I often get asked if I used to swim competitively. “No,” I always reply. “I just love swimming.” My answer is usually met with the same level of surprise that the question causes me.
I’ve completed two open water swims, but I don’t consider it competitive. Really, my biggest goal for each race is to reach the shore alive. But I do compete with myself, and after I was T-boned in an
auto accident last year, I was left with hip issues that slowed me down. This was all very worrying because I have two races this summer: a warm up race from Alcatraz and then the exhausting Golden Gate Sharkfest swim. From my research on shark attacks and open water swimming, I learned that sharks go after the slowest swimmers, so… yeah, not good.
With that motivating factor in mind, I took an advanced racing class in hopes of correcting my lagging swim speed. I was both excited and nervous. I’m not exactly the epitome of the sleek swimmer, and the last lesson I took was at the wise old age of ten. A good number of Sharkfest swimmers on the ferry look like Michael Phelps, and then there’s uhm…me. I’m like the stubby little blowfish with the tiny fins.
Turns out not many people take the advanced racing lesson at our local pool, and when I told them I was an open water swimmer, all the instructors looked at me like I was crazy.
“There is no way I’d ever do one of those races,” more than one said.
I was also surprised to learn that most competitive pool racers don’t train for long distance. The farthest my instructor ever swam was half a mile. He said that was torture. After hearing all that, I didn’t feel quite so blowfish-like.
So there I was with a teacher who swam competitively in highschool surrounded by squealing, splashing little kids straight out of water wings. And as I hoped, I learned a lot: slight changes to entry and recovery, hand movements, and arm speed… I won’t bore you. But when the instructor saw my butterfly stroke, he said, “Whoa there! You’re surging out of the water.”
“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?” I asked. “The swimmers in photographs always look like they’re taking flight.”
“Your body shouldn’t leave the water. Just your arms.”
“Oh.” (Well, that makes it much easier!)
Through the course of four lessons, I kept pushing my instructor for more tips on freestyle, butterfly, and improving my dolphin kick. But after those minor corrections to my technique, his reply was always the same: Now, it just comes down to practice.
After hearing his answer, I was struck by how similar swimming is to writing. When I first started writing, I was trying so hard to copy what I thought my favorite writers were doing. I was trying to fly.
Luckily, I had a very patient editor who nudged me here and there: keep the story moving forward, use less words, find your rhythm. And what it came down to in the end was practice—years of solitary writing.
A writer always has more to learn and a swimmer is always striving to shave off one more second. With practice, swimmers turn a simple stroke into an elegant rhythm; writers do the same with words. Somewhere during the rearranging of twenty-six letters, simplicity turns into elegance. And elegance moves hearts to reach for something more. This is flying.