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The Perfect Stroke: Teaching Myself How to Swim

Three years ago, I took it upon myself to learn how to freestyle swim for triathlon. I came from a running background and referred to myself as a “land mammal” before taking on my first triathlon in 2012. I like being able to breathe air when I want it and I find comfort in knowing that if something goes wrong, I won't literally be sinking, dusky and cold to the depth of a large body of water. 

This isn't a hugely novel topic of conversation among beginner triathletes; in fact, it's one of the most common. You hear it all the time: "I could totally do the run and muscle through the bike, but the swim... I'd drown or panic or both!" Occasionally there will be the old high school swimmer who doesn't feel this way, at least in theory. But most would agree, when squeezed into the sausage casing of a wetsuit, huddled into a heady heard, surrounded by the overly active adrenals of nearby competitors, charged up in an electrical field of wired nerves, muddied by your racing mind, bound to a heart that won't stop pounding, the swim can be a bit daunting. But don't forget it, can also be magical. 

Perfecting My Stroke

So in 2012, I taught myself how to swim. Or rather, I taught myself how to get through the swim.  And with that plan I was content, at least until last year at USAT National Championships in Milwaukee, WI. I had asked my parents, who came to watch me race, to count my competitors and let me know my standing after the swim. As I emerged from the water I heard my mom shouting "99, 99!” 

Oh jeez, I thought, that's no good when I'm trying to get top 25 to qualify for the World Championship. Somehow, I ended up qualifying. But that number, “99,” kept creating a cognitive dissonance in my brain. As it turns out, my mom had actually told me the wrong number, claiming she thought yelling a number over 100 sounded much too daunting! 

Touched off by the "99" incident, I decided to start over and deconstruct my stroke this year. I hired the best coach in Brooklyn, NY and launched into retraining myself how to swim. 

There is no question that this has been the most challenging component of training to date. I can tolerate physical pain—and did at Ironman Louisville—but this new stuff, I'll be honest, I'm just bad at it. The drills are so awkward and my body doesn't want to listen to my new commands.  In my mind, I feared that I was just too old to change the muscle memory or by teaching myself how to swim, I had just screwed myself up permanently. It turns out, my body was not rocking properly, my arms were karate chopping and crossing midline, and my breathing was poorly timed. It was all wrong. Given all that, “How do I even propel myself forward?” I pondered. 

But somehow, I was. So, with patience and persistence I had to be able to get better; I could improve. “Even ‘98’ is better than ‘99,’” I encouraged myself.  But in truth, I felt disappointed, frustrated, and I found I was beating myself up about it. Although mentally, this wasn't easy, I decided to give myself a break. After all, this is supposed to be fun, right?

 Perspective came to me, in pieces. 

I recognized my precious time away from my wife and children, trading lunch breaks for the itch of chlorine skin, skipping showers for four more miles, is worth something. It is about my happiness, my fulfillment in achievement, my pride, and proving to my children that the challenge is worth butting up against, even if it's hard. I realized, no matter what the outcome, my moments of frustration in the water—every single one of them—matter. 

The season hasn't started yet, but I sure am excited for when it does. I'll let you know how the swim goes. 

-Bridie Hatch, RN, MSN, CPNP

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