There's always more to learn

outdoor pose 1.jpg

Swimming Part 2: The Joy of Flip Turns

When I started swimming, actually maybe even before I was able to even make it from one end of the pool to the other without stopping, I dreamed of doing flip turns. I admired the people who could swim laps endlessly by performing this beautiful maneuver at the wall. Before going to sleep at night I would watch how-to videos on my phone and fall asleep imagining that I had the courage to learn this seemingly acrobatic feat.

That first season of learning to swim, I think I attempted it a grand total of once.

I found myself stuck upside down, completely baffled as to how I managed to end up scraping the bottom of the pool and not being able to reach the wall in order to push off. The videos made it seem so simple. After that first embarrassing attempt, I decided I better focus on just going straight back and forth for now. Besides, there would be no flip turning in Lake Monona anyway.

Resigned to reaching the wall and pivoting at the end of every length, I gradually improved my stamina in the pool until I could move to open water where flipping was no longer an issue. Now sighting was the goal. But that's a post for a different day.

Ironman Wisconsin 2018 came and went, and after giving myself a week or so off from the pressure to swim, I headed back to the pool. It was hard enough to drag myself to the pool during training but now that my carrot was gone, the dread intensified. I wish I could say that triathlon was the start of a beautiful friendship between the water and me, but that was not the case. It's not that we hate each other, it's just that getting together feels more like an obligation than a gift.

I played around with different times of day to swim, trying to find a slot that fit more naturally into my life but the excuses my brain would generate were just too convincing. During that trial-and-error phase of fall 2018, I discovered that early afternoons were usually quiet enough that I could get my own warm lane in the family pool. The lunchtime die-hards were gone, the kids were still in school, so the only witnesses to what I was about to do were an older lady walking slowly back and forth and some bored-looking lifeguards.

I quieted the doubting voice in my head and seized the opportunity. After several days of mentally rehearsing what the YouTube videos taught me, I decided to use the last 10 minutes of one of my mid-week swim sessions to attempt the flip turn. I had the choreography in my head. As I swam my laps that day I pictured myself approaching the wall and executing the moves. I kept my usual routine of touch-and-turn, but worked on visualizing the timing and imagining the feel of a successful flip turn.

It was go-time. For my first attempt, I slowed my stroke way down, took a deep breath, and somersaulted. That's it. Just the somersault. Then I stood up. Success. I backed up a few steps and did it again. And again. I paid attention to how it felt, which way I ended up facing, what my legs and arms were doing. I backed up a few more steps and attached the somersault to the end of a few slow freestyle strokes. Got it. This was working okay and as I glanced around, nobody seemed to be concerned about what I was doing.

I was ready to add the push-off. Stroke, stroke, somersault, flip-and-push. Against nothing. I had somersaulted too early and couldn't reach the wall. After a few tries I could reach the wall but when I pushed off, I skimmed along the bottom of the pool (I was practicing in 4 feet of water). I slowed it back down again and tried to watch my feet. They were landing toward the top of the plus-sign on the wall of the pool so I was pushing off-and-down, rather than pushing straight out toward the other side. Okay, well how to fix that?

A faster somersault would help. Following along each step in my head while executing it, I realized that my hands needed to do a little flick of the water as I was coming around in order to give my body the momentum it needed to get my feet to land in the right spot. That was the trick. I was psyched when I figured that out. A few more successful reps and I had to call it a day. Reluctantly, for the first time ever. I left the pool feeling very satisfied. That was a great feeling.

Each time I went to the pool I added more and more flip turns to my session. I had to build up my confidence each time for the first few weeks. In a lot of ways it's like riding a bike: Belief that you can do it is half the battle. If you're wishy-washy, you'll likely fail. Flip turns also challenged my endurance; whereas before I was able to swim lap after lap without stopping, now I was needing to roll onto my back two strokes after flipping to catch my breath. It was like being a newbie again. I realized that it was because pushing off the wall was using a lot of energy from the big muscles in my legs, hence using up more oxygen. I eased up on the strength of my push and was immediately able to finish the lap without a break. My body adapted and by Christmastime that year, I had figured out the right formula and was swimming and flipping like I had dreamed.

Like everyone, I was out of the pool for months in the spring of 2020. When we were allowed back, what got me to get in the water again was curiosity and fear over whether I still remembered how to do those flip turns. Just like riding a bike, muscle memory had it locked in. Thank goodness.

Flip turns have helped me in so many ways. I learned to do something new that I never imagined I'd have the courage to do. It may seem like a small thing to some, but for me, it's a very tangible measurement of how far I've come athletically. They've made me a stronger and more confident swimmer by increasing my lung capacity in the water and giving me this funny little incentive to keep going when I want to call it quits for the day. "One more flip, and you can go. Okay one more. One more". 200 meters or more later, time is up and what I had dreaded turned out to be something I enjoyed. That's a pretty good life lesson, isn't it? Find the nugget of good in something that's a chore and the entire experience can be transformed.