Lack of swim skills shouldn’t thwart triathlon dreams

Bobbing in American Lake like a buoy, I noticed my swim coach was saying something as she paddled up in her kayak.

I wasn’t quite sure I heard correctly. I’d crammed in a pair of neon green ear plugs and pulled two swim caps over my ears before heading into the lake.

“Huh?” I asked. “Incompetent?”

“No, competent,” said Lois Marquart, an accomplished local triathlete and multisport coach. “Your swimming is competent.”

I smiled. That’s the nicest thing anybody has ever said about my swimming. (The previous nicest: “That’ll probably keep you from drowning.”)

Competent is hardly a ringing endorsement, but when I decided eight months ago to learn to swim, that was my goal. At times even setting the bar that low felt as if I was trying to qualify for the Olympics.

The inability to swim, or at least swim more than a few yards, is the most common excuse for not trying a triathlon. It’s been my excuse for years, but I assure you, if I can learn almost anybody can.

Back in November, with a goal of participating in the Aug. 17 Lake Stevens Ironman 70.3 and its 1.2-mile swim, a friend and I signed up for our first swim lessons as adults. Thad Richardson, a Graham firefighter, immediately established himself as the fastest guy in the class.

I was the slowest. A trip down and back in the 25-yard pool was exhausting.

My issues were many. I got no propulsion from my kick. Despite my slow speed, my arms moved as if I was sprinting. I was about as buoyant as a grand piano. I could only breathe on my right side. My head position was wrong. And I tended to feel panicked any time I swam more than one length.

The young coaches at Puyallup’s Mel Korum YMCA insisted all of these problems could be conquered. So I attended class twice each week and made other visits to practice and pester lifeguards for tips.

Slowly, and with loads of help, I found solutions.

No propulsion from my kick. Turns out this isn’t the end of the world. After working to resolve this problem with five different volunteer coaches – including my daughter – a lifeguard told me to stop worrying.

After his shift, he jumped in the pool and gave me a quick demonstration and a huge obstacle was removed. Now, instead of wasting the energy flailing my legs I just kick gently every few strokes to keep my lower body from sinking.

I took a similar approach to my inability to breathe on both sides. I stopped worrying about it. As it turns out there are plenty of solid recreational swimmers who have this bad habit.

That said, breathing on both sides helps with seeing where you’re going in the lake and would probably alleviate the pain I sometimes feel in my neck after long swims. So I’m still working on this, I’m just not letting it keep me from moving forward.

I also discovered the pull buoy. I still call this device the crotch buoy, the name I gave it before I learned its proper name, because you place it between your legs when you swim to help keep your lower body from sinking.

Despite repeated warnings not to become dependent on the pull buoy, I use it regularly. Because my goal is to be able to swim long distance in a lake while wearing a wetsuit, I’ve found the pull buoy replicates the buoyancy I get from the suit.

My poor head position proved to be an easy fix. When I first jumped in the pool, I swam looking forward. Apparently, this is a pretty typical mistake. It’s human nature to want to see where you’re going. I simply made a point of looking at the bottom of the pool until it became a habit.

As for the panicky feeling, this was more challenging. At a briefing before my first training session at American Lake, Marquart said some swimmers are nervous about fish, seaweed and poor visibility in the lake.

She’s adept at helping swimmers overcome these fears, but these weren’t what got to me. For me, once I traveled farther than I could comfortably taking one or two breaths, I tended to feel as if I was in trouble. My stroke intensified and I gasped for air almost as if I couldn’t convince the rest of my body that I wasn’t drowning.

It took months of pool and lake time to relax and find a comfortable rhythm. In fact, almost every swim for me starts with an internal battle to find a rhythm. Sometimes it takes 50 yards, sometimes its 300 yards.

At my first lesson, I needed 40 strokes to swim 25 yards. On my most recent swim, I needed just 22. Considerably more efficient.

For most of my life I’ve classified myself as a terrible swimmer at best and nonswimmer at worst. So now that I can confidently set out to swim a mile or longer, it’s hard not to be proud of the progress.

Of course, all I have to do to be put in my place is go for a swim with just about anybody.

At a training session at American Lake with a group of triathletes, we swam 150-yard laps between buoys. Each time I felt as if I was cruising through the water, probably setting some kind of speed record and rocking boats in my wake.

But each lap when I arrived at the finishing buoy most of the class was already there waiting. Those who weren’t had already started their next lap.

So I’m slow. Really, really slow.

But that’s OK, because I’m finally competent. And, for now, that’s good enough.

Craig Hill: 253-597-8497