Thursday, October 2, 2014


Swimming has marked me for life.

Maybe that should be with life.

No, it has not shaped me like a carrot, wide at the shoulders and narrow at the waist like Ryan Lochte or Sun Yang, which would be nice. But it has deferred my becoming more bulbous, and that's nice too.

Less nice is the spot on my chest, the size of a quarter.

It is at once a modest red badge of courage and an editor's pen mark, a scarlet punctuation of my errors.

As our little group of swimmers has increased distances, each swim of course has required more strokes, which has brought together the bristles of my weird beard thing against the skin of my chest just below my right clavicle many, many more times. That moment comes as I bring my arm forward in a stroke and turn my face down again in the water after a breath.

I have been rubbing that spot raw since mid-June. Two weeks ago I emerged from a three-mile swim and the spot seeped blood down my belly. For long swims now, I dab the spot with Vaseline®™ — though sometimes I'm already 200 yards out in the water before I remember.

The beard is not to blame, though it'll wind up the scapegoatee. Really more of a horseshoe mustache, it's no more than a costume accessory for my other life as a 19th Century Irish bloke for the Sacramento Underground tours. It's merely more presentable, I decided, than the muttonchops I sported for the same purpose.

Without the mustache, though, few would know how really wrong I swim.

Even stranger than my infrequent but violent kicks, I breathe from only one side, every other stroke. For many perfectly sensible reasons, it's better for swimmers to breathe from both sides; typically swimmers take a breath from one side, stroke thrice and breathe from the other side.

It provides more balance, since freestyle is a symmetrical maneuver. Swimmers can better see their surroundings. I think such swimmers also have better lung capacity.

After months of practice in the pool, I got good at bilateral breathing. All it took was that first moment in the open water four years ago to abandon the technique. The water was too cold to keep my face in for more than a few seconds, and I reverted to the maligned breathing pattern I still use.

Though I try to keep my head and body aligned as I turn both during the swim stroke, I must be turning my head more as I face down, bring my chin into my chest at that red spot.

At least I'm consistent in my incorrectness.

My dentist during the last checkup noticed an odd shape to my jaw, an assymetry. He moved my jaw from side to side more than usual while he poked and "hmmm"ed and paused. If he had asked I would have mentioned my swim breathing. It causes me to slide my jaw left like I'm doing a Sammy Davis Jr. impression, to make as small a pocket of air as I can and keep most of my head aligned with my body.

But my dentist didn't ask. I think this breathing folly is reshaping my jaw, one more reason to work on bilateral breathing.

Besides, swim buddy Sarah has pointed out all the swooping great blue herons I have missed by looking left all the time. And it's true I missed most of San Francisco on my swim from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge because of the inland route.

In fear of oncoming rowing shells, I have adapted to scan the horizon between strokes. And I manage to breathe fine this way even in heavy waves, which is another good reason to be able to breathe from both sides. I miss the occasional heron, though, it's true.

I have tried to relearn bilateral breathing since, and risen from the water with face and head throbbing from the unusual motion. A moment comes in every swim when I urge myself to try again.

I will, maybe soon. Take a couple of aspirin and confine myself to a cove and just practice and practice, and come back a few more times.

Or maybe just shave the mustache.

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