Monday, January 18, 2010

Mastering My Swimming Fears

I finally joined the Milky Way Masters swim club. I’ve always been a bit intimidated by the name. I wasn’t the master of anything. Maybe the coaches were like martial arts masters that possessed secret knowledge. Maybe the MWM could help me master swimming.

To understand my swimming journey, you first have to know where I’ve been. It was the 1970’s and like many small-town kids, my parents sent me off to swimming lessons at the community pool. It would be over-dramatic to say I almost drowned, but it was one of the more traumatic experiences in my life.

As part of my beginning test I had to jump into the deep end of the pool. I jumped out too far and when I couldn’t reach the side, I panicked. I started sinking. I splashed with my arms, trying to stay above the surface, only to go under again. I thought, “one of the instructors will jump in and save me” but they never did. I don’t know how many times I went under, but they finally took a long pole and stuck it in the water. The first time it slipped through my hands. I was finally able to grab it and they pulled me in. I sat on the side of the pool, crying, choking, gasping for air. My mother took me home and I begged her not to make me go back. From that day on, I would never go into water unless I could touch bottom.

Flash forward to early 2007. I had decided I wanted to do a triathlon. I would have to learn to swim. I signed up for an 8-week course at the YMCA. I learned the crawl, but I had trouble with the breathing. Every time I crossed the line into the deep end of the pool I could feel my heart beat faster and I would have this overwhelming feeling that I couldn’t breathe.

I continued doing lap swims at the Bender city pool, but I couldn’t seem to go more than a few strokes before pulling my head out of the water. I decided to swim the Pigman that way. Needless to say, I recorded one of the slowest swim times in the entire race.

Midwest Xtreme formed shortly thereafter. At the first group swim Greg Bodeker saw my swim style and said “You can’t swim like that.” He told me I was using too much energy. I would have to really learn to swim.

I spent the next two seasons doing hours and hours of lap swims, but I still couldn’t breathe. I used to cry because I was so frustrated. Why couldn’t I get it? What did the other swimmers know that I didn’t? My times got a little better, but that seemed to be due to endurance and not technique. I knew I needed help. I talked to my swim buddy, Cole Stepanek, about getting a swim coach. She said we should go to Masters.

I knew a lot of triathletes went to Masters. I felt intimidated and I didn’t want everyone to know how bad I was. That first night Cole called me to make sure I was going (I almost chickened out) and I found my place in the slow lane.

Coach Nick immediately declared that “he could take 10 minutes off my time.” I think I became Nick and John’s special project. They worked with me on my breathing and my stroke. I felt humiliated and singled out, but I knew they had helped me. Cole called me before the next practice to make sure I was going. Part of me never wanted to go back, but I swallowed my pride and went.

There was so much to remember and I felt like I was on information overload. Nick broke it down for me. “Just try to swim from one end of the pool to the other without stopping,,,and then do it again.” That became my focus. Even though it felt like my lungs would burst, I kept going. When I swam the length of the pool for the first time I could feel the tears in my eyes. I had done it! What other people take for granted, was a major accomplishment for me. “Just do it again,” I said. I swam back and resisted that urge to pull my head out of the water. “You can breathe. You are not going to drown,” I convinced myself. I was actually swimming!

During one practice Nick announced we were going to do a 500-yard timed-swim. We would all start at the same time. I felt a sinking feeling in my stomach. I knew I was the slowest swimmer there and I envisioned swimming back and forth, long after everyone else had finished, Sure enough, I was out there by myself.

I was surprised to find Jody Rausch, MWX member and USAT coach, waiting at the far end of the pool. She was there to cheer me on. “You’re not a quitter,” she said, using my own words from a previous column. I kept going. When I finished that final lap everyone was congratulating me and fist-bumping me, like I had been first instead of last. I was receiving the same support here that I received from the tri club. I was starting to feel good about swimming.

I have a goal: to swim a mile at the Hy-Vee Triathlon. I have a lot of work to do, but with the support of MWM and MWX, I feel like I am a little closer. Above all, you have to keep tri-ing!