My Tryst With Swimming

My worst fears were back again. I had once again lost control of myself. Every part of me, foremost amongst them being my mind, was acting on its own. My heart was gripped with fear associated with unknown and life-threatening situations. I was hopelessly trying to defy gravity. However much I tried, my vision was blurred and finally I just could not help shutting my eyes tightly within the goggles that I wore. I could hear a familiar but muffled voice calling my name and telling me that I am not doing as told. My lungs were on the verge of collapsing… since I was not breathing. Every muscle in my body ached due to lack of oxygen. In the process the muscles had stiffened so much that I was akin to a mass of metal. I was hopelessly flaying my arms and legs. Finally, when survival became the top priority, I just stopped everything that I was trying. I landed my feet on the floor of the swimming pool. Thankfully I was in the shallow end of the pool, which was only 4 feet deep. I stood up hastily and breathed copious amounts of fresh air … and at the same time coughing all the water that I had swallowed into my wind pipe. As if this was not embarrassing enough, seeing many people around me swimming at ease only made the situation even more desperate for me. I finally looked helplessly at my coach who stood with his hands akimbo, he shook his head and egged me on by saying “It is OK… take a few breaths and try again.

I still remember the first time I went to a swimming pool. I was very young back then, maybe about 8 years old. My uncle took me to the Kensington swimming pool on the banks of the scenic Ulsoor Lake. I was excited en route, as I held onto him on the Rajdoot motorbike which he proudly owned. Once in the pool I was asked to hold onto the wall at the shallowest end and start kicking my legs. And this was where all my swimming started and ended for many many years to come. Even after umpteen visits to the pool [and even in some ponds in my ancestral village] I never went beyond kicking my legs. With time, even my uncle gave up going to the pool, which put the kibosh on my ambitions. Looking back, I feel that it is a strange coincidence, that my dream to learn swimming and the fate of the Kensington swimming pool shared a similar destiny. For me, learning to how swim took a backseat as other forms of sport and more importantly studies took priority. The Kensington swimming pool also died a slow death due government apathy, poor management and lack of maintenance. The pool dried, deteriorated completely and was filled with weeds and plants… perhaps resembling a grave which housed my dead dream!

And life continued thereon for many years until the summer of 2002. That is when I came across an advertisement for swimming classes at the Catholic Club on Museum Road. I enrolled myself for the classes with a new found determination. I was in my late twenties back then, but convinced myself that it was never too late to learn swimming. I must say that I was a quick learner at sports, with many of them coming very naturally to me. I learnt how to ride a bicycle in about 3 days; I learnt how to ride a motorbike in a couple of attempts; drive a car in just about 3 – 4  hours; I was good at field games like football and hockey; average at cricket which I never liked so much; basketball, table tennis,  badminton… I could pick up all these sports very naturally. Now I was not an expert in all of these by any count. I never went beyond playing for my street gang… but trust me when I say that I could learn these in no time. And hence there was this confidence that swimming will be no different. I felt that the 15 hours of coaching classes was more than enough to learn swimming.

Little did I know how wrong I would be!!!

The classes were conducted by a state champion and Ekalavya Award winner, Satish Kumar. Mind you that concentrating on the instructions was not all that easy since it was the first time I was in a swimming pool along with ladies in swim suits, who had also come to learn. Adrenaline and testosterone is indeed a heady mix. I gave it my best nevertheless. It started with walking in water… done with ease; breathe out bubbles inside the water… done with ease; hold your breath and glide… done with ease; hold your breath and kick your legs… this was for sure easy; swing your arms as you do everything else… done again. I vaguely remember doing all of this in the first 3 or so classes. And predictably I was more than happy with the progress. Then came the day when the coach asked me to turn my head sideways and breathe as I kick my legs and swing my arms. He made it look so easy when he did it. I tried and failed, I tried again and failed again. I tried repeatedly and failed repeatedly for the rest of the classes. And so, at the end of the classes, I only learnt how to glide and swim as I long as I could hold my breath. I never gave up though. I knew I had to practice to get it right and so I started numerous visits to swimming pools in the neighborhood; in friend’s apartments; in clubs; etc. But nothing changed; I just could not tilt my damn head and breathe. Even a couple of coaching classes during the later years did not help my cause. I was helpless and so were my coaches.

In spite of these repeated failures, I did not want to give up. The failed attempts only further strengthened my resolve to learn swimming. I harbored this hope for many years silently since there were other priorities in life.

In the summer of 2017, I read in the newspapers that the Kensington swimming pool was reopened with all its past glory. The pictures of the pool were really nostalgic. I however did not immediately venture into the pool considering my various aborted attempts in the past. However in January this year I enrolled myself to classes at the Kensington swimming pool. The famous Nisha Millet was running her swimming academy there and I decided to attempt yet again. I was more than elated seeing the pool for the first time after more than three decades. This undoubtedly was the best looking swimming pool for me. It is a 50m pool with about 8 lanes, 3 feet at the shallow end and 16 feet at the deep end. My coach was Abhinav Prakash, who had tasted success in swimming at the national level. I explained to him my past encounters of swimming and where I failed. He asked me to demo my skills. After seeing me, he casually mentioned “OK, I can see what is wrong. Don’t worry I will fix it for you”. I cannot remember how many people have told me this. Nevertheless I again embarked on pursuing my dream.

After 2 classes the demons returned to haunt me. I just could not turn my goddamn head to breathe. Everyone else in the batch seemed to be making better progress when I was drowning and coughing and vomiting and struggling yet again. Abhinav’s instruction was simple. He asked me to look at the sky and everything else will be easy. But somewhere I felt even he could not fathom why it was difficult to me. And so he instructed me to keep practicing until I get it.

The coaching was for 15 hours, one hour each on the weekends. Somewhere midway through the classes I went back into the depression which I was accustomed to. This time however, I made a simple choice. I decided not to give up until I learn how to swim. Never ever to give up… come what may. At the same time I also realized that I should retrospect on what was going wrong rather than just trying again and again hopelessly. All the years in the IT industry in particular and life in general had thought me this. With this renewed enthusiasm I started looking back at my technique and comparing it with what worked for others. During this process, I think I must have seen all the videos on YouTube which teach breathing in freestyle swimming. From them, I took note of the breathing technique, arm positions, the timing, the exercises required to achieve them, etc. At the same time, when at the pool I started observing the folks who were able to breathe easily in freestyle swimming. Some in classic text book style and others in grossly improvised ways. I made a note of all of this and charted out a meticulous path towards correcting my technique.

I used to enter the water after making a mental note of what I should do. However I realized that as soon as I went into the water I used to forget everything. It was only survival and fear thereafter. The sequence that I wanted to practice; the timing of the arms; the counter which I had to run in my head; everything just froze. I just could not think in the water. That is when I first realized that all the other sports came easy to me since I was in my comfort zone. I was standing on solid earth, I had an unlimited supply of air to breathe, and hence I could do what my mind asked me to do. My mind was in complete control of my body and actions in all the other sports. However it now clearly dawned upon me that I just could not think when I was in the pool. As a first big step, I had to enjoy staying the water, get used to limited breathing, get used to seeing the water and just feel at home there. This took me a couple of classes but once I started doing this, my body and muscles were far more relaxed, I enjoyed seeing the blue water with my eyes wide open, I liked the feeling of blowing bubbles through my nose and mouth, I liked being submerged in the water… basically I started feeling at home when inside water.

Having achieved this, I started thinking why I could not turn my head. Others could get their head clear above the water and turn it. However my head always sunk back after just a few microseconds. After pondering on this for a while, I found the crux of the issue. I had been practicing with a kick board for a few classes. During this, I got accustomed to pressing hard on the kick board with my left hand and turning my head to the right to breathe. Hence when I practiced without a kick board, I could not help pressing hard with my left hand on the surface of the water. This dragged my hand inside and with it pulled all of me along with my head, into the water. So, I dumped the kick board and started focusing on keep my left hand stretched and afloat. And yes, a couple of hours of struggle got me doing this easily. Even after this, my head was sinking. The simple reason was that as I focused all my thought on turning my head, I temporarily stopped kicking my legs, which dragged me under. And hence I corrected this as well.

I painstakingly started putting all of this together. I started being relaxed in the water, kept my left hand extended, continuously kicked my legs and tried turning my head to the right. It was not at all easy, but somewhere in the 12th class, the magic happened. I managed to take my first breath of air after successfully turning my head!!! It did not stop there, I could in fact do it thrice continuously. When I stopped and stood up I realized that no one around me had noticed what I achieved. There were no applause, adulation or cheering. The entire world was oblivious about what had just happened. I was the only person who appreciated and celebrated this victory since I was the only one who knew the journey I had been through all these years. I had not experienced this feeling of victory for many years now. I just had to tell myself to repeat this again and again. Thereafter it was fairly easy. Even though I could not swim more than 20 to 25 meters, I could clearly turn my head sideways and breathe as I swam through the waters. I started being more and more relaxed and this led me to learn backstroke as well to some extent. Breaststroke eluded me due to its complex [at least for me] timing and leg / arm movements. However, I was pretty satisfied that I could finally break into the beginner’s category of swimmers, the pedestal which eluded me until now. All of my swimming is still very crude and in its infancy, but I have finally got out of the starting blocks.

For me, it was all the more poetic that I tasted my first success in swimming at Kensington swimming pool, the very place where it had all started many years ago. Both my swimming and the pool were shining now… which is why I cannot help thinking the two shared the same destiny. I could not suppress the subtle smile as I typed the last sentence.

On 24th Feb, the classed ended and I was given a certificate placing me in the bronze category of learners. Ahh… what an achievement!!! All the past failures made this even more memorable. I proudly told this to my family and close friends. I basked in this new found glory and decided to continue my learning. There was a long way to go and I was determined not to give up this time. My next set of coaching classes starts on the 10th of March and I will be attempting to further my skills. Stay tuned!!! 🙂

I dived into the water rather than walk down the ladder at the shallow end. It was nowhere near a perfect dive. I landed clumsily on my knees. I had not taken a deep breath before the dive, but I instinctively stopped breathing the moment I hit the water. I was relaxed and started breathing out. I could clearly see the floor of the swimming pool and the bubbles which I was blowing out. I pushed at my hands to reach the surface the water. Upon reaching the surface I started kicking my legs and swinging my arms. When I ran out of breath, I turned my head sideways to look at the sky, took a breath of air and put my head back into the water. Only I could sense the smile on my face!

 

There are some things I learnt from this experience. Learning which can be applied elsewhere:

  1. Learn what you love and not just for the heck of it or any other material reward. Until I started to like being in the water, everything was so difficult to me. It all changed so quickly once I gave up the comfort of land and embraced being in water.
  2. There is never an age to learn what you like. Just go for it as long as you have the passion and purpose to learn something new.
  3. Be persistent on achieving your learning goals. This is what worked for me. I had decided not to give up. After a couple of successful short laps of freestyle swimming, my coach looked at me and said “Good… you are swimming now, because you denied giving up!” If you like what you are learning and doing, never give up until you achieve your ambitions.
  4. Leave the critics alone. I was lucky that in all these years, no one teased or made fun of my inability to learn swimming. This definitely helped my cause. If you are not as lucky as me, just try to forget any criticism that might come your way.
  5. Introspect yourself whenever you see that you are not progressing. Be honest with yourself about the mistakes that you are making and see how to earnestly correct them, than continuing to carry the baggage.
  6. Try to get inspired by everyone around you. Learn from them rather than envying them. I learnt a lot by looking at people who were able to swim. Keep an open mind and you will not be disappointed.
  7. Staying alive and living are not exactly the same. For me learning new things is one way to be living. Stay in a constant pursuit to remain a student forever in life. Swimming was yet another learning opportunity for me.

 

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