Total Immersion: The Backstory

author : alicefoeller
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An interview with Terry Laughlin

Many triathletes are familiar with the Total Immersion 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.

Regardless of your personal results with Total Immersion (TI) or your opinions, the backstory of how TI was born is fascinating.

I recently had the opportunity to interview TI founder Terry Laughlin as he passed through Ohio. I was seated around a boardroom table in a local law firm with a collection of triathletes and open water swimmers from Columbus, some of whom trained together and others who were meeting for the first time. Among the group were the City Attorney for Columbus, a doctor, two Ironman finishers, and a friend who swam the English Channel and the Straits of Gibraltar.

Laughlin began to tell his story in response to a question about how Total Immersion was started. 

Laughlin grew up on Long Island and remembers his dad teaching him to swim for the first time. "He taught me the dead man’s float and to windmill my arms, and churn my legs, just like everyone is taught,” Laughlin recounted. He swam in the open water around Long Island, not encountering his first swimming pool until one was built near his neighborhood when he was 12.

He earned his Red Cross swimming badge in that pool, but was the only one cut when they held tryouts for a swim team. Laughlin says he went to tryouts for almost every sport, so he wasn't crushed by being cut. He continued to frequent the pool, and noticed a poster for the Red Cross 50 Mile Swim Challenge, which asked swimmers to keep a running total of their laps all summer in 1964.

"It was an unspoken competition," Laughlin said, with the names of participants on the poster, and their ever increasing mileage mounting toward the goal. Laughlin found the high number of laps made him feel at home in the pool.

"I turned myself into someone who was comfortable with rhythmic breathing,” he said. "I liked the solitary, meditative quality of swimming laps.”

A swim team started up at his school in 10th grade, and he joined, but never made the state championships. He swam in college at St. John's University in New York, quipping, "I swam distance freestyle because I was too slow for anything else." 

However, his times improved dramatically, due to his singular focus and intensity. Laughlin said he viewed every repeat as a race he had to win. He made great progress his first two years, then stalled and began to backslide.

"They introduced goggles my senior year. That was really unfortunate because I had a clear view of everyone pulling away from me," he said. “I finished college feeling really defeated by the sport."

Laughlin said his coaches at that time knew little about sports science and kinesiology, and frankly didn't know much about swimming at all. At one point he was swimming under coaches who didn't know about circle swimming, and so they only did 50-meter repeats. He realized later, swimming his first 500-yard swim in practice, that he wasn't falling behind once the team was swimming more than a lap at a time!

In college, he met Thomas Liotti, then the coach at the United States Merchant Marine Academy. Liotti has studied sports science and was more sophisticated than Laughlin's coaches. When Laughlin graduated with a degree in political science, he had no plan for his life, and really felt he had majored in swimming more than anything else. Liotti was entering law school and approached Laughlin about coaching in his place at Merchant Marine. Laughlin said he was completely unqualified, but had no competing plans, and the offer of a paying job was attractive, so he took it.

Laughlin said during his swim team years, no one ever said anything about technique. They put workouts on the board and stood there with a stopwatch. "Something happened my very first day," said Laughlin. “I was standing at the end of the pool watching. This is the first time I’m ever watching swimming where I’m responsible for their performance. And I noticed everyone was asymmetrical. I thought 'This can’t be good. Every single stroke you're sending energy off-center.' The left breathers were all torqueing left and the right breathers were all torqueing right.”

The next day, Laughlin told his swimmers to do the warm up breathing to their weak side. He noticed they all swam symmetrically. This was the beginning of Laughlin's love affair with technique and body position, and their influence on swim performance.

He noticed the swimmers in Lane 4, the slow lane, looked shorter and choppier. The Lane 1 swimmers looked longer.

“Every swimmer was a one-off project for me," he said. ”I thought, what if I could make the swimmers in lane 4 look more like the swimmers in lane 1?” Laughlin was one of the first college coaches of his time to engage with individual swimmers and work on their form. Despite his inexperience, his team won 9 of 16 events in the league swim conference that year, and he was voted coach of the year by his peers.

As it has turned out during the intervening years, his philosophy and simple analogies (Rag Doll Recovery, Mail Slot Entry, and Patient Catch, for example) have proven to be a great fit with adult learners, who have the cognitive capacity to understand the intricacies of technique, and often don't have the speed that normally overcomes typical swimming problems such as legs that drop toward the bottom of the pool, or too much drag caused by poor body position.

Stay tuned for future articles about how to improve your distance swim stroke with small, simple adjustments, and an article about the role of endurance swimming in Terry Laughlin's courageous fight against Stage 4 cancer.


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date: December 1, 2016


Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.


Owner at Beginner Triathlete, web marketing consultant at SiteInSight, writer, entrepreneur, advocate for unstructured nature play for kids.

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