A little bit of background

I did learn to swim as a small child.  First in a cut-down corrugated iron water tank on the farm, then progressing to the swimming club in the local town. Unfortunately my path to Olympic glory was cut short by a re-location that resulted in much less time in swimming pools. By the age of 13, I was that child at the pool party who was too slow and uncoordinated to effectively participate in the games. At 17, I was so swimming dysfunctional, that special application had to be made to excuse me from a subject requirement of gaining a Bronze Medallion. For the entirety of my adult life I have been able to swim for leisure and swim to save myself (well, float around and hope for someone else to save me), but not swim for fitness.

In November 2014 I decided it was time for things to change. The main reason was that I was experiencing some problems that required I supplement running with other forms of exercise. But I cannot deny that preparing to embark on, what my friend described as, a “3 bikini holiday” also acted as a catalyst. There was no way that I was going to get out in public in that type of swimwear and then look like a complete fool in the water. All I needed to do was re-learn how to swim freestyle, for a sustained period, with controlled breathing. 


Taking the first step

To maximize my chances of success, I booked myself in for a set of private swimming lessons. Very early in my first lesson it became apparent that I had some problems that warranted expert intervention. Unfortunately the expert I really needed was not a swimming instructor but an anxiety specialist. Due to serious problems perfecting freestyle breathing I could only sustain about 10m by the end of my last lesson. But I had realized two important things. Firstly, re-learning to swim would require more brainwork than I had realized. Not only did proper technique require the thoughtful, coordinated, rhythmic combination of many body movements, I would have to overcome my fear of having my head under water. Secondly, being able to swim for fitness would require a commitment to consistent, regular practice.


Testing the water

Having embraced swimming, I was easily convinced that I should have an early test of my skill on the medium course of Triathlon Pink, Brisbane in February. All I was required to do was swim 200m in a 50m pool. I managed about 10m of freestyle and then had to switch to breastroke (which I do with my head above water, of course) and then, feeling certain that my arms were going to fall to the bottom of the pool, did the last 50m in an exhausted float with backstroke legs and sort of snow-angel arms. I was last out of the pool, but I like to think that the cheering I heard was in recognition of my gallant efforts rather than the impending start of the following group. It was a very supportive event, though, and I did get a lovely medal once I’d completed the bike and run legs.

Having had such a positive experience in one mini triathlon I was keen to join some Regenesis members in the enticer course of the Women’s Triathlon Festival, Penrith in May. By that time I was confident that I had a plan that would allow me to swim the required 300m. The plan went South pretty quickly. First, the grassy plants on the bottom of the lake, which seemed to be reaching up to grab me, freaked me out. Then I bumped into another competitor and expended quite a bit of energy on apologies. After having managed about 20m of freestyle, I had to complete the course in a combination of (head above water) breastroke and my version of (snow-angel) backstroke. But the atmosphere was great, I received another nice medal, and I wasn’t the last out of the water from my group. I call that a win.


The long game

I didn’t want to exhaust you by fully detailing the swimming journey I have taken over the past 12 months. Instead I have distilled my important learnings into the following list of my 5 top tips for the beginning swimmer:

  1. Many “aquatic centres” now have the glorious learning environment that is the heated swimming pool. In my (potentially scientifically baseless) opinion, warm water maximises circulation, which promotes limb movement and thought processing. 
  2. Practice is good, strategic practice is better. During a telephone call with Jarrat about something entirely different, he recommended I aim for a set number of laps and take timed breaks between laps. In so doing he reminded me of the value of having plans and goals to build training around.
  3. There are these wonderful things called swimming aids. A friend recommended I invest in some equipment to help improve my technique. So, I acquired myself a pull buoy (which allowed me to discover that my frantic kicking was exhausting me); hand paddles (which promoted more effective arm movement and strength); and flippers (with which I proved to myself that I could swim a 50m lap without stopping or drowning).
  4. Brain re-training takes time. My brain is apparently a slow and resistant adapter to certain new tasks, for example panic-less controlled breathing while swimming. A friend assured me that my brain would work it out given enough exposure and, after a great deal of exposure, it did.
  5. Positive people promote persistence. I received a lot of support and advice from friends while re-learning to swim. I was also the recipient of much spoken and unspoken encouragement from the strangers who witnessed my struggle up and down the lanes. Every affirmation added to my determination to continue the journey. 

Reaping the rewards

Having developed my swimming skills to a level that allowed me to think about other things while practicing, I imagined a great way to celebrate my achievements. The Anderson Open Water Classic – a 350m freestyle swim in the ocean, with all of its cold water, creatures that might bite, and unseeable bottom. Knowing my limitations, I recruited a strong swimmer (triathlete and iron man, Scott Freeman) to support me on the day. I was a bit worried about my choice of mentor when he encouraged me into the water with jokes about beginner swimmers in wetsuits looking like injured seals. However, he clearly had the mind game sussed. Recognizing that anxiety was the major challenge of the day he stopped me periodically to carefully outline the next step of the plan, discuss the sea creatures and rocks as if these were a positive attribute of the swim, and give me some tips regarding technique. Most importantly, he didn’t tell me that we were actually swimming 750m until I had reached the end. There I was congratulated by friends, as well as a group of clapping strangers (who could see that I thought I had done something amazing). I considered it a medal worthy moment. Luckily I had pre-made some in over-confident anticipation.


Now, to learn how to dive without doing a belly flop, or compete in an actual triathlon, or get my Bronze Medallion. Do you get an actual medal with that?


By Amateur Athlete and Expert Blogger:

Stavroola Anderson