A little boy in my class told me today that he had four talents; swimming, scouts, karate and art. The lucky thing is his best friend, who is also in my swimming class, shares three of these talents (the friend it seems is not that good at art). It is amazing how well life works out sometimes.
‘For me a convenient place to work is a remote place among strangers where there is good swimming. ‘
Tennesee Williams writing on ‘The Catastrophe of Success’ in the New York Times November 1947
From A la Recherche du Temps Perdu by Marcel Proust 1871 – 1922
In this quotation Proust is talking metaphorically but the more I teach swimming the more I understand that letting go and trusting the water is the most important aspect of learning to swim. However it is probably also the most difficult thing to learn. It is certainly the most difficult thing to teach because it has to come from inside. It takes experience and understanding of the body in the water to be able to allow oneself to float and glide freely. You have to let the water support you, if you try to hold on to the water, even a little bit, it won’t work. And this I have realised is the biggest difference between a swimmer and a non-swimmer. A swimmer knows, instinctively and through practice, how to let the water support them, a non-swimmer doesn’t. Fear makes us try to hold on, and so fear of the water can stop someone being able to swim, even if, as is sometimes the case, they understand the technique perfectly.
Annette Kellerman was the first woman to attempt to swim the channel. She also invented the one piece bathing costume for women (the wearing of which she was arrested for on the beach in 1908 in Massachusetts; although the case was dismissed because Kellermann argued that cumbersome costumes prevented women from learning to swim).
She published a book ‘How to swim’ in 1918.
To master the art of swimming is a duty which you owe not only to yourself but to others. By being able to swim, you lessen the chance of losing your own life, and also cease to become a source of danger to others in case of accident. Now if you will add to your swimming the accomplishment of life saving, you will become a positive element of safety to others.
The best thing that a non-swimmer can do to decrease his risk of drowning in case the boat upsets is learn to swim. Having neglected this precaution, the next best thing will be to have the presence of mind not to lose his sanity while he is drowning.
She goes on to qualify this last remark by explaining that
The non-swimmer is usually drowned by his own efforts. What he should do is remain perfectly quiet and float.
This advice to the drowning man is good advice; the only drawback is that when one is drowning one is not in the mood to appreciate its value.
I often tell my pupils, mainly the children, that if you want to be able to swim fast, you have to learn to swim slowly. In other words it is not about thrashing madly through the water, it is about developing a smooth efficient stroke so that you cut down water resistance and maintain a strong streamlined stroke. There is great pleasure and satisfaction to be found in perfecting the stroke, listening to the water and finding a relaxed and sustainable pace.
With this in mind I was delighted to read about the swimming technique of Alexander Popov, the Russian swimming champion. Popov became the world’s fastest and most efficient human swimmer partly through learning to be like a fish. What I mean by this is that he seems to have worked on ways of gliding through the water, creatively finding ways to cut down the water resistance. I believe when you are swimming you have to read the water and adapt your body to the response you feel from the water. In this way you can use the water to help you.
Popov’s stroke is long and relaxed. He stretches his arms forward to achieve a long glide and he looks straight down at the bottom of the pool. Although he swims fast scientists estimate that his power output is at least 25 % lower than most of those he races.
Apparently Popov does most of his most important training at slow speeds. The emphasis is on getting the stroke just right, not on swimming as fast as possible. This is what I call mindful swimming.