10 mile swim

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


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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?

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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.

Swimming
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).