10 mile swim

It isn't far to swim when you have friends waiting at the end.

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On Nakedness

Last month, ESPN The Magazine‘s annual Body issue came out. I didn’t know ESPN The Magazine had an annual Body issue (I was only vaguely aware there was an ESPN The Magazine), but I heard about this one weeks in advance. Every year, the Body issue features tasteful, artistically nude photographs of athletes from a variety of sports, most of them people I’ve never heard of. But this year, among them, is Michael Phelps:

Michael Phelps. Photo by Carlos Serrao. Image from ESPN.

Michael Phelps. Photo by Carlos Serrao. Image from ESPN.

I’m enthusiastic about the Body issue; it seems to me that it is the perfect response to the decades-old Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, which is all about sex and not at all about sports. While SI features models in swimsuits, ESPN features athletes without them. These are not photos of women as objects; these images portray people, male and female, who use their bodies to do amazing things.

In addition, any positive media portrayal of Michael Phelps is good for American swimming. Swimming in the United States gets very little attention in between Olympic games. USA Swimming and US Masters Swimming are trying to attract more people to the sport with a new campaign called SwimToday (slogan: The Funnest Sport), and when Phelps talks, as he does at the end of this ESPN video (lots more nude Phelps there), about how much fun it is to swim, it’s good for all of us.

And yet, when I learned that Michael Phelps was being featured tastefully nude in ESPN The Magazine, my first thought was, Why? Is there any athlete we need naked photos of less than Michael Phelps? We all know what Phelps looks like almost naked. The difference between Michael Phelps in a swimsuit and Michael Phelps with no clothes is very very small: if you squint at any of the ESPN images, you can imagine that he’s posing in a little white speedo.

(If you follow British news, you could argue that we need photos of a naked Tom Daley even less than a naked Michael Phelps. I’m really amused by this Daily Mail article about Daley “posing topless.” He’s topless all the time. He lives his life topless. He’s a diver: they don’t wear clothes.)

My point is, while we might see something new when we see an athlete like Venus Williams or Prince Fielder with no clothes, the swimmer is already naked. It reminds me of one of my favorite passages from David McGlynn’s “Skin,” an essay about bodies and nakedness and what it means to be a swimmer:

[In swimming] there are no shoes, no pads or bats, no accoutrements except for the goggles–nothing, in other words but the body. The swimmer symbolizes an essential athletic truth, that every physical contest begins this way, with the body, and one sport separates from another by the equipment and apparel it heaps onto the arms and legs, the shoulders and back and head. Bareness also keeps swimming obscure. Without jerseys or ball caps to sell in the mall, it’s hard for kids to imitate professional swimmers by dressing like them. The only way to do that is to exchange your clothes for a Speedo and go to the water. The only way to imitate a swimmer, in other words, is actually to swim. (267-68)

Swimming requires very little equipment and almost no clothes; it is sport stripped down. McGlynn states that the nakedness of swimming paradoxically keeps it hidden: you can’t put on an outfit and pose as a swimmer. On Sundays in the fall, I see whole families shopping at Costco kitted out in the uniforms of their favorite players, men, women, and children in varying sizes of the same jersey, “Roethlisberger” or another famous name written across their narrow shoulders. But you can’t put on a swimmer’s uniform. A swimmer has no uniform. A swimmer has a body.

The photos of Michael Phelps in the nude are beautiful, but they are hardly revelatory. Phelps takes off his clothes to swim, each day, every day. That is what swimmers do: not just the top swimmers, but all of us. You “exchange your clothes for a Speedo and go to the water. The only way to imitate a swimmer . . . is actually to swim.”

McGlynn, David. “Skin.” Southwest Review 95 (2010): 262-75.


The Real Reason Michael Phelps Is Coming Back

Michael Phelps.

The big swimming news is Michael Phelps’s planned return to competition later this April. The news reports have been celebratory, but with more than a hint of puzzlement: Why is Phelps coming back? For example, Christopher Clarey, writes in The New York Times:

It should be and is totally up to Phelps whether he wants to risk further denting his aura of invincibility. He has tried golf and failed (so far) to make Tiger Woods or Bubba Watson nervous. He presumably has had downtime and free time aplenty.

In the pool, he has very little, if anything, left to prove, which might not be best in a sport where the training is arduous and repetitive enough to require extreme motivation.

Clarey is perplexed: Swimming is miserable miserable MISERABLE! Only the extremely motivated would train like Phelps. Why would he put himself through more hell, risking his reputation? Of course, it’s totally up to him, but why?

I find this perspective on Phelps’s return strange. First, Michael Phelps is not invincible, and no one who watched the last Olympics thinks he is (he took fourth in the 400 IM; he won silver in the 200 butterfly). More important, I’m 99% sure why Phelps is coming back, and it has nothing to do with proving anything: he likes to swim.

Seriously, the man likes to swim. He enjoys practice. Nobody swims eight miles a day, six days a week out of sheer stubbornness; he does it because he likes doing it.

How do I know? I swam seven miles last Friday, and I liked it. It didn’t require “extreme motivation” (unless you count promising myself a hamburger and fries afterward a form of “extreme motivation”). I am reminded again of a passage from Daniel Chambliss’s article “The Mundanity of Excellence,” describing Olympic-level swimmers: “What others see as boring–swimming back and forth over a black line for two hours, say–they find peaceful, even meditative, often challenging, or therapeutic. . . . It is incorrect to believe that top athletes suffer great sacrifices to achieve their goals. Often, they don’t see what they do as sacrificial at all. They like it.” You don’t have to be a top athlete to feel this way. Look, I’m a middle-aged woman with a full-time job and two children. Taking four hours on a Friday to swim seven miles is not a sacrifice; it is an indulgence.

It’s not enough to want to race. It’s not enough to want to win. To swim that much, you have to love the swimming. And what Clarey calls “arduous and repetitive,” others call fun. ABC News quotes coach Bill Bowman on Phelps’s return to the sport:

I think he’s just really enjoying it. He enjoys the training and being physically fit. He just kind of wants to see where he’s at. It’s more really for fun. It’s been nice for me to see him swim just for the joy of it really.

There’s only one good reason to swim: for the joy of it. I hope Michael Phelps has as much fun on his comeback, however long it lasts, as I’m having getting ready for the ten mile swim.

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On Pull Buoys and Ankle Bands and the Trousers of Michael Phelps

A lot of people love pull buoys, and that’s just fine with me. Other people’s love for pull buoys in no way impacts me; I hope that those who enjoy using pull buoys will continue to enjoy using them for many happy years to come.

But while I like doing pull sets–that is, swimming using arms only–I don’t like using pull buoys. I don’t like them for the same reason I don’t like wetsuits: they mess with my body position. Most pull buoys are made of a piece of foam (or two pieces of foam) that you stick between your thighs to help your legs float behind you when you are not kicking. I don’t need help floating, and I especially don’t need a piece of foam designed to keep my butt bobbing near the surface.

Here I have to admit to a physical advantage: I am proportioned like Michael Phelps–if Michael Phelps were a five-foot-four-and-a-half-inch-tall middle-aged woman. Phelps has a long torso and short legs; he’s 6′ 4″, but he has the torso of a 6′ 8″ man and the legs of a 6′ one. As Bob Costas says in this video, “Phelps is perfectly tall–and short.” I too have a long torso and short legs. It’s an advantage for swimming. It’s a disadvantage for buying trousers. I sometimes wonder if Phelps has to hem his own trousers and if he’s better at it than I am. But these proportions (and good body position) mean that my legs float just fine and I don’t need or like pull buoys.

But I do like to do pull sets, and I am doing more and more of them in preparation for the ten mile swim. When I was a child on swim team, instead of using pull buoys we tied our ankles together with an inner tube. I don’t know what kind of inner tubes they were, but I know mine was an actual, complete inner tube, not a cut piece of rubber, because I remember how you had to be careful when you twisted it not to end up with the valve stem digging into an ankle. It was like this:

Image from Don Gambril's Swimmer and Team. Found at http://aquavolo.com/journal/article/2011/10/pull-buoy-or-not

Image from Don Gambril’s Swimmer and Team. Found at AquaVolo.

I liked using the inner tube, and that’s why I was especially pleased to learn that in the 21st century you can buy ankle bands that do the same thing without the ankle-piercing valve stem. The kind I own appears at 6:10 on the video I’ve embedded below, the yellow one from Finis. I think it’s terrific; it’s cheap and portable, and it works just fine. You can’t kick, not the least little bit, but you can still do a reasonable flip turn and push off the wall. The woman in the video uses it with a pull buoy, but I don’t; I just twist it around my ankles and go.

If you like pull buoys, more power to you. But if you don’t, or you’d just like to try something new, consider the ankle band.

This SWIMMER Magazine (from USMS) video review of pull buoys goes on for over nine minutes. It presents more types of pull buoys and ankle bands and other things than I ever thought possible:

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On Butterfly

I am unconscionably vain about my butterfly–unconscionably and unjustifiably, because I’m really not that good at it. But I can do it, and I do do it, and that sets me apart from most folks in any pool that I’m in. Periodically someone will compliment me on my butterfly, which is very bad not only because it fuels my vanity but also because I interpret any compliment about butterfly as functionally equivalent to a marriage proposal. One Saturday I was swimming at the Furman pool, and a woman told me my butterfly was “sweet”: “That’s some sweet butterfly,” she said. I smiled on the outside and said, “Thank you!” but on the inside I lamented, “ALAS BUT OUR LOVE CAN NEVER BE FOR I AM MARRIED TO ANOTHER!”

Most people I swim with are happy to swim lap after lap of freestyle, but I have five good reasons why I swim butterfly (and maybe you should too):

1. Butterfly uses your whole body.

Butterfly uses all your muscles, and probably some you don’t have. Maybe you saw the reports in November about how doctors have discovered a new knee ligament; I am sure butterfly uses that ligament. The Livestrong website has an article about the muscles that butterfly works, but I think it would be easier to list the muscles that it doesn’t work. Maybe your tongue? I don’t know though; even my tongue hurts after doing butterfly. It’s a full body workout.

2. Butterfly burns all the calories.

You can find calculators online that tell you how many calories you’re burning when you are swimming different strokes. But you can ignore them: butterfly burns all the calories. If you are swimming so that you can eat, butterfly will let you eat more–trusting you are not too tired to pick up a fork.

3. Butterfly is sexy.

So, judgments about sexiness are subjective and dependent on individual preferences as well as cultural factors. But look at this:

Or if you’d like a nice underwater view (although with lots of non-sexy gurgly noises):

Butterfly takes power and grace, and power and grace together are seriously sexy. If you haven’t watched a good butterflier and said to yourself, “I wonder if those skills are transferable,” well, you will now.

4. Butterfly feels real.

Is an art, like everything else.
I do it exceptionally well
I do it so it feels like hell.
I do it so it feels real.

As far as I know, Sylvia Plath did not swim, but swimming, like dying, is an art, and no part of that art feels real like butterfly does. I can swim freestyle a long way and zone out; I can forget what lap I’m on or even which direction I’m going. But I never zone out doing butterfly; I am always completely present. I suppose this is a corollary to point 1, about butterfly using your whole body, but if you are questioning whether you exist (or if you are just a brain in a vat), I suggest a couple lengths of butterfly. It feels real.

5. Butterfly is intimidating.

Maybe you are a big hairy man covered with tattoos, and your problem is convincing people that you are not that scary. But I am five-foot-four-and-a-half with freckles, and my problem is communicating that I am much scarier than I look. And this is where butterfly comes in. When I swim butterfly, people give me space. Not even the most clueless beginner gets in the lane with the crazy woman swimming butterfly. It makes me laugh, but it’s true: I’m scary when I swim butterfly. You could be too.

I am not the only one who is a fan of butterfly. The Warrenton Masters Swim Team is sponsoring a USMS postal competition, the Butterfly Is Not a Crime Postal through August 31, 2014. Earlier this year, Sylvain Estadieu became the first male to swim butterfly across the English Channel; the incredible Vicky Keith was the first person to swim butterfly across the English Channel back in 1989 (see her website Penguins Can Fly).


How to get out of the pool

They say all good things must come to an end, and a swim is no exception: eventually, you have to get out of the pool. I don’t think that I have ever read a book or an article on the subject, I don’t remember talking to a coach or another swimmer about it, but nonetheless I have strong (if inexplicable) feelings about the topic, and I will not argue about them: I pull myself out of the pool at the wall by myself, with dignity. I believe that as long as I am healthy and able-bodied, I should get my body onto the deck by my own power and not by using the ladder or (worse) the steps to get out. Does Diana Nyad get out at the ladder? Does Mark Spitz get out at the ladder? Does Michael Phelps swim 10,000m and then duck under a couple of lane ropes and climb out of the pool using a tiny ridiculous ladder? No, he does not.

Ladders are fine for small children or people who are eight months pregnant (been there) or folks with other physical limitations. Otherwise, you swim your laps and you get out at the wall like a grown woman.

Now I have been having a good time swimming at Westside Aquatic this week, much better than expected. I knew the pool was beautiful and fast, but I didn’t know that people there would be so welcoming: the Masters coach greeted me on Wednesday by saying, “What’s up, killer?” which is easily the nicest thing anyone has said to me in months. The one nagging problem has been this one: how to get out of the pool.

Getting out of the Furman pool is easy. It’s three-and-a-half feet deep. You put two hands flat on the side with bent elbows, jump a little, straighten arms, and twist so that you are sitting on the deck. Piece of cake. My summer pool is only slightly more difficult: it’s a little deeper (four feet?) and the concrete deck is thicker, so it’s a bit higher up. Still, two hands flat on the deck, jump a little, straighten arms, put down one knee. Every year, I have distinctive seasonal shin bruises from the concrete. But I have shin bruises with dignity.

Getting out of the Westside pool, in comparison, is hard. For one thing, it’s deep. We’re swimming in the shallower end, but that’s still 6+ feet. And the side of the pool is complicated; there’s the drain at water level, then a space (you can stick your elbow in there and dangle between sets), and then a good-sized block of deck. Here’s a photo of the Westside Aquatic Center pool from Paddock Evacuator, the company the made the chloramine evacuator system:

Maybe it doesn’t look like much in the photo, but from the water it looks like the Cliffs of Insanity. You might as well hang there and yell, “Throw me the rope!”

So, three days running, the end of my swim, I waited until the lanes next to me were clear of swimmers, ducked under the lane ropes to the corner, and climbed out by the ladder. Like a little girl. It was hard on my ego.

On the fourth day, I could not stand the shame, and I tried to get out by pulling myself up by the backstroke start bar with my right hand and grabbing the step on the side of the block with my left. Then I grabbed the back of the block. Then things got a little messy, and I don’t really know how I got out, but it was not smooth or cool or dignified.

On the fifth day, I spent my last kick set sizing up the situation. Was the deck all that high? Could I pull myself out? What was worse, the blow to my ego of getting out at the ladder or the blow from trying to get out and f(l)ailing? Then I went for it, old school, hands flat on the deck (though well above my head), and hauled myself out by my arms, right foot on the grating, left foot on the deck. I was out.

With dignity, my friends. That is how you get out of the pool. I can’t wait till Monday to do it again.