My attempt at swimming lessons

Many months ago, when I got the wild idea to do 36 things in one year, “take a swimming lesson” was one of the first things that popped into my brain. After all, I’m surrounded by triathletes to the point that I find myself giving them tips and regularly spouting triathlon trivia. I’ve also been to Hawaii a number of times over the years, I have a couple pools in my apartment complex, and I have gym access to several “real” pools. Oh, and I’ve proven to myself time and time again that the only way I can run is if I also cross train. Clearly, I should swim.

There is the small matter of how I almost drowned once as a completely sober adult… And how it took me years of childhood lessons before I allegedly passed the test… And how a boy once tried teaching me to dive but instead I belly flopped repeatedly until it hurt and then I lost an earring and he couldn’t find it at the bottom of the pool, though he kept valiantly trying…

I had a feeling I would put off the swimming lesson thing, but then an Amazon Local deal appeared in my inbox shortly after I launched my 36 Things project. I called to see if they had adult lesson times available (they did), and if they had evenings so I wouldn’t have to take time off work (they did), and I looked online to see if they had good reviews (they did). $36 later, I was signed up for four 30-minute lessons.

On a mid-March evening, I stayed late at work until it was time to change. I put on the one-piece Speedo swimsuit I’d purchased for $19 a year earlier at Costco (and had never worn). I had goggles ready (which I’d worn once), along with a swim cap (never worn). I drove a few miles to American Swim Academy, walked inside and surveyed what I describe as a cute pool.

I impressed myself by getting the untested swim cap onto my big head on the first try — good sign. I looked at the seating area and saw one woman in a swimsuit; I went over and said hi, and yes, she was there for the swim lesson and was very nice — good sign. It was just the two of us, instead of the maximum of four students I’d known about when signing up — good sign. The teacher was a cool guy who didn’t put on any airs or make me feel stupid — good sign.

You’d think all those good signs would lead to a good time. Well, I had forgotten about the swimming lessons when I’d given blood for the first time four days earlier. I’ve since learned that I am basically useless for about 10-14 days after giving blood; half an hour is my max for exercise before I really cannot see anything and am utterly exhausted. That first swim lesson had me breathless after two laps in the small pool.

The second lesson rolled around, and I was now 11 days post-blood-donation. This time we had a third student. The other woman was a beginner, but this new woman didn’t let go of the wall — in four feet of water. I was mainly there to learn how to breathe to the side during the crawl stroke, so I can actually get a workout. The other two woman were there to learn how to avoid drowning and conquer their fear of water. I felt like the showoff I never want to be — I was basically an intimidating asshole who didn’t need to learn how to stay alive in water. To be clear, our teacher never made me feel that way, but I felt so guilty. I was mostly on my own, though other teachers tried to give me pointers and were all very nice.

The third lesson rolled around, with the same three of us students. Did I mention how much goggles hurt? I mean, I prefer them to the burning eyes and risk of infection from lord knows how many kids peed in that pool all day before I showed up at 6:30 p.m. But they hurt, and the raccoon eye marks are definitely attractive when wandering around Trader Joe’s after 30 minutes in the pool. The other two women were still trying not to drown, ┬áThe teacher and I still hadn’t figured out which side I should be breathing on (when asked which felt easier, my answer was a quick “neither?”). I couldn’t count three strokes before I’d be gasping for air, but maybe I was actually supposed to be counting four, or possibly two?

Tonight was supposed to be my fourth and last lesson. As I sat there at work at 5:15 p.m., thinking about how I’d be hanging out for another hour and then going to a place I was dreading, I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I locked up and went home. As soon as I got on the freeway in the wrong direction from the swimming pool, I felt so relieved. The relief was worth the $9 I had pre-paid and wouldn’t get back.

And thus ends my swimming lesson experiment. I’d still like to be able to swim without getting exhausted immediately — even when I’ve been in fast marathon shape, I can’t swim more than two laps without needing a break, and by four laps I can’t see (for perspective, when I’m in shape, I manage not to reach that point until the end of a marathon when I’ve just raced the last three miles). The other day I got a brochure about all the programs my city offers, and they did have adult swimming lessons in it for a good price. But I don’t want to pay any amount of money to hang out in a pool feeling guilty because I know the basics of swimming and am thus taking time away from those who do not know how. I also don’t want to be the idiot taking up space in a gym pool where real swimmers are trying to train for an Ironman.

I guess I’ll just keep doing other cross-training activities and envying those people who mysteriously enjoy swimming. At least I got a couple sunset drives out of the swimming lessons.

11 Responses to My attempt at swimming lessons

  1. hey layla, t here:

    swimming is hard. swimming has BEEN hard for years. it took me quite a long time to be able to swim for any decent amount of time. i’m glad i recently found an article on breathing that says you DON’T have to breathe bilaterally – do whatever you need to to get in the most oxygen. even now, as i’m trying to swim faster, i still always feel like i’m on the edge of hyperventilating. i know it’ll eventually get easier, but ugh.

    i do have to ask, what do you mean by you can’t see after a while? do you mean that your goggles fog up?

    swimming is great, but also, don’t feel like you *have* to do it, either. :)

    • By not being able to see, I meant that I’m so exhausted. It’s like I’m at the end of a marathon I raced, or when I’m bonking badly up a hill on my bike. There’s just no blood or oxygen getting to my head, and the only way to fix it is to put my head down — which doesn’t quite work in a pool! :-)

      Thanks for the encouragement, though. I’d still like to swim for exercise, but this clearly wasn’t the way to get there.

  2. Ugh, I hate swimming and this is one of my NY resolutions too. You don’t fill me with excitement. I’ll put it off until June. Well done for even doing it though.

    • Aw, I hope I didn’t dissuade you too much! I think the environment wasn’t ideal for me, and maybe I need some one-on-one lessons.

  3. I swam competitively for 15 years and I can truly say it was one of the hardest sports I’ve done/ Humans aren’t naturally made to swim and it’s tiring. It’s something you have to keep at for a very long time to get any efficiency. I’m glad you tried it (and are semi enjoying it!)

    • That’s actually really good to hear, coming from you. I just keep thinking, “Why is this so hard?!” Maybe I need one-on-one lessons to figure out things like “how to breathe”…

  4. Everything I know about swimming and breathing I learned on YouTube, and all I know is that it is freaking HARD! I’m not sure if this is helpful at all, but I learned a lot from this series by Karlyn Pipes.

    Like I said, I know almost nothing, so I really have very little to offer here.

  5. Hey, good on you for trying! If you decide to go for it again, a couple of recommendations (from someone who’s been there)…Look for classes that use the Red Cross grading system (1-6) and then rate yourself higher than you think you should be. I took a class once that in theory was for all grades, but about half of us were levels 1-3 (the basics) and half were 4-6 (how you describe yourself here), so they just split us up into people looking to get comfortable in the water and people looking to be able to swim for recreation. There’s also a new Red Cross grading system just for adult classes, and you’d probably be in the “swimming for fitness” category there.

    You also might want to look into doing a private lesson or two, and I’ve found that a number of instructors will let you split your “private” session with a friend (or sometimes two). That can be handy even if you are at slightly different levels, because you get instruction, then time to practice while the instructor helps the other person, then time for feedback, more time for practice, etc. (Also helps tone down the potential awkwardness of flailing in front of a friend!)

    • Oh, but one caveat on the Red Cross thing: In my experience the curriculum requires teaching all 4 strokes even if you really only want to know freestyle. When I took lessons 3 of the 4 of us were very interested in triathlons and together we convinced our teacher to focus heavily on freestyle, but we also still had one hilarious night of butterfly and one of “learning” to “dive.”

      Because of that, I’m really intrigued by the way the Red Cross describes the new “swimming for fitness” adult class. They specifically say it’s for freestyle, backstroke, and breaststroke, which are definitely the three most useful things to know if you’re swimming as exercise. Even if you only really use freestyle, it’s handy to be able to give those muscles a break but still keep swimming. But there’s none of the “learn to dive!” “learn butterfly!” stuff that is I’m sure nice from a consistent curriculum perspective but not terribly valuable if you just want to go to lap swim.

  6. I took swimming lessons for a year, and I learned many things. I never learned, however, to actually like swimming. Thank goodness for biking and running!

  7. Maybe look on Youtube for freestyle breathing technique?
    Your grandpa is a great swimmer, so there may be a genetic predisposition that just needs a little more nurturing.