Learning to Breathe
By Dave Fox
I endured years of childhood swimming lessons, with meager results. I could never quite master the coordinated effort of stroking, kicking, inhaling above water, and exhaling below water, without sucking 93 pints of chlorine into my nasal passages. After a few strokes, I’d come up gasping in panic as my lungs filled with pool water.
“You’re kicking wrong,” my instructors would scold me.
By age seven, I hated swimming. I learned how to do it – sort of – but I embraced it with a passion usually reserved for tetanus shots. Throughout life, I’ve felt horribly self-conscious in water. As an adult, when asked if I can swim, I’ve downplayed my phobias with two self-deprecating quips:
“If you throw me into the middle of a lake, I’ll make it to shore alive, but it won’t be pretty.”
(True if it’s a small lake. )
“I swim with the prowess of a Golden Retriever.”
(Also true, though I should probably choose a smaller dog.)
Breathing has been my sticking point. I confirmed this in Mexico three years ago when my now-wife shoved a snorkel in my mouth. Once I let go of the dread that a flimsy, 12-inch plastic tube was the only thing keeping me from drowning, I discovered I could stay afloat for hours (okay, minutes) without dying. Snorkeling did not require the coordinated head-turning efforts of regular swimming. It gave me new aquatic freedom.
But there are places where it’s socially appropriate to use a snorkel – basically any body of water with fish – and the swimming pool in my apartment complex is not one of those places. It’s too chlorinated for fish. (I tested the chlorine levels using my usual 93 pints method.) It’s an enticing pool, however, surrounded by palm trees. I gaze down at it daily from my seventh-story home office. So when we moved to Singapore 21 months ago, I promised myself, once and for all, I’d overcome my Miniature Schnauzer ways and learn to swim properly.
I planned to figure this out on my own. Over the years, I’ve taught myself many useful skills, such as how to crawl; how to chew; and how to run very fast, far away, when someone says, “Let’s go sing karaoke.” I’ve learned these things intuitively, perfected them through trial and error. Surely, if I went to the pool every day and practiced, I’d be swimming like Lance Armstrong in no time. But my plan had a flaw.
My home office is not the only room in the apartment complex that overlooks the pool. Our high-rise building has 240 three-bedroom apartments with floor-to-ceiling windows throughout. By my estimate, my self-study endeavors could be viewed through roughly 3,240 panes of glass – a daunting audience if you’re feeling self-conscious.It was all in my mind, I realize, but every time I got in the pool, I would imagine all the building’s residents staring down at me, pointing, laughing, maybe even insulting me in the elevator later in the day.
So for 19 months, I gazed down daily at the coordinated people, the ones who swam like humans, not Schnauzers. They’d swim laps, get exercise, and climb out looking refreshed.
I wanted to be like them. I wanted to swim with confidence, coordination, and the occasional flow of oxygen through my lungs. So two months ago, at age 44, I did something terrifying. I signed up for lessons.
“Is there a particular stroke you’d like to work on?” my coach, Derreck, asked at my first class.
“Yes,” I said. “One where I don’t drown.”
As I grasped the pool’s edge, he showed me how to kick like a frog. “One, two, three,” he demonstrated, explaining that step two, twisting one’s feet outward to make them parallel with the surface, was the critical step most people ignore. The reason people ignore this step, I discovered moments later as Derreck stood behind me and wrenched my feet with his hands, is because it is unnatural and painful.
We moved on to a kickboard. Without using my arms to propel myself, I would perfect my kicking. After ten minutes, I had frog-kicked myself a good seven feet.
Once I abandoned the kickboard, I swam faster, falling into the same rhythm I had adopted at my apartment pool: stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe, stroke, breathe, choke, stop. It never failed. Always on stroke four, I’d inhale too soon.
“You’re kicking wrong,” Derreck said.
“The problem… choke… isn’t my kicking,” I tried to explain. “The… choke… problem is my… choke… breathing.”
“Yes,” Derreck said. “But you must twist your feet.”
I hobbled home with severe foot cramps.
At age 44, I was still hating swimming lessons. But I forced myself to keep enduring them. On week three, Derreck got it: For me, kicking was secondary.
He demonstrated how and when to inhale and exhale. He observed how my timing was off. He showed me the correct method. Then he told me to go try it.
I swallowed my usual 93 pints.
After a few more lessons, I realized my real problem was not breath coordination. My real problem, every time I put my face in the water, was panic. Not a full-scale attack. Just enough anxiety to get me flailing out of control, exhaling too late, and inhaling too soon.
Once I talked myself into a calmer state of mind, my fears diminished. Swimming a full width of the pool without swallowing water was my first small victory. Then, last Tuesday, I swam six lengths of an Olympic-sized pool – an impossibility for me two months ago. I never choked, and I only crashed into three other swimmers.
I swim laps at my apartment now. I no longer worry about neighbors judging me from their windows or saying mean things in the elevators. And anyone ever does, I have new ways of deflecting their insults:
With continued practice, I can now kick with confidence.