When swimming became my primary workout regimen in the spring of 2010, I stuck to two strokes: freestyle and breaststroke. When I realized that the leg movement of the breaststroke was doing my bum hip more harm than good, I became a strict freestyler. Every now and then I’d flip over and attempt the backstroke from one end of the pool to the other, but, um….I sucked. I couldn’t kick fast enough to stop my legs from sinking, my arms were all over the place, I could not stay in a straight line and would constantly drift from side to side, and I was deathly afraid of smacking my head on the edge of the pool, so I’d always stop several feet before the lane actually ended. It was embarrassing, because there were 70-something-year-old women in skirted swimsuits who were more composed on their backs than me.

So I stopped. I stunk at something, so I gave up. My ungraceful floundering coupled with my ongoing fear of hitting my head against a concrete wall was my excuse to bail out.

But, like any time one sticks to the familiar, things stagnate. Sure, I added some speed intervals and kickboard circuits to my freestyle workout. I even created a modified breaststroke in which I stuck a foam noodle over my waist and used breaststroke arms to propel my buoyed bottom from one end of the pool to the other. But one stroke is a limited repertoire. My hips were capable of doing the backstroke; it was my scaredy-cat brain that was holding me back.

So at the start of this summer, I consulted my #1 resource for swimming how-tos: YouTube. I watched clip after clip of professional swimmers demonstrating the stroke, standing in my living room doing backstroke arms, looking like a wackadoo windmill. I learned how to use a pull-buoy underneath my neck as a beginning step in getting the leg motion right. I took my newfound tricks to the gym and found that, although, they helped, I was still really slow and awkward. Who knew that such a relaxing, chill stroke could be so difficult?!

However, I decided to persist this time. I’d go to the gym, do my 30 laps of freestyle, and end the swim with 2 laps of a sloppy backstroke. My plans were foiled whenever the pool was crowded and I had to share a lane; no way was I endangering the safety of my lap companion with my wayward arms and legs.

Somewhere along the way–I don’t even know how or when it happened–I got good. Not great, not awesome, and certainly not master-level, but an honest-to-god good. I remember going from one end to the other–in a straight line–feeling like all my body parts were in the right place. I had speed. I ended just about a foot away from the wall. It felt right. Like your first time “getting” headstand in yoga, when all the weight is distributed in your arms, your core is tucked, and there is no pressure on your neck or eyeballs. Oh, that‘s how that’s supposed to feel!

I tried to break everything down and figure out exactly how my arms were moving, the precise flutter of my feet, but then everything got messy again. It seemed the more I analyzed each motion, the less graceful the stroke became. The trick–aside from learning to go with the flow (literally)–was to keep my core engaged, tuck the tailbone, and keep a steady drishti (eye gaze) just a few inches ahead in the direction I was going, using my surroundings (pool ladder, signs on the wall) as clues to when the wall would be approaching. Oh, and to breathe. (You would think it would be easier to remember to breathe when your face is actually out of the water, but I was always gasping like a dying fish).

So. Core engaged. Steady focus. Astute awareness of surroundings. Breatheeee. Sound familiar? Lil’ bit of yoga? Lil’ bit of instructions for life?

Granted, sometimes the best intentions go out the window in times of stress, no matter how hard you try to apply these basic principles. And I still have days when my backstroke looks like a game of Pong, me bouncing from one side of the lane to the other. But I’ve learned over the past few months that practice and commitment really do work, and when life knocks me down I’ll just get back on my back again.

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