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I'm a distance swimmer.  I find profound pleasure in diving into the water and swimming a mile nonstop - in a month I've cut literally 20 minutes off my mile; my goal is to get my mile in under 30.  IIRC, the world record for the mile swim is around 14 minutes.  With each day in the water, I can feel my body adapting back into the physical rhythms of swimming.

Each sport has its own richness and rhythm, it's own deep pleasures.  Distance runners, for instance, become hypnotized by the rhythm of their feet and breath, they talk about the runner's high the flood of endorphins that wash the body into a naturally ecstatic state.  The rhythms in swimming are - if you'll pardon a terrible use of language - fluid.  Up and down, side to side - the body flows into each stroke, into each turn; the body ebbs and flows through the length of the pool.  Most people do touch turns - they swim to the wall touch it, lift their head, plunge back into the wall, push off and start their stroke; the touch turn is a break, a short rest at the end of every length.

I prefer the good old-fashioned flip turn.  As you near the wall, you take a breath, tuck your chin to your chest, do a quick somersault, bring your feet over your body, stretch out and push off the wall.  A quick dolphin kick brings you to the surface - well past the flags.  I realized the other day as I was swimming, I do flips turns without thinking - I have to actually stop myself from turning if it's time to stop.

The flip turn is part of the rhythm of swimming .  Every 25 yards, your head sinks into the water and for a moment you are surrounded, submerged, cocooned in silence; you feel as if you are flying through the water, you surface and the plastic disks on the lane lines slip past your eyes in a rush.  I know it's sloppy, but I like making a splash with my turn; both feet kick out of the water and splash back in.  It feels faster, whether it is or not is a different matter.  At the end of a good swim, you can see which lanes had swimmers doing flip turns - the deck is soaked.  Flip turns are easy once you get it right - and all you need is to do it right just once and you've got them.  Tuck your head, go into a somersault, bring your feet over your body, plant them on the wall and push off.  Like every aspect of swimming, the flip turn has a rhythm of its own.  Once you get it, you don't even have to think about it.  Your body just does it.

The best practice for the flip turn is to do somersaults a few feet out from the wall, have a friend grab your ankle and guide you through the tuck.  Once you get a sense for the pace of the turn, you practice the next part of the turn - landing your feet on the wall.  You feet should hit the wall flat; your body will be curled up, all you have to do is straighten your legs to push off.  As your feet hit the wall, your stretch your arms over your head, hands together.  As your legs push off, you cut through the water.  In a really efficient turn, you are on your back as you push off the wall but on your stomach as you do a dolphin kick and come to the surface.

The trick on a flip turn is starting it at the right time.  Too early and you aren't close enough to the wall - you float to the surface struggling to get going again.  Too late and you can hit your feet very painfully on the side of the pool.  You also don't want to push off pointed at the bottom of the pool - you'll end up way too deep in the water.  Experienced swimmers make the whole thing look incredibly easy.

Swimming engages the whole body at once - arms, legs, core, lungs; it is an exercise that builds strength, flexibility, endurance.  A good 45 minutes in the water leaves the body refreshed and tired at the same time.  The rhythm of good swimming is meditative - you focus on counting lengths of the pool, on keeping your body position and your mind is able to detach.  Problems before the swim have solutions afterwards.  I feel at home in the water, the bubbly quiet, the only the sounds those of the water.   The author of this piecein the NY Times gets it:

It is embarrassing to admit that I don't find all this mindless activity one bit boring. I find it restful. The counting is a kind of meditation, an aquatic metronome that drives out all the internal flotsam. I leave the pool with a sense of well-being that carries me through the day.[snip]

For urban dwellers like me, the pool is a rare refuge of quiet and privacy, an oversized flotation tank. There are no intrusions. The telephone doesn't ring underwater. Horns don't honk. People don't shout. There is only the sound of the water, the flutter kicking of the other swimmers, the bubbles of my own breathing. I like being immersed in water, surrounded by it. People who find pleasure in driving long distances talk about the rapture of gazing at the white line along the highway. I follow the long blue line on the bottom of the pool.[snip]

I am extremely nearsighted, so when I turn my head to breathe I see only the blue and gold plastic lane marker beside me, and a soothing blur of sky and buildings beyond. My restricted vision adds to the wonderful sense of anonymity and solitude. Even if I do know people in the next lane, I can't see them, so there is no temptation to stop and talk. I am alone within the community of swimmers.

Lap swimming is a nearly ideal as an exercise for introverts - you can avoid making conversation, you get to be in your head, isolated in the water, but also part of a small group - the dedicated early morning lap swimmers, the lunch time swimmers.  I like that quiet, alone time in the water.  Water is my refuge, my quiet, daily sanctuary.  It is my temenos.

I know lots of folks who are bad swimmers.  Watching them swim, they seem to fight the water in an effort to subdue it.  That of course won't and can't work.  Water is forgiving a myriad of sins, but you must embrace it, sink into it before you can truly swim.  Watching other folks in the water, you can see swimmers and splashers.  The swimmers of all skill levels just get it.  The splashers, by contrast, struggle against the water.  They go to extraordinary lengths to make the whole thing work - but they fight the water.  One morning, I watched as a relatively fit woman carefully put her swim cap in place, her goggles, her snorkel then swam painfully for twenty minutes.  Another woman - an older woman - slipped into the water with a practiced ease and though not nearly as fast or as fit, simply stretched gracefully into her swim.  The bad swimmers are the splashers; they're doing it out of a sense of obligation.

If you love it, you can't get enough.  If you're not in love with it, you get too much almost immediately.

Originally posted to glendenb on Tue Aug 23, 2011 at 09:28 AM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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