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Sink and Swim – Struggling in the Swimming Squad

I’ve been swimming once or twice a week for many years as part of my general fitness routine. Now I’m not the world’s greatest swimmer – I swim a mile or so in batches of ten lengths at a time, alternating eight lengths of freestyle with two breaststroke and even thrash out the occasional length of butterfly when I’m full of beans. It’s basic maintenance really, swimming does its job for me. I get on with it mindlessly.

In the gym over lunchtime the far three lanes of the pool are reserved for the swimming squad, the rest for us casual swimmers. The squad is for more determined swimmers and is divided into three streams. Lane One is the swimming squad’s slowest lane, populated by veterans and aspirant swimmers. Lane Two is considerably faster than Lane One. There they shoot across the water. Lane Three is for the serious swimmers, like Olaf ‘Barracuda’ Louw and Reginald ‘Rock Cod’ Rudd. That’s stratospheric swimming. When these guys slice through the pool they displace not only water, but mountains as well. The wake from Lane Three is so large that you sometimes inhale water if you’re a casual swimmer in lane four and come up for air. Jarryd, an ex-provincial swimmer and clean-cut young man, trains the squad. We have become nodding acquaintances over the years and he has often beckoned me to join the squad. I’ve always sensibly managed to turn him down. Then, a few months ago, in one of those bouts of weakness that inexplicably assails us mortals from time to time, I agreed to join. So I bought a net bag and swimming fins and a kick board and pull buoys and hand paddles to complement my goggles and cap and pitched up at 1PM on a windy Tuesday ready for training in Lane One.

Swimming Paraphenalia 3 large

Swimming Paraphenalia 

Six of us huddle together at one end of the lane awaiting instructions. Jarryd approaches after having dispatched Lane Two. “Right”, he says, crouching down over us “let’s warm up with sixteen lengths of freestyle”. Sixteen Lengths? I normally do ten – slow ones. No matter. Lane One sets about organizing itself, the first swimmer goes off and the others follow at two body length intervals. I’m the last to go and manage the sixteen lengths all right, despite breathing heavily over the last few. We’ve hardly stopped when my fellow swimmers, mostly lawyers who have been swimming together for decades I was to find out, are raring to go again. The next instruction comes before I know it. “Right, pull buoys and flippers on, let’s kick (white noise) for four lengths then backstroke (splashing noises) for two lengths then buzz-buzz for two lengths then (static noise) four backstroke, the last two flat out.” I don’t quite catch what was said through the pool noises all around so I ask Louis, who repeats the instructions through funny goggles. OK, got it, sort of.

Jarryd Swimming Coach

Jarryd Swimming Coach

Off we plough again. But this kicking is hard on my calves and I haven’t got the knack and there are leg muscles I didn’t know I had contorting themselves into cramps and I’m really struggling. I reach the end of the drill only to see the others about to leave again on the next one. Scheiße_, I’m floundering and foundering in Lane One. I now hear we have to breathe on every third stroke for the first four lengths and then on every fifth stroke only for the next four and then on every seventh stroke only for the next two lengths and then, on the last two, only on every ninth stroke. Off I crawl. But the effort of breathing on only every seventh stroke at pace – on alternative sides – induces bursting spasms in my lungs. How on earth do the rest manage that? They’ve obviously never smoked a Montecristo. Or drunk wine.

Swimming squad 2015  a

Swimming squad

At the end of the drill I’m half dead at the end of the pool. The others have rested and are, as ever, ready to zoom off again, seemingly only now warming up to their session. More instructions bubble from Jarryd’s lips. I’m losing track, his lips don’t sync. “…Backstroke swish-woosh-176 lengths kicking pull buoy Maserati 28 lengths no breathing whoosh splash flat-out hard”.   What? Basically, we have to die and only breathe again in the afterlife. Louis does the pitifully necessary but my brain doesn’t process a thing. I’m wilting in water. Is this sensible? What am I doing to myself? Look, people have been known to drown in pools, it does happen. No, must push on, can’t drop the side…

Now; it’s OK for Louis and the lawyers who have the time to come here three times a week for twenty years to yacht around the pool but if they had to come here straight from battling the markets and people and stress – and from composing tangos – they’d have sunk long ago. No, mustn’t. I kick off for the next drill, the one you need gills for, and catch a glimpse of the squash courts to my left. Stop. Squash. Now there’s a sensible game, a lovely game, where you can breathe when and how you like. And you can hear and talk and see. Even Graham’s crappy on-court brinkmanship seems laughably forgivable now. That’s where I should be, on the squash court, even if has to be with him.

Squash - this is where I should be not swimming 1

The Squash Court, not the pool, that’s where I should be..

But I’m in the pool, a whirlpool. Jellyfish Me sees marlins and dolphins gliding all around. My shoulders are dislocating and I don’t have legs. Chlorine fills my nostrils and coats my uvula. Mist fills my goggles. The other side of the pool is the coast of Brazil. Louis is morphing into a tuna, a tuna. The lawyers are haddock. Jarryd is a shark. Tropical goldfish and seaweed and Caribbean cruises drift through the waters of my mind. Icebergs. Still thirty lengths to go. And then when things couldn’t get worse, an evil swimmer from Lane Two decides to demote himself to Lane One and really put pressure on our squad by tearing away at Lane Two pace. In Lane One! When we come to rest I give him a glower. But my goggles are all misted up so he doesn’t get my insult and chats back amiably instead. Nice guy, wrong lane, and before I know it he powers off again, putting murderous pressure on us.

Coming in for the turn

Coming in for the turn

I must admit that to keep up I have to cheat from time to time, often skipping two lengths to catch my breath. What do you expect me to do? I’ve been to the squad quite a few times since but things have not gotten much better. I’ve even started evading the squad of late, coming earlier for my swim in the casual lanes and slipping out well before they start…

One makes a plan, you know.

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