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Monday, April 4, 2016

Swimming As It’s Own Reward

Courtesy of Michael Teters, Plainfield, New Jersey.

Swimming is the only sport at which I was ever decent.

It is also the first athletic activity I remember participating in.

At about the age of 5, my parents enrolled me in swim lessons at our family beach club in West Long Branch, New Jersey. The gruff, middle-aged lifeguard with the heavy-duty spare tire was the instructor. I think I learned to swim out of fear of this guy. He would hold us by the back of the head, push our face in the water, and do the lateral turning for us when it was time to take a breath.

No one would get away with this method these days, but in 1970, who knew? Adults were in charge and they were always right.

Anyway, I learned proper technique quickly so I wouldn’t have another waterboard-like lesson on proper breathing from the possibly sadistic lifeguard. Maybe this is why I preferred backstroke when I was swimming competitively.

From ages 9 to 16, I swam for one team or another. In high school, I made the varsity team at the local YMCA, which was the only option for many swimmers since a lot of the schools in New Jersey did not have their own swim teams due to the lack of a practice facility. Indoor pools are expensive. So, for many kids, if swimming was your sport, you joined the team at the Y.

I swam varsity for 3 years, but was never really fast enough to matter. I never came in first individually, and never swam in AAU meets, but had lots of second place ribbons, and relay race wins. I didn’t swim senior year mostly because I was tired of my mediocre performance.

I admit to being overly competitive and sensitive to criticism. These two traits make for a nasty complex when any kind of contest is involved. This hatred of failure kept me away from other team sports where your performance affected the other team members like football, baseball, soccer, hockey, lacrosse, rugby, basketball.

Ultimately, in swimming, I couldn’t take the pressure. I felt I was competing with not only the other swimmers, but also with myself. While I didn’t think I was a loser, ultimately, I didn’t think I was a winner either, at least as a swimmer. And the results of a sport like swimming are easily quantifiable and irrefutable since we’ve had really good clocks for a long time. There’s no guesswork in it. Yes, you didn’t win; here is your time, not the best.

With the pressure of competition removed, swimming turned out to be a useful skill. I worked summers lifeguarding and taught kids swimming during the college semesters for beer money. Proudly, I can say I never held a kid's face in the water for lessons on breathing technique. I refused to sustain the cycle of traumatizing aquatic instruction. I basically gave the swimming lessons for free because it was something to do besides stare at the pool and yell at the hormone-drunk pubescent scofflaws who were the main clientele at the Army base Officer’s Club where I was employed.

Lifeguarding provided me with a source of income, a good tan, a test of my endurance for boredom, and the realization that the Army brat’s parents were much more rule oriented than me.

Since college, I have continued swimming regularly as my main form of exercise, despite my former lackluster performance in competition. It’s become a necessary part of the routine of my life.

It’s a good all-over exercise. It’s zero impact and it’s meditative.

I’ve been on the same plateau of swimming ability for years. This has had the effect of making me appear to be a better swimmer because most of the other guys my age have not kept it up or never even knew how to swim well. The latter is the larger group.

Last year, I realized just how important swimming is to me. I fractured my collarbone skiing. The break kept me out of the pool for 3 months while it healed. I hated not swimming. I gained weight, I got depressed and somnolent from poor sleep.

Recently, I unintentionally re-entered the world of competitive swimming. I discovered that New Jersey has a series of ocean mile races.

Each weekend in the summer, a different seaside town hosts a swim at the cruel hour of 8 am. It’s actually good for me that they are held at 8 am because I’m not totally aware of how, …well, improbable, swimming a mile in the ocean with 200 other people really is. I mean we are all going out of our way for something, which in its way is fun, but in another way is at least uncomfortable.

I have again realized how competitive I am once I found out that I could swim a mile in the ocean relatively quickly when adjusted for age. However, I think I’m approaching competition in a healthier way both mentally and physically.

In four week's time, I competed in four races, one each weekend. I dropped from 114th place to 31st place and in the last swim, I placed second in my age group (45 – 49). I even did a 3-mile race that was grueling, but not three times harder than a mile.

You know? I’m happy with my progress, and that is enough for me.

At the age of 49, I think I can continue to compete in these races with self-improvement and a sense of accomplishment being the real reward. The fact that I can swim a mile and then go about the rest of my day like nothing out of the ordinary happened, makes me feel good about myself.

Yes, I’m still going to check my times and placing, but it’s not going to ruin it for me if I have an off day. As a lifelong pessimist, this is the best kind of win.

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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