By Christina Mehew
Method: Reflections From Under the Water
I’ve been teaching myself to swim. When I was about ten years old my cousins and I went swimming in the local baths. It was a packed and pretty noisy place, with lots of swirling of water and close contact with strangers. My older cousin took me a piggy back ride into the ‘deep end’ and promptly dropped me in it. I panicked and went under, gasping for breath and swallowing water. I’ve described this thus far, you all can feel it and want to know if I survived! Of course I did but I never went into the deep end for a long time after that. Swimming was part of our school curriculum in those days, we had variable experiences. A fairly ‘safe’ indoor pool but the teacher was quite determined that we pick up something from the bottom of the pool and brought it up to the daylight. Now I had a great aversion to my face being in the water, so never succeeded in that task. In senior school, an outdoor pool in the town of Cleethorpes, a pretty windy, weathered place on the coast. I was always cold, and we had to go swimming in all weathers. One day there was actually ice on the water. Cruelty to children or what?
All these things shaped my feelings about swimming, not to mention the dreams I had about drowning and not being able to breathe. Neverthe less, I lived on the coast and loved the sea, and gradually over the years I taught myself to get along in the water, even to visit the deep end if it wasn’t too crowded. But I never managed to put my face in the water and would always end up with aches in my neck or shoulders after a good session. I went for a swimming lesson a few years ago and the awakened and enlightened teacher brought our attention to how our movements were received by the water, and we were given goggles so we could fully immerse ourselves in the water and the experience. The teacher asked me a question, when she noticed my reluctance to fully put my head in the water, “What is it that you do not want to see?”. This question stayed with me and will stay with me for the rest of my life. All kinds of “but’s” came up: ‘you don’t know what I’ve been through, suffered, the injustice of being dumped in the deep end, I didn’t deserve that, I deserve this’ etc, etc.
So when I joined a posh health spa in one of our local hotels, this year as a special treat for myself and my self care, I hadn’t been swimming for years, but now this pool, rather on the small side, but always warm, I felt safe enough to buy some goggles and teach myself to put my face in the water, so I could learn to do a proper front crawl stroke. I also bought a swim hat, to hopefully stop the chlorine turning my hair yellow.
Often I have the pool to myself, so I can gasp and splutter without loss of face (pun intended)! I was overjoyed when I could see where I was going underwater with my goggles on. My first attempts at doing this were interesting. It took quite a few times to feel comfortable putting my head in the water and at first I went in as far as my nose, so I could still snorkel with it and breathe. After a while I could put my whole face in when I held my breath, coming up for air with my nose snorkelling the air into my lungs. When I got the rhythm wrong and breathed in water up my nose the spluttering began and my heart would be racing, me grasping for the wall for support however far away it was. Fortunately the depth of the pool is the same all the way along so I can put my feet on the floor to avert disaster! On these occasions, nearly every time I tried to have an elegant and smooth front crawl, it felt like I was ‘swimming against the tide’. I went home feeling exhausted, beaten.
However I was pleased with my progress on being able to put my face in the water and after asking a few people for advice on technique, it came across through information received that front crawl and managing the breathing wasn’t an easy thing to do. I turned to Google for help and up came some (free) help from Mark Young at Swim Teach – a booklet on front crawl technique and later a sheet on breathing technique. In the booklet some simple information and different methods of tackling the technique. After a bit more practice I was ready to bring in the arms but found I was spluttering more than usual, and it was not fun. I went back to my old ways for a while in order to enjoy my swim again. It felt like hard work to make the change.
I love to try new recipes for foods at home, and I often have to susbstitute different ingredients as I have a gluten intolerance. But I always follow the method because the people who present the recipes have tested them ad infinitum to make sure they work. There is that word again, method. I know that the method works because of my training in catering. Just like if you buy some packaged or frozen items, always follow the manufacturers instructions for preparation, because they know what chemical reactions are involved, so to optimise the product, follow, follow, follow. If you do, a bunch of ingredients magically change into an optimal and desired product. Alchemy!
This led me back to my swimming. Why was it so difficult? I re-read about the different methods of learning to breathe, this time following the exercises before I got into the water, as was respectfully advised by Mr. Swim Teach, Mark. Mark said that in the water, pay attention to my breathing and how it flows. It should be calm and rhythmic, easy, simple. Notice how and if this changes. I realised I needed to be totally connected to my body at all times to follow his advice. This next day when I approached the water I placed my feet on the rungs of the ladder so so gently, keeping fully connected to my body as it felt the change in temperature as the water rose and covered me. I noticed that usually I came out of my body and shuddered at the relative coldness of the water, but this day I kept connected and felt the warmth of my body rather than the coldness of the water. The shock was much less upon my submerging body and I swam along full in the moment, leaving the coldness behind me. Noting that sometimes change is not the hardest, but the easier option for us. Focusing on keeping my breathing calm and steady, the swim became a meditation, a thing of wonder and ease. I realised that when I brought my arms into play, usually my breathing changed forcing me to be apprehensive and expecting the worst. Now I kept my breathing calm and if I wasn’t ready for arms, I would take my time and not fuss over it. It was my responsibility to keep connected and calm, respect what my body needed, be in harmony with the water, learning as I go. By changing my movements, I changed an old pattern of being in the water forever and my body appreciated my co-operation.
I reflected on my previous ‘battle’ to be at one with the water. I hadn’t noticed my breathing changing with the effort of trying to be an ace front crawler, while leaving my poor body to fend for itself, struggling to breathe, and feeling exhausted after a few strokes of unbalanced crawl.
Stop fighting the battle against the flow.
Now I’m not saying I have fully mastered the art of front crawl, but the fear of water has subsided into a healthy respect of my body’s needs and the flow of the water. I enjoy my swimming and the feeling of being comfortable in it. I enjoy the feeling of swimming fully submerged, able to see where I am going. My next challenge is to be able to follow the black line and stay in my chosen lane instead of using the whole pool! There is still more to learn! The reason I am not swimming straight is because my body is still rolling as I move my head to breathe, so I’m working on that, in the way that I need to feel my whole body and its offering to the water. I continue to learn from my body’s response in this way and to Mark’s valuable coaching. I may even buy one of his books!