Generally, triathletes are divided into two categories in regards to the swim: lifelong swimmers and adult-onset swimmers. The former swam competitively throughout their childhoods and have no trouble jumping back into the water years later and becoming front-of-pack swimmers. The latter often spend months or years frustrated in the pool as they try to learn a skill that is so completely different from the athletic events in which they participated while growing up.
I don’t really fit into either of these groups.
I didn’t swim competitively as a kid. I took the regular rec center swim lessons that many American kids did while growing up. I had to repeat a few levels. It certainly didn’t feel like something for which I had a natural aptitude. But I did take lessons long enough to learn the basics of all the strokes. I mean, I couldn’t actually do all the strokes, but I knew the general idea.
When I was in high school, my mom brought up the idea of taking a course to become a swimming instructor. She thought it would be a good summer job to have and would keep me from having to flip burgers or do hard labor (thanks, Mom!). So I agreed, and my older sister and I took the class together. This time, I actually learned how to do each stroke. I didn’t learn how to do them all well, but I got the general idea. It still didn’t feel natural, and I specifically had a hard time with breaststroke and butterfly. The timing of the strokes was a huge struggle for me. I didn’t quite have them down by the time the course ended, so I had to practice some on my own. I would drive down to the local rec center and either attempt flail across the pool (butterfly) or spend half the lap floating when I should have been gliding (breaststroke). And I just kept trying, lap after lap after lap, until something clicked. The “click” didn’t turn me into a master of these two strokes, but it did allow me to have a basic understanding of the timing and of how each stroke should actually feel which let me properly demonstrate it and pass the class.
Then, I taught 3-6 year olds how to blow bubbles and float for a few years and promptly lost the ability to do those more advanced strokes.
I did, however, eventually start swimming for fitness. Once I quit running track, I swam on and off fairly regularly, depending on what else was going on in my life and whether there was a pool available to me for free or not. Even after taking year-long breaks, I could always hop back in the pool and swim far enough that boredom, not fitness, was my limiting factor. I was slow, but I wasn’t struggling from wall to wall. And I liked swimming. I found it peaceful and comforting.
So when I decided to sign up for my first sprint triathlon (with a pool swim!), I wasn’t worried about the swim. I knew I could get through it. I felt the same when I started training for my half Ironman. I knew I could cover the distance. I was worried about the bike because I was a complete newbie to cycling when I started triathlon, so I actually cut out a lot of the swimming workouts and replaced them with more cycling.
And I totally managed the swim. However, throughout my first few years of triathlon, I didn’t see a ton of improvement in that area. So once I signed up for an Ironman, I decided to start attending Masters swim team. At the very least, I figured the other swimmers and the structure would help me improve, even if I didn’t increase my actual yardage much.
Sure enough, I improved pretty significantly last year. So significantly, in fact, that my brain fell behind my ability.
Throughout the past year and a bit of attending a Masters group, I’ve been plagued by a lack of confidence. This lack of confidence didn’t cause existential angst. It didn’t bother me at all because until recently, I didn’t even realize it was there. I just assumed I couldn’t hit times or learn strokes or hit certain milestones. 100s at 1:40? I can’t do that! And then when I did… 100s at 1:35? No way! A 1:04.95 in the 100yd freestyle? That’s way too fast. The time must be wrong.
I find myself doing this constantly, certain I can’t keep up with a particular person or hit a particular time. A month or so ago, after mentioning to my coach that I hit the interval even though I was certain I wouldn’t be able to, he said, “You know, I think you need to start adjusting your expectations for yourself.”
And he’s right. I need to start seeing myself as a capable swimmer instead of just as someone who can swim well enough to compete in triathlons. I need to notice my improvements and get excited about improving further. In short, I need to become a swimmer.
Even with my regular Masters workouts, I think I still have a lot of room for improvement. I swim about 7,500 yards a week, a far cry from the 15,000-20,000 that “real” swimmers do a week. While I don’t have the time to do that regularly, I’ve decided to do a swim-focused block of training this winter. I am going to spend eight weeks focusing on swimming. I plan on doing this in January and February for two reasons. First, during that period of time, I’ll be happy to be indoors. Second, it’s not a period of time that will be chopped up by holiday traveling.
I’m—dare I say it—excited about seeing where a more focused approach to swimming this winter takes me. I’m sure it will help me in my triathlons, but I’m already trying to think like a swimmer and consider my open swimming times as well, not just this year but in the years to come. It can take years of pretty dedicated swimming to reach your full potential, so I’m looking forward to seeing just what that potential might be for me.