They all said this would be the hardest part. My athlete friends were very clear:
Start running. Ride the bike. But, most importantly,
Get in the pool.
I am not a swimmer. To me, poolside means a comfy chaise lounge and a margarita. Oh sure, I took swimming lessons when I was a kid; bobbing up and down in the frigid water of my suburban Chicago community pool. But I never learned to swim well, with recognizable strokes and side breathing.
I grew up to be more of a "Barbie Swimmer," always keeping my head above water so I wouldn't get my hair wet.
When I began training for the ITRYathlon, I was smart enough to know that I needed swimming lessons.
But I was foolish enough to think that it would be easy.
Like any good mother, I dutifully took my children to swimming lessons when they were little. Our school of choice was the Blue Buoy Swim School in Tustin, a veritable swimming instruction institution in Orange County since 1956.
When it was time for me to find my own swimming school, I returned to Blue Buoy for three reasons:
I chose them because my kids loved it there.
I chose them because the instructors are so good that even former Olympians take their own children there for lessons.
I chose them because they keep the pool heated to 92 degrees. No more ice cold swimming lessons for me!
My first lesson was a chlorinated trip back in time. Even though I had been away for fifteen years, everything was exactly the same as when I brought my babies there.
In those days, swimming lessons meant a few minutes of break time when I could casually sip coffee and watch my kids happily splashing in the pool.
So as I arrived for my lesson, I noticed a few sets of moms and dads on the pool deck and secretly envied them. No rest for me today. It was my turn in the water.
I jumped in the warm, bathtub water and instantly appreciated my decision. My instructor was Johnny Johnson, co-owner and veteran instructor. He's been teaching for over forty years; he taught Olympian Jason Lezak to swim as well as Chad Hundeby, the Irvine man who set the world's record for crossing the English Channel. Today, Gold Medal swimmer Janet Evans trusts Johnny to teach her own two kids.
But can he teach me?
"It's all about getting used to a new environment, learning to trust yourself in the water," he said. "Little kids learn to swim because they love just being in the water. They haven't learned to fear it yet."
I knew what he was talking about. It's not that I was afraid of swimming, but I definitely wasn't comfortable. I didn't trust myself to keep my face in the water, I lifted my head to breathe, and I tired quickly after gulping in what felt like half of the pool.
But Johnny didn't give up on me. He explained that I should use my arms like skates, gliding through the water in a graceful movement. He showed me how to cup my hands to "catch" the water and pull myself forward. He also said that it was OK to float once in awhile.
The next few weeks were pretty much the same: Tuesday night lessons with Johnny, and then afternoon practice sessions at the neighborhood pool in Irvine. Everything was going "swimmingly" except for one problem.
I wasn't getting much better.
Oh sure, I had gotten my feet wet, but I was still an ocean away from my goal.
Then I went to the World's Largest Swimming Lesson on June 14th, an international event to promote water safety and instruction. Over 100 kids, parents and grandparents jumped in Blue Buoy's pool along with swimming schools around the world. Together, they helped to set a world's record for the most people taking a simultaneous swim lesson. Johnny used a microphone to lead the lesson and Janet Evans shared encouragement.
"No one is ever pool safe," she said. "Not even me. We all have to be careful whenever we're around water."
After seeing so many little ones enjoying the pool, it reminded me that, above all, this is supposed to be fun.
Maybe I was tring too hard. Maybe I needed to take Johnny's advice and learn to love just being in the water.
I headed back to my neighborhood pool to give it a try. There I found an older lady, gliding slowly through the water.
Back and forth, in no particular hurry, she moved as if swimming was her second nature, as if she trusted the water. She swam without stopping and I marvelled at how she never seemed to get tired.
When she finally stopped, I asked her how she was able to be so comfortable in the water.
"I just breathe," she said simply. "You just have to relax and let yourself breathe."