doing the same first leg as the prior week. The recent practice in the pool pays off. Without too much trouble I am able to occasionally eye the shore while still swimming. After a very brief break, I start on the long leg which had rattled me. My breathing is relaxed and steady. I enjoy the beauty of the pines lining the shore. The water is clean in my face. This is so much more fun than pool swimming. I reach the opposite shore, happy that my goal has been reached. I am no longer intimidated by an open water swim. Two girls are in their wet suits, looking nervous. “Wow, you made it look so easy. Your stroke was effortless.” I look around. Are they talking to me? Yes, they are. “It’s our first open water swim. I can’t believe we signed up for the Hyannis triathlon next week. We must be crazy.” Rather than completing the triangle, I exuberantly decide to do the long stretch back and forth, as that will more closely simulate race conditions. I swim about a mile and only stop because my arms are starting to get tired. One November day, Candy hands out a flyer for a triathlete swim meet in late January. There will be three events: 100, 400, and 200 yards. The combined total will determine overall placement. I email Phil, “I’m likely to come in dead last. I looked at the times of the slowest swimmer from last year. I’m not even close to that.” “So what? Be last. It would be good to get more races under your belt.”With trepidation, I sign up and set my goal as meeting the times of last year’s slowest swimmer. Swimming becomes my passion. I am at the pool four days a week. Candy times us the week before the race in each of the three events. Water time has paid off with my best times ever. I sleep fitfully the night before the race and am up at dawn. In the locker room, another woman says, “I couldn’t sleep. You would think this was life or death or something.” My first race is up: the 100. I thrash through the water for all I am worth and meet my goal and shatter my PR with a 1:31. I’m not even last. I happily lounge in the Jacuzzi, glad to have the pre-race jitters worked out. Swimming the 400, I give as much as I can while conserving enough strength for the full quarter mile. I keep an eye on my lane mates and that spurs me on. Again, a PR with 7:42. As I crawl out of the pool, I see my cheering squad: Phil, with sons Philip and Charlie. “Did you see me? How’d I look?” “Great!” The cumulative times and placements are posted after each leg. Philip checks out the situation. “Diane, you’re sixth from last.” “Isn’t that wonderful!” I beam. “I was sure I’d be dead last.” He gives me a funny look. The last leg, the 200, is another PR. I happily clutch the laminated card that has my times marked. To this day, it is posted with pride on my refrigerator. As we walk to the post race lunch and awards, Charlie says, “You did really good.” I am shocked to get a compliment from a 14 year old. So since my initial six laps, I’ve improved. In some races, swimming is even my best event. But my times are not getting much better and the fast swimmers look so much more graceful than I feel. I set a goal to improve my swimming. Now, I may not be a natural athlete, but I’m a very good reader. And I’m pretty adept at watching TV too. So I give it a shot. What can I lose? Just $49.85. I order the Total Immersion Freestyle Made Easy DVD and the Triathlon Swimming Made Easy book, both by Terry Laughlin, founder and Head Coach of Total Immersion Swimming. I curl up with the book one cold January day. It speaks to me. “Swim with ease,” it coos. “Enjoy every stroke,” it murmurs. “Exit the water refreshed,” it whispers. Be strong for the bike leg, it promises. The book warns that with master’s swim, you may become a fitter flailer, but not necessarily a good swimmer. This book knows me. After reading, I concentrate on the video. It warns me to not try to swim fast while learning the new techniques. Focus on form, and speed will follow. Do not practice struggle. For a few weeks I avoid the drills but try to incorporate the swim techniques. I scold myself. “You have to do the drills! That’s the point.” “I don’t wanna. I’ll look stupid.”“So what?” I take the plunge and try drill number one: floating on my back, gently kicking my feet and not using my hands or arms. I am a sinker. I snort water through my nose and quickly stand. I give it another shot and feel my butt sinking. I kick more vigorously. The point of this drill is to feel comfortable and supported in the water. I’m not. The book stresses to not move onto the next drill until you are comfortable with what you are doing. I try it again. And then it happens. I have a happy, effortless back kick across the pool. No water up my nose and body feels balanced. Look at me, I’m floating. And nobody has stopped, stared, pointed or laughed. Not that I noticed anyway. That night, I read up on the next drill. My next session, I do what are now fun back float laps and then, a little nervous, I rotate on to my side so that one shoulder and arm are pointing up but my face is as it was with the back float. More water up the nose but after the back float experience, I trust that this will get easier quickly. I rotate slightly less to regain some balance and kick across the pool. I'm very surprised that I’m able to propel myself without any arm movement. After a session of those, I am no longer snorting water and that drill is fun too. That night, I read up on the next drill and do that in my next session. And so it goes. However, I’m not following every word of advice in the book. The book tells me if I do nothing else, count every stroke on every lap. The goal is to reduce stroke count as I increase my stroke length. My stroke goes up by one, it goes down by one. Nothing much is happening with my stroke count and it’s tedious as hell. And it is sucking all the joy out of swimming. What I do have going for me is I like to swim. But with the incessant stroke counting, I am starting to dread going to the pool. So I stop it. Maybe it would make me a better swimmer. But I don’t swim just to get better; I swim because I enjoy it. I throw out the advice that doesn’t work for me. After a long hiatus, I go back to Masters Swim. My plan is to keep doing drills on my own once a week. Gina says, “Diane, where’ve you been? Missed you.”
“I missed you too!”
After our warmup, Candy has us do eight 50s with 15 seconds rest. We’re on our 6th 50 when Gina pants, “You’re not even breathing hard.” Will it pay off on race day? Not really sure, but I do know I am enjoying swimming more than ever. I don’t think I’m faster, but swimming is easier. My first tri of the season is at Webster. I’m in the first wave. My smooth long stroke is ingrained. I catch some feet in front of me and draft happily. I lose those friendly feet at the buoy turn but pick up another pair. I think, “What a wonderful day. What a wonderful swim. Life is great.” I am in a Zen state of bliss. I have never felt so good while swimming and certainly never while racing. The state of contentment, happiness and peace stays with me into the transition and through the entire race. I am having such a good time I don’t even know or care how fast I’m going. Now granted, last year’s Webster race was a debacle with horrible weather and other issues. This race time should be faster. And it is. By 9 minutes! For a sprint! An even better comparison is versus last year’s Danskin race, which is the same course, had been my strongest race ever, and had similar weather. I dropped 2 minutes from that time. Thank you, Terry Laughlin. Maybe I’ll even try counting strokes again.