I’ve been swimming with the Kennedy Law Racing masters team for about a year now and in that time I’ve grown to love the whole experience – everything from watching the sun rise as we swim lap after lap to hearing Coach Matt scream “At the top!” and “You’re making interval, keep going!” to the fact that my skin will smell like chlorine for the rest of the day. (Okay, that’s not true – there are some things I still hate, like breath control exercises. I will probably always hate breath control. Breath control is the worst! Die, breath control! Die!)
I initially joined the team in hopes of making me better at open water swimming, and so far all of the racing I’ve done has either been in a triathlon or an open water swim race. (By the way, I signed up to take part in the 2.4-mile Hurricane Man Roughwater Swim in May, so expect to hear more about that later.)
Masters swimming was like track work and strength training, in that I did them as supplemental training to become better at my primary sports. They were things I did to become better at other things, and I will say that it’s been working so far, as I’m definitely a much stronger triathlete than I was before I started swimming regularly with a team.
What I didn’t expect was that I was going to end up loving swimming in a pool, and I certainly didn’t ever expect I was going to actually start to think of myself as a swimmer, especially when you consider how scared I was of swimming for such a long time. I mean, it was only four years ago that I did my first duathlon, and the reason why I did a duathlon is because I was terrified of the water.
And now here I am, a masters swimmer who is two days away from competing in her very first organized meet.
The 25th Annual Masters SCY Valentine’s Meet is happening this weekend at the Long Center, which is my home pool. I signed up for two races on Sunday – the women’s 50 free and the women’s 100 free – and made myself available for relays as a freestyler and a backstroker.
As soon as I heard about this meet, I knew I wanted to take part. I felt this way even though it was an entirely new experience for me, and even though I hadn’t even watched a swim meet before. My general attitude towards new experiences is generally “well, why not?” and in this case, the only “why nots” I could come up with was “I might come in last” and “I might do something that looks silly” which…who cares. I mean, really, if those are the worst things that can happen to me, then I’m doing pretty damn good.
That”long hair don’t care” attitude has been critical as I get ready for this swim meet. You’d think the most important part of racing as a swimmer would be the actual swimming, right? Nope! Competitive pool swimming also requires that you be able to dive into the water from starting blocks and that you be able to do those fancy flip turns at the wall, all so you can save yourself a couple of tenths of a second.
These are skills that I, as a triathlete, have not bothered to work on, but they are skills that I, as a masters swimmer, will need.
The flip turns took me a while, especially since I kept flipping too far away from the edge of the pool, only to feel my feet flail uselessly in the water instead of firmly planting themselves on the wall so I could push off into my next lap. I went to the pool a couple of times on my own and spent a lot of time doing them over and over again until I was finally able to successfully flip-turn nine out of ten times.
But the dives. Holy shit, the dives.
Let me preface this by saying that prior to the past couple of weeks, I had literally never taken a dive into a pool before. The idea of basically leaping head-first into anything went against every instinct I possessed, and so I never did it. Even as a kid, when I should have been reckless about my personal safety, the most daring thing I ever did was a cannonball. If I could go back in time I’d tell my younger self to figure this shit out now, while you’re still four feet tall and don’t have nearly as far to fall as you will when you’re a six-foot-tall adult.
I thought about that on Monday was I stood on the edge of the pool, watching the younger kids on a local swim team as they practiced diving. They had this total fearlessness as they flung themselves off the blocks into the water. Meanwhile my grown-ass swimsuit-clad self was standing on the gutter, about three feet lower than the blocks, and I had to psych myself up before every dive. I’m not one to ever wish to be a little kid again, but in that moment I would have given anything to be 7 years old again.
In addition to all the mental shit going on inside my brain, there was the logistics of the goggles – specifically how to keep my goggles on after diving. For a while, every time I dove, I’d surface with my goggles around my chin. Finally I realized that I had to pull my goggles so tight that the suction would make me feel like I might disarticulate my eyeball when I pried them off my face, which is an interesting feeling.
When I finally moved up to the blocks, I’d stand with my toes gripping the edge and ignore the sense of vertigo that fell over me whenever I looked down at the water, and then I’d try to dive according to Coach Matt’s verbal cues. Usually I’d land on my face, and a couple of times I whiffed it entirely and landed on my shins which…I still don’t even know how I did that. I had to put aside any sense of personal shame to do this, especially in front of dozens of my teammates, but I did it, because dammit, I was going to figure this out.
And by the way, can I just point out what a huge shift in thinking that is for me? Rather than thinking of this as “I suck at diving,” I thought of it as “I don’t know how to dive right now but I am going to learn how.” Thinking of yourself as sucking as a skill has a definitive quality about it, like that’s how you are and you’ll never be any different, so why bother trying? However, thinking of a skill as something you may not know how to do now but you can eventually learn leaves you open to all kinds of possibilities.
It was that mental shift that kept me diving even when I face-planted in the water, causing the bridge of my nose to get all bruised and a little cut, and that makes me laugh instead of cringe when I see the wreckage from all those fucked-up dives. It made it a no-brainer for me to stand there in front of a bunch of people and try to execute clumsy dive after clumsy dive, because I knew that at some point I was eventually going to get it right, and then I was going to know what it felt like to get it right, and I would be able to get it right again.
That’s what finally happened on Wednesday. I stayed afterwards to practice off the blocks with a couple of other women, and after a few missed dives, finally I realized that if I staggered my feet and tucked my chin way down against my chest, I could push off the blocks and enter the pool with such velocity that I wouldn’t surface until I was halfway across the pool. I did it a couple more times and it felt great. I just hope that come Sunday I can remember how to make that happen when it comes time to actually race.
I know I have a lot to learn, especially when I watch all the former collegiate swimmers, how they fling themselves off the blocks with that little flex in their hips before slipping into the water like a hot knife through butter, but I also know that I’ve learned a lot and I’m excited about that. I know it can be demoralizing to do something and not be very good at it, but I don’t feel demoralized by this at all. On the contrary, it feels like going on a little adventure, except instead of exploring the world around me, I’m exploring my previously unknown abilities.