Studying to Learn
May 25, 2023
Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549)
June 8, 2023


Photo by Ivan Obolensky

Swimming is a skill I learned when I was little. I could swim after a fashion. Mostly it was taught to prevent drowning. Later as a kid, I swam in the ocean, snorkeled off the coast of Florida, and played in the surf off Long Island. East Coast surf was rarely remarked upon at the time, but that didn’t mean it didn’t have its moments. Hurricanes would occasionally threaten the Northeast, and the swells would get huge. Swimming out beyond the shore break took patience, perseverance, and some courage. On rough days, even getting onto dry land would mean being swept along the beach hundreds of yards from where one started. That type of open-water swimming had little resemblance to smooth strokes in an Olympic pool. It was violent. Form didn’t matter. What did was moving as fast as possible while one could, before one was forced to dive under the water or risk being pounded by the surf. The term we used was “being rolled”.

Years later, when I found myself in need of exercise and stress relief, I ran, but running didn’t give me the zing I wanted. One afternoon, I was in a running store when I saw a book called The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training. I had no idea who a triathlete was, but the mental training part was interesting. I picked up the book and read it cover to cover. I decided shortly thereafter that triathlons were for me, but I had a long way to go before I could even enter one.

I had to relearn how to swim. I could swim but there is swimming, and then there is “swimming”. The real deal requires form and a certain elegance. The problem all swimmers face is the density of water. It is many times denser than air and that has consequences. If one runs with twice the effort, one runs twice as fast. In water, twice the effort translates into perhaps thirty percent more speed, if that. Moving quickly requires smoothness. Too much effort, and there is splashing and drag, which slows you down. The solution is exact form. Each stroke must gain the maximum forward propulsion while developing the least amount of drag. Too much effort, and one can actually swim slower. Too little, and one isn’t fast enough. Somewhere, there is a balance, and that is what each swimmer wants to find. It’s that perfect form that generates the most performance with the least amount of effort.

But here’s the thing that’s rarely mentioned, all of this works well in a calm pool but add ten-foot swells and heavy chop, and all is different.

There is an annual swimming event in Australia called the Rottnest Channel Swim, which takes place between Cottesloe Beach near Perth and Rottnest Island, 19.7 kilometers away. On one occasion, the swells were ten feet or more, and very steep. Many of the contestants got so violently seasick from swimming up and over the waves that they had to withdraw from the race. Who would have thought that was even possible?

I would like to make two points:

The first is that just because one may know how to do something in an ideal environment doesn’t mean that the same technique will measure up in another. The second is that we all wish to look graceful and elegant, but sometimes intensely focused determination is what’s needed. Comes a time, and we just have to get it done no matter how we do it.

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