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How long has it been since you learned a brand new skill?

I am still gloating a little after recently overcoming a big fear of mine that required a bit of bravery and a lot of practice.

I’m talking about the FLIP TURN.

I swim about three times a week, and while I am always trying to improve my speed or technique or endurance, there are few new NEW tricks to learn. Once you master the act of learning how to swim (which for me was, oh, early elementary school?), you’re pretty much set. Skill acquired.

The last big pool accomplishment that had me smiling in my Speedo was honing the backstroke. Before that, I could certainly swim on my back…but it probably couldn’t technically be termed a “stroke” by any means. But with some time, practice, and patience, suddenly it all clicked and I could get from one end of the pool to the other, on my back, in a straight line.

One thing I’ve always wanted to do but was always too afraid to try was the flip turn.

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While I am proud of myself for being able to swim 40+ laps without stopping at the wall and putting my feet down, changing direction without the flip turn is a bit choppy and adds just the slightest little time-suck to an otherwise fluid and flowing workout.

I tried a flip once, back when I first started a regular swimming routine. I hit my head on the wall, swallowed a mouthful of water, and knocked my goggles off. Never again, I thought. I’ll just leave that to the pros.

But now it’s been more than two years since I took up swimming, and I’ve been spending my down time in the hot tub eying the “pros” as the do their laps–swoosh, swoosh, swoosh, FLIP! It looks so fun! So elegant! And man, it gets you off the wall FAST!

A few weeks ago, I had the rare opportunity of having the gym pool all to myself. I finished my normal workout and spent a few minutes afterward stretching out my back against the wall.

The wall. Hmmm…

With the place all to myself, I figured What the heck? If I flubbed up, at least I would be spared any embarrassment.

And I did flub up. I flipped too early and missed the wall, I flailed my arms around too much, I angled myself way too low and pushed my body not straight out but straight DOWN, into the pool floor. Ow.

I got water up my nose, in my mouth, in my goggles. But the place was all still mine, so I kept going. Flip, cough, adjust goggles. Flip, cough, adjust goggles. Over and over again. I kept at it until the pool taste in my mouth was overbearing and my nose felt swollen with saltwater.

Between that and my next attempt, I consulted the King of Consultants for Acquiring New Skills: YouTube.

(No, not to watch airplane videos but to watch people demonstrating the flip turn!)

Miraculously, I had the lap lanes all to myself again during my next visit to the gym pool (it was a sign; this NEVER happens). There was a couple in the regular section, but it was evening and the interior lights still hadn’t been turned on yet, so it was quite dark and mysterious, a perfect time to practice in the shadows. I dedicated about 20 minutes post-workout to flipping, starting a few yards away from the wall, swimming toward it, and turning upside down.

My two biggest problems were (a) getting water up my nose, and (b) getting water in my goggles. With time, I realized that this was happening because I was being too aggressive with the action. Yes, it’s important to forcefully exhale through your nose when turning, but not with such gusto that you end up inhaling on the upswing. I toned down the breathing and approached it like a yoga breath, and less and less water got in my brain. The goggles situation improved after I stopped grimacing my face so much when flipping. By keeping my face relaxed and not getting it all in a nervous bunch when flipping, my goggles stayed in place–no water in my eyes.

By Swim #4, I was ready to incorporate the turns into my laps, even though the thought of doing so seemed exhausting. I didn’t understand how so many people say the flip turns makes swimming “easier.” At the beginning of my workout, it was not. I became out of breath wayyy earlier than normal and was still dealing with some water up my nose and in my eyes. But I stopped, adjusted everything, and went about with my laps, trying not to pause for too long to regroup.

Just last night was my first full lap workout with real-looking/feeling flip turns. I finally found the rhythm, that sweet spot right before the wall when to stick my arm out in front of me and flip myself over. I had to stop only a few times when my breath didn’t quite synchronize with the location of the wall, but for the most part, I was swimming like one of the “pros” I envied just a few weeks ago.

I was utterly exhausted when I got in my car, but the thrill of learning something new gave me enough energy to smile during the drive home.

What’s the last new skill that you acquired?

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.

About the Author

Name: Jennifer

Location: Greater Philadelphia Area

Blog Mission:
SHARE my practice experience in conscious dance and yoga,

EXPAND my network of like-minded individuals,

FULFILL my desire to work with words in a more creative and community-building capacity;

FLOW and GROW with the world around me!



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