Friday, February 15, 2013

How I learnt to swim

Coming next Friday: The anatomy of a chase.

The Indian Experience

This background is necessary since, unlike here in the US where kids grow up swimming and take being in the water for granted, it wasn't exactly a sporting culture that I grew up in. If you have always had a fear of water, you should read this background.

The only bodies of water I saw during my childhood in Madurai, India were local waterholes that were more ponds than lakes and completely covered by green algae. Only buffaloes and little kids, there to watch over the buffaloes, with no thought for hygiene could be found cooling off in them. And there were always flies and mosquitoes buzzing about when it wasn't too hot. Us middle class kids stayed away. Sure, there were puddles of water and temporary little streams -- is there a fully working drainage system in India? -- by the roadside left behind by one of those tropical thunderstorms that came out of nowhere but I couldn't learn to swim in them. You would like to see that, would you now?

Scratch. Scratch. Not my photo.

One time a bunch of my friends bicycled out to the countryside slightly north west of the city almost a third of the way toward Alanganallur to just hang out and experience nature. After lunching from the little food we had brought with us in the stringy shade of a vineyard (okra?), we discovered a little canal that was used to irrigate the crops in the surrounding area. The water flowed slowly and came up to shin height and we cooled off and had great fun. We returned a couple more times for that experience.

The road to Alanganallur? Well, it looks close enough. Not my photo.

The only swimming pool was in the chamber of commerce's property across from the Gandhi Museum and, every time I bicycled past that place, I would stand up on the bike's pedals with scant regard for traffic and gaze with star-studded eyes over the compound wall at the pool until it disappeared from view. Nobody seemed to use that pool. Thankfully, that particular road never had heavy traffic either.

I have had four brushes with ocean swimming in India. The first was when my family bought a piece of land near the ocean in the Thondi area. A couple of employees who worked at a restaurant my Dad owned and who were from the Thondi area had recommended that purchase. The continental shelf extends quite a bit on the Coromandel coast and the waters especially around Thondi were very calm. As a result, it was an area that seemed to have a lot of tiny fishing hamlets. Easier to launch and dock small sail boats. And great for someone with zero swimming skills. I remember waddling around in the ocean with waters up to knee height for hours on end over several trips I took to the area, sometimes with family and sometimes with my Dad's employees' families who lived in a small, peaceful village nearby. The best part was always the bullock cart ride from their village to the always uninhabited beaches and back under moonlight on country roads.

Mahabalipuram, I think. Thondi was mostly villages and palm trees. Not my photo.

My second time in the ocean was during a high school class trip to Kerala. I don't much remember the details as our full attention was always on our female classmates, who refused to be lured into waters any deeper than ankle height. Sigh.

About a year before I came to the US, some of my friends took a little trip during summer holidays to Chennai, where we stayed in the house of a relative of one of my buddies. When you are in Chennai, you gravitate to the Marina beach sooner or later. This was my third brush with ocean swimming. The waves came in huge rolls and you could see adventurous kids being lifted and brought into shore. It was an exciting afternoon for a ride. As usual, most of the Indian people just waded in ankle or knee deep while remaining fully clothed. I went in with much gusto, was promptly lifted up by a wave and after several moments of sheer terror when my feet were completely off the floor, I somehow found myself back on the beach. I wouldn't go into the ocean again until years later in the United States.

During my second visit to India, seven or so years after I had emigrated to the US, most of our family from all over the country gathered in Madurai for the wedding of a cousin of mine. Some of us men decided to visit Rameshwaram before the wedding. One of my Uncles couldn't understand why I wouldn't go in the ocean there. He kept trying to push me to go in. Man didn't know when to give up. Finally, I relented, dipped a big toe in, did a 180 and sprinted back up the beach toward the temple area. I would sit there on a bench under the hot sun just content watching life move by on a busy historic street until the boys returned from the beach. My fourth brush with the ocean had been just that...a brush.

Ok, so that was some background material there, huh?! It was a good visit in time for me, actually. Anyway, after that third brush, I had developed a huge fear of water.

The American experience

After several embarrassing attempts at swimming at the pool during my college days at UMASS, Boston, I gave up. Shortly after, I paid a kid I found on Craigslist to teach me to swim in a suburban apartment complex pool in Stoughton. A couple of classes got us nowhere. It was spring and the water was cold. And I wouldn't put my head under water. Plus there was a good looking brunette around my age who hung around the pool in shorts and t-shirts and we kept catching each other's eye. Caretaker, maybe. But she was distracting and I was very self-conscious. Next up was a visit a few years later -- and just before that second trip to India I mentioned above -- to Stowe, Vermont with a bunch of friends during spring. We stayed at a motel-resort with a heated outdoor pool. Here I learned to swim with the guidance of a friend and had worked up the courage to swim up to the deep water mark on a single breath and always with my head above water when our trip ended and we had to return to Boston. As a matter of fact, I was up in that area for a couple of days just this week but I couldn't get a room in that resort (ski season).

Morrisville-Stowe State Airport in Northern Vermont. Not my photo.

My fourth attempt at learning to swim happened sometime in the late 2000s. Again, my friend, who was Indian by the way, agreed to coach me at the pool at the Marriott in Quincy. The Marriott then allowed non-guests access to its pool through a membership program. Anyway, I finally learnt to swim. Here is how it went down:

The first thing you need is the right attitude. Fear of failure will hold you back. By this time, I was sick of myself from chickening out and I was driven to succeed. I had had similar troubles with learning to snowboard and I eventually mastered that after a couple of seasons of trying. I took the attitude that I had developed on the slopes and simply transferred it to the pool. To put this in cold-blooded terms, I saw my body as a vehicle that needed to go from point A to point B. And I asked myself a question: What do I need to do to get there? Then I applied. Just applied. There were other visualizations that helped. I imagined all those beautiful women and all those beach boys having fun in the water while I sat bereft on the shore watching them. Alone. I didn't want to be on the outside anymore. I thought of Dara Torres' comeback. Next thing I knew I had my head under the water during my first session at the pool.

Then I came out of the water deliberately slowly. It started of as one single breast stroke. Then I landed on my feet and took several breaths. One more stroke. Stand on my feet. Repeat. Now I was a third of the way into the lane. I decided to turn back. One more stroke. Stand on my feet. Repeat. The temptation was there to do multiple strokes. And I am quite sure some of you would have done just that especially if you didn't have fear of water. Well, kudos to you. But I decided I wasn't going to give in to pressure because a bunch of kids and their mothers were (may be) watching me. I had a plan. I was going to apply it. I was fucking applying it. Don't ruin it now.

All this time, my friend diligently swam with me and continued encouraging me. Then the next session, I did the same thing. But I would stay under water a little more and get used to that world enveloping my senses. I would revel in it. I would move my eyes left and right while keeping my head still like Charlie Chaplin would. I was toying with destiny. Or so, I told myself. In his book HMS Ulysses, Alistair MacLean describes the travails of British sailors in WWII whose Destroyer gets torpedoed in the cold waters of the northern Atlantic and they find themselves in the water in a burning oil slick...oil from their own ship. Eventually, the skipper of another British ship in the convoy decides to relieve those burning men of their suffering and orders his crew to run over them. He couldn't stop to rescue them as then his own vessel would be a sitting duck. And the men in the water understand and are grateful as the hull bears down on them. I kept that scene in mind during every session. This was a 4 feet deep pool I was in, for crying out aloud! I think it was six weeks later, at the rate of around two to three sessions a week, that I swam end to end and while breathing properly. I remember that moment, after that first full lap, when I put my head against the wall of the pool, away from it all, and just stood there with my arms hanging limply by my side. Yet another piece of sh*t I had had to figure out by myself. Felt good though. My friend and I went to get a drink at the hotel bar after. I drove back into Boston and he went south to Weymouth.

6' 0". Gulp. Not my photo.

The biggest issue I had was with breathing. Up until my first successful lap, I was actually doing full laps for a couple of sessions but always on a single breath. I was just afraid to breathe normally. So I analyzed the issue and decided to apply a different tack. I went back to what I did in my first session: One stroke. Stand up. Repeat. Except as I stood up slowly, I would exhale just before my head broke the surface. The idea was to get used to how it felt to be exhaling under water. Then it happened. I did two strokes in succession and I breathed! It happened this way. As I stood up after the first stroke, I exhaled, my head broke the surface, I inhaled and deliberately let my legs fold underneath me. After that, it was easy. My words can only be so fluid. You have to try it to experience that.

Lessons learned

1. It doesn't matter what you eat as a solid meal before swimming but by the time you get to the pool, your stomach should be empty. I would much rather go in a little hungry than with a little food still in my stomach. You need mental clarity to stay focused and food in the stomach means blood is where it shouldn't be. After many years swimming, I find that this is the tip that makes the biggest difference in the quality of my swim sessions.
2. The first stroke you likely will get good at is the breast stroke. Fight the temptation to learn all the strokes right away. Get good at doing laps with your first stroke style. Then try to learn the others.
3. You might have to go through two or three masks before you find the right one. Anticipate this happening. When you are prepared, you won't get frustrated with your learning experience.
4. Spend minimal time at Sports Authority or reading about perfecting swim technique from the champions. Instead try to hit the pool as often as you can. While you should get your swim gear right, don't fret about it too much or about what the pros are doing. Otherwise, you might never learn to swim.
5. If your gym has a hot tub or steam room, use it after the swim. Somehow, a hot tub is much sweeter after a hard swim. It will be your reward for your dedication. But don't spend time looking for a gym with a pool and a hot tub. Just find one with a pool and start paddling.
6. See if you can rope in someone -- a friend, colleague, family member -- to swim with you. My friend made it clear that I could take advantage of his time at the pool. You will then be forced to show up at the pool because you know that someone else would be waiting for you.
7. Finally, bring attitude to your sessions. Put all other aspects of your life -- career, girlfriend, car problems, etc. --- aside and get into swim mode even before you get to the locker room. Like me, think of one or two people or events that can motivate you to conquer fear and concentrate on analysis and application. I would start doing this visualization as soon as I parked my car and shut off the engine. And it greatly helped reset my mind for the swim session ahead.

In conclusion

I have always been confident sunbathing at the beaches in New England ever since I arrived in these here parts. But that was largely because I had worked hard to build a fantastic physique. However, I rarely went in the water. But trust me: when you learn to swim, it opens up another entirely new world to you. You become much less self-conscious about appearing in a swimsuit. There is a certain confidence that will start projecting in your bearing. And this confidence will allow you to assimilate with people that you might normally have found standoffish. You and they suddenly become more approachable to each other. I am not going to elaborate on this. But once you learn to swim, you will realize right away what I am talking about here.