"YOU don't know how to swim?" That's what everyone asked when I mentioned taking a swim class. For the record: I did know how to swim. And tread water. I even spent time on the local swim team -- about two weeks, that is, at age 5.
I was confident enough to paddle around the waves in Kauai or dive into the seas off the coast of Croatia. But by no means was I a good swimmer.
This was personally frustrating because my 61-year-old mother is, I suspect, half fish. She always has been unstoppable in the water, slipping into the lake outside her Ohio home and heading out fearlessly for a dock across a distant cove. She's not fast, but she's steady; I never dared to go the distance with her.
It was with another distance in mind -- keeping fit through middle age -- that I enrolled in a class at the Ketchum-Downtown YMCA for beginning and intermediate swimmers.
On Saturday morning, downtown L.A. is eerily quiet, but at 9 a.m. the pool was full of lap swimmers and water-walkers. With the other nervous new students, I loitered around the edges until the instructor, Phillipe, cleared two lanes for us.
One thing immediately became clear: There's a vast gulf between beginning and intermediate swimmers. The 12 of us were all over the map: those who could swim the length of the 25-yard pool, those who didn't like to put their face in the water, those who owned swim goggles and those who wore bikinis to do laps. One classmate laughed embarrassedly as she told us she'd "nearly drowned" -- her exact words -- not once but five times.
Phillipe could tell this mix of abilities wasn't going to work, so the second week we were split into two classes meeting at separate times. There were only four of us (one later dropped out) at the intermediate level. I missed the social aspects of a large class, but the smaller group made the lessons more like private coaching.
And did I need some coaching.
By the YMCA's swim scale for kids -- Polliwog to Shark -- I sized myself up to be a Minnow, able to swim a crawl stroke but not much else. (The Y doesn't embarrass its adult students with such monikers.) Next to the regular Saturday-morning lap swimmers, I looked like a drunk driver weaving down the lane. Coming up to breathe I felt like a whale breaching the surface, lifting as much of my torso out of the water as I could.
I thought I was reasonably fit. After all, I was practicing yoga twice a week and had started biking too. But while swimming, I felt like the air was being sucked out of my lungs.
"Slow down!" yelled Phillipe.
It's all about pace, Phillipe explained as I panted like a Saint Bernard on a 100-degree day. If you're in the ocean, there is no end to the lap. You have to find and hold a pace that you can maintain.
I hadn't realized how water changes my reactions. If I overexert myself running or biking, of course I slow down. But put me in water -- even 3 1/2 feet of it -- and when I start to breathe hard, I speed up. It's that lizard-brain logic stepping in, telling me that the sooner I get to the end of the lane, the sooner I can resume normal breathing.
Swimming is a deceptively demanding cardiovascular workout. You don't break a sweat in the pool, but you are using every major muscle group. Think of it in terms of metabolic equivalent units, or METs, which measure how much oxygen your body burns doing an activity. Swimming freestyle laps is a 7- to 10-MET activity, the same as jogging a 10- to 12-minute mile.
Phillipe gave me a new way to frame my pool pace. Don't think about speed, he said. Instead, see how few strokes can pull you down the pool, or how few breaths you can take during each length. At first it felt like fighting my very nature as a land mammal. Fortunately, I found that I could hum a song while I swam, and set my pace to that. Unfortunately, the only song I could think of that was slow enough was "Dream a Little Dream of Me" -- at the sleepy Ella Fitzgerald tempo.
There was other fine-tuning as well. To avoid aggravating an old shoulder injury, Phillipe taught me to warm up by starting with a kick board, and then swimming with my hands balled into fists. That got my muscles warmed up without the strain of pulling hard through the water.
He also kept an eye on my stroke, making sure I didn't swing my arms around as if I were doing a roundhouse punch. Instead, I reached as far as I could past the middle of my head, which kept me moving straight down the lane. I also worked on rolling slightly side-to-side as I swam, which seemed to reduce the resistance to each stroke as well. A clean, efficient stroke required less effort, which kept my shoulder from aching and meant I could breathe a little easier too.
It was Week 6 when Phillipe told me to warm up and try to swim a kilometer. And I simply did. "You're a natural," he told me. I blushed to the bottom of my goggles. It was the first time in my 35 years that I'd ever been called a natural at any athletic pursuit.
Once my group class ended, I signed up for a few private lessons to learn other strokes. I think of lessons as a tune-up, like meeting with a golf or tennis pro, even though you've already learned the basics of the game.
The backstroke is coming along, and last week I tried the breaststroke. It's got an odd three-beat tempo and an awkward kick. It's like learning to waltz when you've only ever danced the mambo. And it doesn't work at all to "Dream a Little Dream of Me."
My semiaquatic mother is coming to visit over Christmas. I don't know if she'll want to swim. But if so, I'm ready to go the distance.