Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Goodbye, swim coach

Some of my swim literature, Terry Laughlin's along with
Lane Lines toShore Lines by Gary Emich and Phil DiGirolamo,
which helped me swim from Alcatraz.
Terry Laughlin has died.
He taught me to swim.

After my cousins Mike and Pat, that is, who on a summer vacation to their town long long ago, proved at their neighborhood pool that holding my breath while under water wouldn't kill me, and that knowing how to glide like a sea mammal far below the surface was worth the $1.50 to get in.

And after a half dozen summer-program swim instructors at the old dank lung-burning indoor Municipal Pool, and the sunny warm pool at Cabrillo High School, where I once jumped off the high dive and lived to at least this moment to write about it.

And after my dad encouraged me. I don't remember him ever swimming with me, though I admit to not always paying attention. I learned after his death he was what we now call an open-water swimmer.

After all those, Terry Laughlin taught me.

Laughlin died late last month from cancer. He promoted a struggle-free form of swimming he called Total Immersion, and taught through books, DVDs and swim camps — at his headquarters in New Paltz, New York, and in community pools across the country and exotic locales beyond. Licensed coaches of his technique abound.

About 10 years ago, I decided to swim for exercise, because it would be good for — let's be honest — an old guy and his old joints. And somehow that plan has sustained, while all my other exercise resolutions before and since fizzled quickly.

I found some old swim trunks in a dresser drawer, rejoined my wife's gym, and got in the pool, day after day, marveling at my ability to stretch two lengths into 72, and to keep up the mile swim regularly.

Two things happened.
  1. My shoulders burned in pain.
  2. I decided I had always wanted to swim from Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco Bay. Why I told myself this lie, and convinced myself of it, I don't know. But this suddenly lifetime goal had no chance with those burning shoulders.
I must learn to swim.

To the library I went, where I keep most of my books, and found a couple about swimming. One was Terry Laughlin's "Total Immersion: The Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster and Easier." I don't remember the other book, because Laughlin's description of his method caught me right away, describing me and my struggles wholly, and offering to break down my lack of method into a new one — one that would rely on my hips, not my shoulders, for propulsion.

I was hooked.

I don't think Laughlin had any proprietary control over his technique. In the intervening years, I have seen similar techniques under different names, from people selling their own swim camps and media. Experienced swimmers may also call it "front-quadrant" swimming, in which one arm doesn't complete the backward stroke until the other arm enters the water, at the same time that side's hip drives down into the water.

Total Immersion stresses a stress-free way of swimming, more efficient, using hips to move the body forward while it glides at a slant like the keel of a sailboat. Rather than kicking continuously, like you imagine swimmers in a race, Total Immersion swimmers kick only enough to turn over the hips.

Many open water swimmers, I learn, swim in somewhat the same way, even if they don't call it Total Immersion.

Laughlin, a frequent blogger, pointed to the record holding long-distance swimmer, Sun Yang of China, as the epitome of his technique. Watch him in the 1,500 meter race: Sun looks like he's taking a relaxing dip, and yet he is often several body lengths past his competition, which churns the water violently. Laughlin was quick to say he had nothing to do with teaching Sun this technique style.

Racing swimmers also call it a recovery swim — I have seen Olympian swimmers cool down after races using this very same deliberate front-quadrant style, kicking only enough to turn their hips.

The difference was: This is the book I happened to find, and Laughlin talked me through it well. I went through two editions of his book: One in which he denounced so-called "endless pools," which allow swimmers to swim in place through an artificial current; and the next edition in which he said such pools won't ruin your technique after all.

I even stepped off a place in my backyard in the ridiculous wish I would one day have my own such pool. I schlepped off to the gym pool instead.

At the same time I was learning how to be a schoolteacher — on the job, not recommended — I was learning how to swim. To the pool at 4:30 a.m., without witnesses, I would go through Laughlin's many steps of floating and gliding, up and down the pool, just tilting and kicking, then one arm extended and the other held out of the water, bent in the shape of a fin. Then plunging my fist into the water near the side of my face, as quietly as possible, no bubbles if possible, driving one hip down with one kick, then the other with another kick, sculling on my side. Finally, my open hand knifing in for a full stroke.

Then I'd go off to school, endure the day, fall asleep at my desk writing responses to students' journals, go home, get up at 4 and repeat.

In rare free time, I would watch YouTube® videos of Laughlin's instructors, who seemed to proliferate. One especially, named Shinji Takeuchi, becomes the water he swam in, so languid in form but racing down the pool, the barest of ripples around him. They kept me going.

It took a long time to practice and get used to Laughlin's steps, the length of that school year, until I could put it all together into the stroke he described. I could glide the length of a 25-yard pool in 10 strokes when it used to take me 21, and could swim a mile with ease. Leaving shoulders free of pain!

Today the pool. Tomorrow, Alcatraz!

Swimming open water was like learning to swim all over again. The logistics of finding water to swim in regularly, and swimmers to show me the way, consumed my time. I finally resigned to getting myself out of swim trunks and into body-squeezing jammers, and being OK in public about it.

Then I had to apply all I re-learned in the pool to a cold murky lake, where lane lines don't exist and distances are hard to judge, and beasties may lurk below and the water isn't still. That took even more time.

Having found a group of swimmers in the dead of winter, I also had to learn how to swim in cold water — which I have not regretted a whit. One fallout is that all the bilateral breathing I had learned in the pool atrophied. I'm guilty of the bad habit of breathing from one side after every two strokes; try though I might to breathe again from both sides, the cold water forces me to revert.

I'm OK with it.

And I'm OK where I am now. When I finally got the hang of Total Immersion in the open water, I resolved to join Masters swimming so I could qualify for races. I scratched that itch for a couple of years, then tired of it, realizing I have no desire or talent for racing, and I was spending money for something I could do for free, which is to swim in new waterways.

I still love to take part in some dear swim events — not races, but moving communities of swimmers  — such as the 24-hour swim relay at Aquatic Park in San Francisco, which Suzie Dods developed, and the Humboldt Bay Critter Crawl Sarah Green invented on the north coast. And I'd recommend the iconic Donner Lake swim to anyone; the lunch that awaits you after is worth the 2.7 mile trek across that mountain lake.

And I swam Alcatraz! And I swam from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Bay Bridge (well, St. Francis Yacht Club to AT&T Park, about the same distance, because whiteout fog made it unsafe to get in under the Golden Gate).

Along the way, I learned something surprising and disheartening — strangers who immediately deride and belittle Total Immersion. It blindsided me at first, when I'd be having a conversation about swimming with a fellow open water practitioner and unwittingly let slip I practice Total Immersion. The fellow swimmer would tell me right away how much they hate that technique, how no real swimmer would be caught doing it.

At first I'd defend it, but after a while I just shut up. It seemed silly, like I was a convert to a secret religion, taking care who I talked to about it. Occasionally I'd meet another who practice Total Immersion, and maybe we'd talk.

Now I don't even talk about it. I just swim. All I know is I can swim, and I can swim every day, and Total Immersion makes it possible.

I swim alone these days, having abandoned the pool for open water years ago. Don't pity me, it just is. I was part of a regular group for a couple of years. We pushed each other to swim longer and longer distances of our home lake, and explore other venues. We'd go to coffee after; we even exchanged Christmas gifts one year. But members of the group moved away and moved on; I went to a nineish-to-fiveish job, so I have to swim as early as possible before work, and not many would join me at that hour and place.

I see swimming groups on social media, and think how nice to be part of that; but in the rare event someone does join me early for a swim, it becomes a new thing to relearn, the stress of trying to keep up or keep track. I've gotten used to trekking alone up the lake. It's OK.

After a while, I stopped posting on a facebook®™ group for swimmers, simply because I had run out of new things to day about my swims. It is always beautiful, always dotted with Canada geese and mergansers and mallards and the rare otter, but it was like Groundhog Day with each swim.

I could have written about this year, the heavy rains filling Folsom Lake and forcing water managers to release huge amounts of water though Lake Natoma, where I swim, and down into the lower American River. For a couple of weeks this winter it was impossible to swim there, the tranquil waters having roiled into Class III rapids.

Even when the current slowed a bit, swimming was a challenge. One winter morning I got in and stayed near shore, to prevent being swept away if I strayed to the center. The main bridge ahead was about 100 yards away.

Against the current I crawled ahead, pebble width by pebble width (the water was unusually clear). I counted strokes: 2,450 strokes got me just past the main bridge. It took exactly 87 strokes to swim back to the boat landing.

Another time, shortly after, I got kicked out of the lake.

Getting in from the boat landing at the lower end of the lake — my ritual when I'm down there — I climbed up through strong muddy current. That was my mistake; I caught someone's attention and raised the alarm. A quarter-mile into my swim, I see a chase boat from the nearby aquatic center sidle up to me; it's one of those boats from which the coaches instruct the local rowing crews as they train on the lower lake.

"The lake is closed," the pilot told me from his bullhorn. "These currents are dangerous. You have to get out."

I was not gracious; I was angry. I wanted to say, "Where ya been? I do this all the time!" He just repeated his instructions.

"I'm swimming back!" I shouted. "Just don't go near the dam," the pilot said. Gee, you think?! The boat circled back to the aquatic center. I swam a few more strokes upstream, but the pilot was watching and circled back to escort me out of the lake.

I could have written about that. Or how the current only relented about two months ago to let me swim again to the Folsom Prison property, my favorite, a round trip of about three miles through a jagged ravine. Or how clear the water was all summer, the storm water having scoured the river bottom of the milfoil and water hyacinth that had choked the channel during drought years. I used to be lucky to see a fish a year when I begin swimming Lake Natoma. This summer I saw at least two fat trout a day, swimming along with me, just below.

The water has clouded up again since, back to its green murk.

Now I just swim. Though I haven't opened Terry Laughlin's book or looked at his DVDs in several years, I try to mind what he taught me. I try to dip my hands into the water quietly, without bubbles. I try to pick up the pace, to swim with easy speed. I have never figured out how this technique can make me swim fast, and I have my suspicions I would have to go to one of the swim camps to learn, and I wasn't in the position to do it.

Lately I practice picking up my pace for long distances, just fast enough before I start making bubbles with my hands. I tell my hips to drive down; I tell my shoulders to let my hips do the work. I lean down, trying to keep my body straight, as if through a tube, as Terry Laughlin taught.

And I swim and swim and swim. And I'm swimming still.

And I thank Terry Laughlin for that. May he rest his shoulder in peace.