Comfortable in the water?

I’ve been in a series of Total Immersion-style swimming classes this week. They meet for two hours for four evenings, and tonight is the last one. There are only two students, myself and a guy who already swims (but not Total Immersion style). I never learned to swim properly, but last summer I decided I want to try a sprint triathlon. So there’s no more procrastinating on swim lessons.
The first thing we did was learn to back-float. No problems there. But as soon as we had to start turning onto the side, putting the face in the water, I wasn’t comfortable at all. I could not seem to stop myself from doing a half-swallow to close off my sinuses while holding my breath. This sucked a little water up my nose every time it happened, and sent me reeling to my feet to clear my head. It was frustrating to find myself growing less relaxed in the water instead of more relaxed, as the coach moved on to other drills. She assured me I would get the hang of it, and in the meantime, said I should get a set of noseplugs for the next night.
Also on the first night, the coach videotaped us doing our learned method of swimming. She had the camera underwater on a long arm. When we watched the tape, I saw that my body goes at a 45-degree angle with my head out, and my feet kick so fast I look like I’m propelling a tiny-wheeled unicycle. I knew my head was poked up, but I had no idea how vertical I was, and I had never known I was kicking more than will be necessary when I learn to flatten out using this new method.
The second night, Tuesday, we worked on aligning the body on its side while the face looks down at the bottom of the pool, with one arm extended, and then switching from one side to the other. I loved the noseplug; I was totally comfortable now that I couldn’t get water in my sinuses. I was able to concentrate on whatever the coach wanted the focus point to be. It was a completely different experience from Monday night, thank goodness.
Last night was the third of four nights. We put together most of a whole swim stroke and started to practice turning the head to breathe. The first time the coach had us try turning the head to breathe was while we were practicing a position called the Skate, which we’d already learned fairly well. With one arm forward and pointing slightly down, and the head hanging toward that armpit, with the other hand on the front of the thigh (“in the pocket”), we would turn the head to “take a bite of air.” After a couple of aborted attempts, I managed to travel the entire length breathing in that way.
This was exciting for me, for one thing, because I had never felt so relaxed in a pool for so long at one time, and two, because I was suddenly able to breathe without craning my head up and kicking like crazy. (Kicking like crazy, I found out, along with the previous inability to relax, is what makes be tired and breathless in the water.) Oh, and three, because I had never ever traversed the length of a full-sized pool with any semblance of proper breathing. It really felt like an accomplishment and I need to relish it and give up the old notion that I’d never be able to swim properly and breathe.
We then backed off of the breathing and went back to a drill we’d learned the previous day: trading arm positions, from trailing to leading, by pulling the ascending arm up the side of the body and alongside the head, while rotating slightly toward the other side. Then we learned to lift the elbow and drag the fingertips along the surface, putting the hand back into the water and making the body long, narrow, and gliding. The metaphor is that you pierce the water and swim through the hole. I think of it as slithering.
When the coach was reasonably satisfied with our alignment, stroke, and rhythm, she had us add the breathing back in. She said, count your arm strokes and get a rhythm: one, two, three, breathe, one, two, three… and on the three, you had to blow out and commit to turning the head to inhale. This worked in that I didn’t start coughing, but of course the form fell apart on the rest of the stroke, both for me and for the other guy. We took away the breathing again and ended on a successful note of re-practicing the stroke without the breathing. Well, not so successful for me because the coach is not yet able to get me to connect my arm and hip movements–but I’ll get it eventually. Water is an unfamiliar medium and body movements feel harder to keep track of.
We have now been through the rest of the drills, so tonight we will spend the time going through them again and putting them all together. I like this method of learning because it has broken down swimming into smaller components than lessons I’d had years ago, and I like that it removes the breathing problem until you’re ready to work on it. Until then, breathing is done by rolling onto the back in a previously practiced way. I can now rely on being able to do that instead of kicking upright and treading water to breathe, like I used to do.
This is a very long week. Besides the swimming class on four nights, I had the assistant-teaching of the Team Survivor class at the gym on Tuesday night as usual. That’s going well and I continue to appreciate how gracious the clients are and how hardworking, as well as how educational it is to work with a great coach like Dave. On Tuesday, I went straight from there to the swim class. As if the busy evenings this week aren’t enough, tomorrow and Sunday I’ll be in a CrossFit extravaganza all day both days. They call them “certification courses,” though in the past they haven’t focused on training trainers, but just in training people how to do the workouts properly–handy if you’ve been doing them on your own in your garage all this time. I’m happy to be going but it’s 40 miles away in Puyallup. No sleeping in for me this weekend.
I am going to be ready for some down time and some guitar-practicing time if I survive it all.