Different Strokes

July 31st, 2009

pool-waterThe Y pool is cloudy, crowded and too warm for laps. But there are no other pools in town unless you are a student at the college—which I am no longer. Their pool was clear, fairly empty, and just the right temperature. On the plus side, the Y pool has windows to the outside, which is better for my mental health. It’s probably also safer. The lifeguards take their jobs seriously, rotating positions on some sort of schedule. The lifeguards at the college pool read and made lanyards, occasionally glancing at the pool.

I can’t figure out why the Y pool is so cloudy. Is it a different cholorinating system? Kid pee? It also is distinctly salty, not that I’m drinking it. That part is perplexing, but the temperature is not. Old people doing their “Aquafit” suspended by the blue floaty belts, don’t want to be chilled. I can’t blame them, but it sure is uncomfortable to swim laps in such a warm pool.

On the other hand, I’ve had the opportunity to witness some really interesting strokes. You might think that the people in the lap lanes would just use crawl and breast stroke, unless they were real swimmers who might use back and fly as well. It’s the Y, so there’s also the side stroke and the elementary back stroke. But over time I guess people make up their own strokes. I don’t know why this should annoy or amuse me so much, but it does. I feel like everyone in the lap lanes should swim “normally.” Since I seem incapable of getting over my judgmental stance on lap swimming, I decided to try to name the strokes I’ve observed. Some of these came from the college pool, others from my first two days at the Y:

The elementary hot tub stroke. This stroke looks like it might be the way to drift backwards across the hot tub from one seat to another, keeping the body vertical, head straight up out of the water. The mechanics involves a little waving of the legs, but the stroke is primarily powered by the arms in a gentle hugging motion.

The dolphin struggling repeatedly to surface stroke. Or, the no hands butterfly. When I saw this one, I thought perhaps the man had no use of his arms and was therefore flailing down the lane as best he could. His flapping body, with arms held down in front of his chest, seemed to force his head down, and then he’d arch his back and thrust his face out to grab a breath. His eyes were wide and desperate. Then I saw him do a couple laps of freestyle, with no apparent physical limitations. The butterfly is a graceful stroke that uses up enormous energy. A week ago at the college pool I watched a guy who was clearly a competitive swimmer doing a few laps of butterfly. His entire body created an elegant undulating kick, ending and restarting as he pulled his upper body out of the water, arms circling over and in front his head, and diving shallowly back in the water. I never mastered the butterfly enough to expose it in public, and it was too exhausting for me anyway. It’s not generally suited to the fitness swimmer, especially one with no formal training or practice in his past. This is probably why the man came up with his own variation. It worried me, though, as I passed him twice on his one lap—we were sharing a lane—because it kind of looked like he might not make it to the other side. Fortunately he had a blue floaty belt.

The porpoise. This woman looked like she was genuinely delighted to feel her own weightlessness in the water. She came up for air and then dove down to the pool bottom, propelled herself forward, and then planted her feet on the pool floor to launch herself to the surface. She continued in this fashion lap after lap. Out of all the made up strokes, this one looked like the most fun.

The prayerful composite backstroke. This stroke combines elements of various strokes in a way I’d never imagined. The frog kick belongs to the elementary backstroke we learned in camp. The full elementary backstroke, however, is a relaxed stroke that keeps the body entirely on the plane of the water’s surface. It’s a little like the breast stroke lying on the back, using a similar kick. The arms, however, make a different pattern; since you’re on your back, you don’t have to rise up above the surface to breathe. I remember learning it at camp, the instructor calling in, out, down as we drew our hands up into our armpits, outward to the sides, and back parallel with our bodies. The competition backstroke, on the other hand, is freestyle (crawl) on the back. Arms make circles out of the water, and legs flutter kick. It’s fast, and always scared me the one year I had to do it when I was on the swim team. We were supposed to count strokes after the flags strung above the pool, to determine when we were at the wall, to avoid bashing it with our heads. I never trusted my count.

In the prayerful composite backstroke, the arms circle up out of the water, but instead of one at a time, as in the competition back stroke, the two arms simultaneously float overhead with hands pressed together as in prayer. It was sort of graceful.

Freestyle variations. As you might expect, there are a lot of spastic variations on the freestyle, or crawl stroke. I watch these with interest to reassure myself that I might not look professional, but at least I don’t look like that. I remind myself, “Comparisons are odious” (attributed to various writers and sages), but it sure feels good to think, compared to that guy, I am like Michael Phelps. One man was practicing a particularly exhausting looking version that I imagine stemmed from not having formal lessons. I notice that people who learned to swim with family and friends sometimes use a complete head out of the water style, face swinging to each side, with each stroke. This was what he reverted to when he apparently got tired, but the lap before was much more interesting. He started with his face in the water but every other stroke he flipped his upper body violently towards his back to breathe, head all the way up facing the ceiling. It was tiring to watch.

One kid at the college pool asked me how I managed to swim so many laps without stopping. “Practice.” I said. Then, more helpfully, “Try swimming more slowly.” The kid had to stop to rest midway through a lap. “I am going slowly,” he said. I’m no swim instructor or coach, but I did think I saw his problem: I observed that he was kicking like mad. That’d tire anyone out. The flutter kick is terribly inefficient, it seems to me. After not swimming for over five years I tried using a kick board for one lap, and I felt like I was going to drown, it was so much work. So I suggested to the kid that he barely kick at all, just enough to keep his lower body floating near the surface. I thought this was really pretty good advice, but it didn’t seem to help him. He seemed to want more help from me, but I just wanted to work out, and I didn’t feel comfortable taking the role as swim instructor.

I noticed that lately I have an inexplicable contrary reaction to people asking me for swimming tips. As a swimmer, I feel like enough of a hack to be embarrassed to play the teacher. It’s ironic, considering all the skills I’ve taught over the years in areas where I’m no expert. I taught my creative writing students to write screenplays, my experience based on reading three books, several websites, and writing the first 40 pages of my own screenplay. I knew full well this did not qualify me as a screenwriting instructor, but I forged ahead. Right after college, when I was an intern at a whitewater canoe and kayak school, I taught a whole bunch of kids to roll their kayaks when I didn’t have my own roll. Maybe I’ve changed since then. When another man wanted my advice on improving his stroke, I advised him to take a lesson with a real instructor.

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