By age 19, I had not lost my fear of deep water or my longing to swim with the dolphins. I braved swimming lessons at college and registered for a School for Field Studies course on Dolphin Biology and Behavior in the Gulf of Mexico. My job was photographing dorsal fins, developing the film and drawing up ID cards by hand. I spent many happy hours aboard a small Zodiac marveling at those playful and intelligent creatures. The one time I swam with my beloved dolphins, though, I got stung by an enormous jellyfish and passed out. Tiger sharks kept us out of the water other days. I got seasick, sun burnt and bitten by fire ants. One of our teachers worked as a caterer to make ends meet. Maybe marine biology wasn't the career for me.
Splash ahead two decades and several careers, and here I am painting seaside landscapes and writing novels in coastal Maine. Before sitting down to write, I often swim laps. The pool is a sensory deprivation tank. All I can think about is that day’s writing. The physical exertion gets my brain going and makes it easier to sit still for hours afterwards.
One morning in the Bowdoin College pool, I discovered a class for adults. The Bowdoin swim coach was offering free lessons to the campus community. There were two triathlon athletes who wanted to improve their swim times and a woman who had nearly drowned at age 12. The coach’s comment to me: “At least you’re getting a good work out swimming that inefficiently.”
Sagahadoc Bay by Sarah Laurence
Do you get breathless while swimming the crawl/freestyle?
Like me, you’re probably holding onto your air and not exhaling properly. Every time you take a breath, you’re exhaling as well as inhaling. You end up with a backlog of old air, and the carbon dioxide builds up in your lungs. To break this bad habit, my coach has me exhale all my air above water and then sit at the bottom of the pool. While swimming, I focus on exhaling the entire time my head is in the water. When I take a breath, I try to inhale only.
More freestyle tips:
1. Don’t break your line. To inhale, rotate and barely lift your head. One eye remains under water.
2. Don’t swim flat on the water. Rotate your entire body from side to side with every stroke. Lead the pivot with your hips. There will be less drag.
3. Don’t rotate your arms around your shoulders like a windmill. Shorten your arm stroke. Your hands should come no lower than your waist. Pull forward from your core like in rock climbing. 80% of the power comes from the arms, not from the legs, in freestyle.
4. Kick from your abs and glutes, not your quads. Flutter your legs quickly but with little motion under water.
I may not be a dolphin, but I’m finally able to enjoy swimming. The experience reminded me of what it’s like being a teenager: facing fears, jumping in and struggling to master a new skill. As adults, we too often get stuck treading water.
Disclosure: these tips are what I drew from my lessons and are not the Bowdoin swim coach's exact words. Both watercolors are by me. The top one is of the Giant Stairway rock formation on Bailey Island, painted after a hurricane.
Blog Watch: Congratulations to Troutbirder for a story published in Minnesota Birding. Travels with Persephone is posting from South America on vacation. YA Highway had some good revision tips, including changing the font.