Swim Lessons: Flippers Not Required

swimming triathlon
My breathing

The thing about a full-distance triathlon is that it has rather a lot of swimming in it. Almost 4km of it, in fact. That may not sound terribly taxing when you consider that this jaunt in the water is followed by a 180km bike ride and a 42km trot to cool down, but that 3.8km works out at 152 lengths of my local pool. Add in waves, wind, lampreys, and sharp elbows and it all sounds quite exhausting.

I was thinking about all this last week as another litre of chlorinated water streamed from my nostrils and I watched shoals of ten-year-olds glide past me like begoggled dolphins. Maybe swimming is just not for some people, I thought, like driving or cycling or washing regularly. Maybe I should just rise from the pool like a righted Titanic and admit the truth to Florence, my instructor: I will never be a swimmer. After all, there are plenty of duathlons out there.

I was sick of floats and fins and weird bits of foam you slot between your legs that are supposed to stop you from kicking but just make me feel like some mutant failed mermaid as they escape and bob to the surface, over and over again. I was sick of feeling like I had almost got the hang of the whole breathing thing, only to turn my head and do my best impression of a whale shark trawling for krill.

I had hoped it would be a bit like learning to drive: One day you’re sure you’re going to die because there’s no way the oncoming car and yours are going to fit on the same road at the same time, and the next you’re changing gear, turning on the windscreen wipers, and  cursing other drivers’ incompetence – all at the same time. If I stuck at it long enough, I decided, I would get high elbow, underwater stroke, over-water recovery (just moving your shoulders!), turning the head to breathe, kicking – without having to stop and splutter between every movement. After weeks of getting some bits right but never being able to put them all together, however, I was starting to suspect that Florence’s ever-more ingenious efforts to counter my incompetence were mere pity and desperation. I didn’t know that Florence had her own reasons for believing in me.

swimming triathlon
One of my paddles

That day in the pool, I had a breakthrough. I was so angry with my failure to grasp the whole swimming thing that I gave up. I stopped focusing on my stroke and I just charged through the water, arms pushing through on either side, head turning, not always getting air, but floundering along just the same. It was not beautiful or clean or terribly efficient, but it was swimming, and Florence was delighted with me.

She told me afterwards that she knew I was on the verge of getting it, that sometimes it is just as people are about to give up that everything finally clicks ,and they start to make real progress. Then she told me that I was going to be a really good swimmer.

“I mean, look at your hands,”she exclaimed, holding her own palm up to mine, where it hovered like a child’s in the shadow of a lumberjack’s giant paw. “And you have such big feet too. You were made for swimming.”

I hope she’s right. Those manual monsters have let me down before: My music teacher in school thrust a cello at me when he saw my hands, thinking I would be the next Yo Yo Ma. Then again, if the swimming doesn’t work out, I can always try kayaking. After all, I have built-in paddles.