Last night I hopped in the pool for a little 1hr swim – 2600yds. I’m not exactly a speedboat and I was in my head a lot as I could see other swimmers streaking by me. My peripheral vision in the pool is probably greater than most due to poor head positioning and a constant urge to compare my pace to others. This is a habit I need to break, better head positioning will make me faster and freeing myself of self-doubt just might create less drag in the pool and in perhaps in life. Mark Twain said that “comparison is the death of joy,” he said a bunch of other notable things too, but this one resonates for so many reasons.
For an entire hour I fretted as I was passed by neighboring swimmers. The doubts crept in and settled deeply and each lap became a mental struggle. I felt as if I was swimming hard and getting nowhere, my focus was drawn away from technique “high elbows, catch and pull” and instead I fixated on falling behind the pace of everyone else. I felt inadequate and even started to compare my effort and fatigue to what I would likely experience during Ironman Wisconsin. How would I ever exit the water in under 2hr and 20 mins if it was taking me this long to swim a lap? I felt the struggle everywhere – my heart, my lungs, my watch, my head, and my ego. Now as I write and reflect, I wonder what slowed me down more – my constant need to compare myself to others or my lack of technique?
When my hour was complete I breathlessly gathered my gear and headed to a quick poolside de-chlorination. Adequately rinsed and marginally dried off, I was headed to the locker room to change into my running clothes and set off for the 1 mile run home. Before I exited the pool deck I was stopped by a barrel chested man with a big smile and friendly eyes. In a thick Hispanic accent he inquired, “How do you swim for so long? I have been watching you for an hour and I amazed at how strong and smooth you are. You just keep going like it is nothing! How do you swim like that?” My immediate reaction was to check over my shoulder in case he was talking to a real swimmer that might have been behind me, but nope, he as talking to me. I told him I was slow and struggling to breathe most of the hour but I have been practicing for a few weeks and am training for an Ironman and had lots of practice left to do. He smiled bigger and told me he had grown up in Mexico and never saw a swimming pool in person until he had moved to the United States. He just learned to swim in January and his goal was to swim 12 laps without stopping, he had graduated to 3 full laps without resting and completes 12 laps no matter what before getting out of the pool. He went on to say, “12 laps without a rest seems almost impossible, but you make it look so easy, I struggle with every breath but I won’t stop.” The struggle is real. His 12 lap goal is no less difficult than my 2.4 mile race. His milestones are as difficult as mine. “You’ll get there,” I reassured. “Every week it gets better.” I say these things as if I truly believe it. He said he watches swimmers after he is done to learn and observe the “possibility of what I will hopefully be able to do.”
I hope he becomes better than me, I hope his optimism is never overshadowed by self-doubt, and I hope he is certainly gentler with himself. I after all just spent an hour comparing myself to others feeling inadequate stroke after stroke, yet without batting an eye I formulated a prescription for his temporary ailment – physician heal thyself.
No matter what my Polar M400 told me about how my workout measured up with heart rate, lap times, calories burned and distance covered, I discovered something far more sustaining and healthful. Swim practice/training isn’t a competition. I shouldn’t focus on how I rank in comparison to others – we all got to the pool through separate and very different paths. Everyone in the pool today is on a journey – to find something, to become fit, to relax, to blow off steam, to train for a race, to do something someone told us we could never do, to do something we never knew we would have the option to do. Our journey has nothing to do with how well other people are doing, or how fast they are going. It is simply just doing what we want to do, and going where we want to go. And of course letting go of the struggle, being present in the moment and content with what and who we are. The struggle IS real…but it doesn’t have to be…