Coach Val is perturbed with me. The thumbs-up and smiles have vanished. When I catch sight of his face at the edge of the pool, it is pinched into a lethal glare suitable for a close-up in a Clint Eastwood western. The occasion for this dissatisfaction is my first three hour pool swim.
I’ve never swum for three hours in a pool. My longest continuous swim was three and a half hours in the Bay when Pat M and I swam from Sausalito to San Francisco in 1996. The prospect of a turn-infested slog through the chlorine found me a little nervous.
Peter Perez was also swimming three hours that day. Coach was kind enough to close a lane and let us share it for the duration. Every fifteen minutes for the first half of the swim, Coach made a video recording of my stroke with commentary. “You come back to your old technique and it’s not making me happy what your right arm pulling straight. I need more and more bend your arms.” After an hour and fifteen minutes he says, “Stroke looks not bad. It’s getting better than you begin. My concern is your pulling underwater. You should more bend your elbow because arm is pulling straight. You’re becoming tired. But you should save your forms and you should more bend your elbows in the middle part of your pulling. I can’t complain about your legs. Legs on the top. It’s all right. I complain about the pulling form.” Halfway through the swim he says, “In my opinion, you start to lose the stroke and the main problem for me is to start to save the technique. You can see the arms pulling a little bit far from the center part of your body and arm is too straight underwater. But, we will work with this. We have a couple more months.”
Watching and listening to the recording later, I was crestfallen. I was convinced that I had conquered that wild, flailing stroke of my past. I was certain that I had licked the boogie-woogies. I even had the hubris to observe the stroke of swimmers in other lanes and imagine dispensing guidance. It brought crashing home, once again, the indispensable value of good coaching.
My history is relatively devoid of lessons. I mostly prefer to figure things out on my own with the help of a good book or two. This inclination certainly dates to the time that I began learning about computers. In 1970, universities were not well equipped to teach practical computing science and I learned by doing. I held several summer and part-time jobs and learned a number of computer languages through trial and error and the beneficence of employers who knew that a steep learning curve was the price of cheap labor. I came to disdain the university instruction. Entering the professional world, I again found formal instruction to be a bit tedious. Most of the programmers that I admired were self-taught.
When I was thirty-five, Lindsay bought a tenor saxophone for my Christmas present. Knowing my disdain of instruction, she also bought me a book by Larry Teal. Of course, I tried to assemble the instrument without Mr. Teal’s advice and managed to generate a screeching that reduced my mother-in-law to tears. Whether she cried from laughter or pain, she was definitely incapacitated until I stopped. This humiliation spurred me to study The Art of Saxophone Playing and I learned to assemble the instrument properly. I even managed to work out a recognizable version of “Summertime.”
A couple of years later, at a well-attended company function, a couple of friends and I produced and starred in a skit that featured familiar tunes with original lyrics. On one of the songs, I took a solo on saxophone. Viewing a video of this event later, I hoped the audience was laughing at the inside jokes embedded in the lyrics, but I feared the saxophone playing was unintentionally comical as well. That’s when Lindsay finally convinced me to seek professional coaching.
She performed her customary miracle of research which led to a decade of daily study and weekly lessons. She found Michael G, the perfect saxophone teacher. He was exactly the right combination of master and taskmaster to keep me striving for improvement. One of the most difficult aspects for me to learn was pitch. I could simply not hear that I was flat in the upper register. Mr. G would regularly have me produce long tones at the top of the horn and then squinch his face and lift his hand, palm up, to indicate that I should tighten my lower lip. Having this outside view was indispensible to my musical progress.
Having Coach Val’s outside view is just as indispensible to eradicating the boogie-woogies from my mind’s stroke as it was to eliminating the flat pitch in my mind’s ear. One of the problems was that after the three hour swim, I was not going to see Mr. Boreyko for more than a week. I was going to Atlanta for business.
Thanks to the internet, I found an LA Fitness near my hotel with four, twenty-five yard lanes. The schedule worked out so that I was able to swim about 14,000 yards that week. Concentrating on pulling straight down the centerline of my body, I worked on mentally seeing my hand pass in front of my eyes and pull directly toward my stomach. Almost half the yards were devoted to the catch-up drill. With no-one to provide guidance, it was impossible to know if these were anything more than garbage miles.
The next Tuesday, I was back at the pool. Coach seemed glad to see me and reiterated that we had plenty of time to clean up my boogie-woogie mess. He had me start with eight, five hundred yard segments—the first five hundred using catch-up drill, the next five hundred using free style. This was similar to the routine I used in Atlanta. Apparently, the concentration had paid off. We were back to smiles and nods. “Nice long stroke with the catch-up. Like it. Nice pulling. Is exactly what I want on the English Channel. Beautiful! Today, you do it. You good today.”
I was certainly nervous the day of the three-hour swim. This experience emphasized something I already knew: When people are nervous, they fall back on the most comfortable and ingrained habits. I haven’t talked to a single person who has swum the English Channel who said they weren’t nervous. I’ll need to remember this little lesson. I'll continue working to make that smooth, rhythmic style that I think of as the "Texas two-step" the stroke that I naturally employ when the nervous demons descend.
10 months ago