Search This Blog

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Swim Lessons

Julie Owsik Ackerman

As a girl, I swam with ease, rising through the ranks of the YMCA classes from guppy to minnow to flying fish. After a twenty-five year hiatus, I returned for more swimming lessons last winter, hoping to improve my nascent surfing. At the first class I met the teacher, Edmund, a forty-ish Albanian champion swimmer who resembled a bear in height, girth, and fur, but moved through the water with the ease of an otter.
Perhaps Edmund’s exacting standards and limited English had scared off all the other students, because I was his only pupil. Setting aside my discomfort at his intense scrutiny, I obediently swam a half lap of freestyle. When I reached the wall, he said, “You turn head, not body.” He demonstrated the difference for me and I felt that clunk of recognition, like when I hear an accurate critique of my writing. I imitated his motion, turning my whole body to the side to breathe, and immediately felt more comfortable in the water. In thirty seconds, Edmund had diagnosed and fixed the major thing that had kept me from swimming for two decades. Not bad.

Over the course of the next few weeks, he taught me how to stretch as I swam, to position my head to look down and not ahead, to use my whole arm to propel myself forward, not just my hands Sure he laughed after beating me in a race when he used only one arm and one leg. And yes, he looked genuinely impressed that I managed to move in the wrong direction while attempting the backstroke, as if I’d performed some feat of physics. But in the span of a month, I could swim freestyle and breaststroke fairly well.

My backstroke remained unimpressive (okay, abominable.) I continued swimming at the local high school pool, mostly freestyle and breaststroke, throwing in a few laps of backstroke when I had a lane to myself. The laps on my back lasted forever, as I snorted water up my nose, suffering and tense, and determined to keep trying.

Over the summer I happily traded surfing for swimming and when I dove back into the pool this winter, I noticed a shift in my backstroke. I didn’t dread it as much, and after awhile, even looked forward to it. Then last week I came across this advice from Duke Kahanamoku, Hawaiian surf icon and swimming champion: “Relax. Let your muscles be soft. When they tighten up from fear, you are as heavy as a rock and you sink.” I felt another clunk of recognition. During the backstroke, I was so afraid of swallowing water, hitting my head, and looking stupid, no wonder I couldn’t float.

The next day I took Duke’s words into the pool with me, but it took me a few laps to work out how to move forward without full-body tension. Gradually I became aware of which muscles I needed to move, and tried relaxing those I didn’t need at any given moment. With practice my swimming acquired a lightness, and a grace reminiscent of the little girl who splashed circles around her big brothers without even trying. As I floated through the water, I remembered that sometimes what is needed isn’t more effort, but less.


  1. Julie, love the thought that sometimes we need less effort--another great way to think about letting go.

    And, "I was so afraid of swallowing water, hitting my head, and looking stupid," pretty much sums up my swimming career. As a girl scout, I took swimming and diving lessons. On my first dive, I belly flopped and snorted so much water, my head felt like it might pop off, nose and lungs burning for what seemed like the rest of the lesson. I could never comfortably put my head in water after that, without holding my nose, so there went my swimming career.

  2. Julie, Your swim coach's advice sounds counter to what I learned as a competitive swimmer in the 60s. I was taught to swim with my eyes at the top of the water looking ahead and to just turn my head for my mouth to take a gulp of air under my armpit as the stroke came out of the water. I guess strategies change over time. How do you stop from hitting a wall when your head is facing down?

    I hope to get some swimming in this week on my vacation. It's been too long since I swam laps in a pool. I'll try the advice about relaxing the muscles.

    I miss being in the water. It used to be such a part of my existence and now I only get my water peace in the shower. I need to do something about that.

    Really nice thoughts here beyond the swim lesson.


  3. Julie, I, too, love the idea that sometimes we need less effort. And that sometimes we have to allow ourselves to relax and let our bodies tell us how to move. Your swimming lessons sound like my dancing lessons. I dance so much better when I just go with the music, rather than worry about what to move on my body when. Funny, now that I think about it, years ago I used to swim at the Y and would pick a certain song to repeat as I swam...Thanks for the reminder!