The Two Most Important Things I Know about Swimming

Here are the two most important things I know about swimming:

1) The water wants to hold you up.

I see a lot of bad swimming. I don’t interfere. First of all, it’s none of my business. And second, people swim for different reasons–maybe they just want to get their heart rates up–and these people may be perfectly happy swimming badly. It probably burns some calories. It certainly looks tiring.

The reason many of these swimmers are having difficulty is that they don’t understand that the water wants to hold them up. In the words of the great American founding father and swimmer, Benjamin Franklin:

You will be no swimmer till you can place some confidence in the power of the water to support you.

(I would stitch this on a sampler and hang it on the wall if I did embroidery. I have thought about taking up embroidery for this very purpose.)

In order to swim, you have to be able to float. Ultraswimfast has a great post at The Waterblogged Triathlete called So, You Think You Can Float? She’s got simple stick figure drawings showing you the body position you need to float; you press your chest down to bring your legs up. Perhaps it’s counterintuitive, pressing into the water to float, but it makes a huge difference. As Ultraswimfast puts it, “Swimmers who can’t float without kicking or using buoys will feel like they are swimming uphill. Swimming uphill will cause a lot of drag, forcing the athlete to work harder to go slower.”

I see people working very hard, not going anywhere. They look as if they are fighting off invisible alligators. Sometimes I wonder if they are fighting off invisible alligators.

Photo of invisible alligators?  Image by You As A Machine on flickr
There might be invisible alligators in there. How would we know?
Image by You As A Machine

But if you want to move forward, you have to stop fighting. The water wants to hold you up. Let it.

2) You only swim on the top of the water.

When I was very small, I was afraid to swim in the deep end of the pool. Actually, that’s not exactly it–I was only afraid when I was swimming on my front. I wasn’t afraid on my back, doing backstroke. It was seeing the water under me that scared me.

But one day I realized the second very important thing about swimming: You only swim on the top of the water. It doesn’t matter if the water is 3 feet deep or 300 feet deep, you could be swimming over the Mariana Trench, it’s all the same–you only swim on the top.

Jenny Landreth wrote a post on The Guardian’s swimming blog last October titled, Open-water swimming: how do you handle the Fear? She asks:

Is there an open-water swimmer alive who hasn’t at some point found his/her mind thinking, “What the hell is underneath me at this precise moment?” and by the very act of thinking it, opened the floodgates to a self-generated vision of some great monster of the deep rising up underneath to take you SCHWOMP in one great bite, exactly like that Jaws poster?

I assume this question is supposed to be rhetorical, but I can answer it: Yes, there is. There’s me. I have never imagined horrors below me, not in a pool or a lake or the ocean. I have never worried about the kraken lurking beneath me, any more than I have worried about space debris hurtling from orbit to hit me as I walk down the street.

I've never stitched a sampler, but I knit this kraken. Little known fact: the kraken prefers cheap red wine.
I’ve never stitched a sampler, but I knit this kraken. Little known fact: the kraken prefers cheap red wine.

It’s not that I’m fearless. I haven’t been afraid of imaginary sharks, but I have been afraid of real people behaving irresponsibly in high-speed boats. The sad truth is that the most dangerous hazards in open water swimming are not lurking beneath the surface; they are right on top of it, and they’re human.

I never wanted my children to be afraid of deep water—I want them to be safe and careful, but not irrationally afraid—and so even when they were small, I would put them on my back and swim them into the deep end. I would be the mommy sea turtle, and my child would be the baby sea turtle holding on to my shell, and we would pretend to swim in the deep ocean.

It doesn’t matter how deep it is. You only swim on the top.

What’s the most important thing you know about swimming?

6 thoughts on “The Two Most Important Things I Know about Swimming

  1. We did the mommy swimming with baby thing too but we might have been sharks. Or dolphins, I don’t recall.

    The other part is why I decided I needed a stroke seminar. I knew I had to be doing something inefficient, which also could lead to bodily harm in some fashion.

  2. Great post! Thanks for linking back to us. I always tell people the same thing about swimming on top of the water no matter how deep it is and only get looked at like I’m crazy half the time Have a great weekend.

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