When I started back swimming for the first time since I was a kid, it came a huge but only slowly realised shock that I was the not the excellent swimmer I’d been as a young teenager, when I swam front crawl and butterfly in club for a year or two. I really don’t recall how long it was but it wasn’t club as we’d now know it with six a.m. training, five says a week.
I’d been away from swimming for decades and surfing didn’t really count. As soon as I started back I was breathing bilaterally naturally. After only a few weeks in the pool, not really knowing what I was doing, I swam two miles at Baile Na Gaul on my first open water swim, from the gritty and bleak tiny beach to Helvick Harbour and back. As a surfer, the sea didn’t frighten me and some time later, not knowing anyone there, I double-lapped Sandycove Island by myself, without realising that was a big target for many people. All I recall is that I had no idea of the shape of the island and at one point worrying I’d missed the turn back inside. (You need to swim Sandycove and realise that from outside the coast everything looks flat and similar and inlets disappear) to appreciate this.
So it was fairly reasonable that I thought I wasn’t a bad swimmer. It was another two years before I met Coach Eils, who rapidly disabused me of the notion. Her damning criticisms included “mechanical” and “substituting fitness for flow“.
I have over the years since changed my swimming style quite substantially. Most of it has by necessity been done by myself. But the more you know, often the less you are satisfied. I torture myself endlessly about my stroke and my speed, trying to improve, to get a smidgen more speed that I’ll never find. Is the angle of my arm correct? Are my hands parallel to the surface? What’s my streamline profile? And on and on.
Swimming technique requires constant work just for maintenance, let alone improvement. One effect of this endless treadmill is to sometimes, or in my case more often than not, lose sight of a simple fact.
I don’t have to be a perfect swimmer, to be a good swimmer. The twenty percent time and effort and work that got me eighty per cent of the way, that made me a good swimmer, is far eclipsed by the eighty percent I’ve spent in a seemingly fruitless quest to improve that final twenty percent of technique.
Sometimes you just need to remember how far you have come, rather than fretting over the remaining possible improvements you might never achieve. Not getting faster isn’t necessarily a failure. Maybe you are more relaxed instead, less likely to get injured, or maintaining fitness or speed as you get older.
So much of swimming literature and gurus and advice is aimed at perfection. But chasing perfection is Xeno’s Dichotomy. It’s often more fruitful to look how far you come.
Can you swim comfortably? Are you relaxed in the water? Can you maintain a consistent stroke and stroke rate? Can you adapt to changing open water conditions? Are you in control? Are you enjoying swimming?
You don’t have to be the best open water swimmer, you just have to be good enough.