Swimming with Purpose

lmjohns35 August 2013

As a kid I was sort of petrified of swimming. Not to the point of phobia—I went to lessons at the Y in Coeur d’Alene and eventually passed the swim test at camp—but my brother was always the one out on the boogie board, and it was the bigger kids doing flips off the diving board. I never felt very comfortable in the water: Jumping in always made my lungs feel like they were seizing up, something about the coldness and the pressure of the water, and the instantly terrifying feeling of floating.

Maybe I had some near-death swimming experience that I blocked from memory, maybe I’m risk-averse, or maybe I just don’t like being cold. Regardless, I carried from those early experiences some aversion to swimming. All through my teens and twenties I maintained this convenient distance between myself and swim centers, managing for the most part to avoid swimming as an exercise, a sport, or even a leisure activity. But last summer I finally decided that swimming seemed like it deserved a second chance, so I signed up for an adult swim class and surprised myself by enjoying every minute of it. Having a teacher turns out to be helpful for things that are somewhat terrifying in practice but seem tractable in theory.

And swimming … well, swimming turns out to be surprisingly challenging after all, but not for the excuses that I’d made for myself. In reality, getting in shape and feeling comfortable in the water turn out to be challenging but surmountable problems. The real problem of swimming is what comes next.


As an adult, the first reason that I gave myself for not swimming is that I’m laughably out of shape. Having survived my twenties without much in the way of sporting activities, I now have the cardiovascular system of a software engineer, which is to say that stairs have started to take the breath out of me, and sitting on an exercise ball instead of a chair has largely become my substitute for a workout. So I started thinking to myself, even if subconsciously, “I would like to swim, but I’m not in shape for it.” As if a person gets in shape for swimming by doing anything other than swimming?

During our adult swim class I had a chance to address that problem, even if only at a small scale, so after several weeks of swimming for an hour or two at a time, it now looks to me like being “in shape” is, surprisingly, the easiest of the three difficulties of swimming. To fix it, you just need to get out and swim a little every week to build up those muscles. Even during class I felt like I was getting more fit, in baby steps. What’s more, being in shape is an ongoing task, so it doesn’t seem wise to avoid swimming entirely just because you’re not at peak fitness. You won’t get from awful to wonderful without going through alright.

So, first problem solved. Easy, right?


The second reason that swimming is challenging is one that I think blocks a lot of people from even trying it at all: facing down that immediate, primal fear of drowning. Stated otherwise, it’s difficult to feel comfortable in the water, especially when some of it ends up going down your windpipe.

Seen from the perspective of drowning, a fear of being out of shape is an academic exercise, one that you can think to yourself while on the subway to work or while eating a slice of pizza. Overcoming it is simply a matter of deciding that being out of shape isn’t important enough to prevent you from going swimming. After all, even swimming a little every week will help overcome that problem, as we saw just above. The second reason not to swim—drowning in panic as your lungs scrape for air—is much more immediate and irrational than the first. For me, it lurked just below the surface of the academic reason, and also just below the surface of the water.

I remember at the Y in Coeur d’Alene we did these bubble-blowing exercises to help get us used to the idea that we’d have our mouths, noses, and—gasp, entire faces!—below the water while swimming. My memory is that it was a little fun, and mostly frightening, to hold on to the concrete lip of the pool, goggles on, ducking below the surface and watching the air bubbles race around your face toward the sky. The environment was so different, even there just below the surface, at the edge of the pool: no air, weird aquatic low-pass soundscapes, only your thoughts and your goggles to keep you company. The environment was so different for me that even though I did learn to tread water and do some approximation of the breaststroke, full-on, for-real swimming was somehow a step too far from the bubble exercise. I never got used to being in the water with my face pointed directly at the bottom of the pool. It always felt like the water was going to reach over and push down on the back of my head, holding me and my goggles there.

Twenty-something years later, here I was in a swim class again, jumping in the warm, shallow teaching pool in the gym, goggles on, listening once again to the weird low-pass muffled sounds of the water. And as soon as we started doing the crawl, my head jerked back out of the water, flailing against that nightmare from the past. This is where the adult swimming class actually helped me with swimming a great deal. Maybe it was having a teacher, or it could be that I just needed a little more swim practice as an adult to get used to the water. Either way, the fear of drowning followed me in a big way for another few weeks, but, somehow, it has largely dissipated. Maybe there’s something about being older that helps quell those fears enough to get out there and practice a little.

Actually, I was surprised to find that the academic in me, but also the little kid, enjoys exploring the buoyancy of the water now, floating on the surface, face down, and seeing how just thinking of floating can help lift those feet up to the border between the water and the air. Or how scrunching up in a ball makes you sink a little bit, and how stretching out makes you feel lighter. The goggles are still there, but the water feels just a little more like home and a little less like a place I’m visiting.

Despite making a lot of progress, I’m still not completely comfortable in the water. I had to practice for a few weeks before I could swim a lap of crawl without completely panicking, and even then that goes away if not practiced regularly. I am currently working on breathing out continuously through the stroke: normally when I breathe a little water gets in my mouth, and then when I turn my head back down, I have to check my windpipe before I start to breathe again. It’s a long way from the complete panic that I felt just a year ago, but, just as with fitness, there’s always more to work on here.


The second reason not to swim is actually the most important to overcome, because swimming while calm is the only way to be able to pursue the first reason not to swim. Once you’re comfortable enough in the water to do the form more or less correctly, then you can start focusing on the clock, or on pulling your back arm out of the water at the right time, or on flip turns, or whatever of the million other things it is. But even these steps are just exercises, and don’t really help you with the most difficult thing about swimming.

One day in class we were doing a lap, and the teacher was standing on the side of the pool, watching us from above. All of a sudden I remember she shouted at me, with some emotion, “Swim with purpose!” I’ve thought about that a lot since then. By and large, it means that the mechanics of the swimming were more or less in place, but they weren’t being used effectively. Motion without movement. Purpose is a great word for what I think is the most difficult thing to bring to a swim, that elusive sensation of knowing where, especially figuratively speaking, you’re heading.

Honestly, I was surprised to find purpose lurking there, a phantom in the pool. I had figured that swimming was just getting in the water and, having first overcome some of the panic about drowning, moving arms and legs to get you moving in the water. Purpose throws all of that out the window, simultaneously offering a frame for supporting the problems of fitness and comfort. Getting in the pool and moving around is helpful, but without purpose there’s no structure to any of it, and perhaps no outcome.


Unfortunately, purpose seems also to be the most elusive of the challenges of swimming. Why am I in this pool? How did I get here? Attempting to identify some reason for my swim, I often find my mind zooming out reflexively to try to encompass all of the purpose of my entire life, as though my half-hour swim is supposed to be a microcosm or allegory for everything. “Swim with purpose!” I exhort myself, vaguely.

But dealing with that level of life isn’t really tractable, doesn’t seem to help anything. Purpose lives elsewhere, but I haven’t figured out why, how, where. All I’ve been able to tell so far is that sincerely believing that you have a reason to swim helps all of the other parts of swimming. Instead of focusing on some minute detail of the kick or the motion of the pinkie finger, mentally focusing on moving forward, lightly, but with purpose—and ignoring those larger mappings of purpose onto scopes larger than the pool—seems to have the most impact on my own swims. Of course, it’s a good idea and a good exercise to focus individually on aspects of the stroke that need improvement, but purpose is somehow holistic and comes from an integration of everything involved in the swim.

Purpose is a difficult thing to find in an otherwise sheltered life. Having purpose opens the door to utter failure, since without a purpose there is never much cause, or basis upon which, to evaluate one’s progress. (Where, purposeless, would one try to get to?) Purpose is simultaneously frightening and liberating: frightening because a purpose might not be achieved, and liberating because, once identified, purpose can unify and clarify the efforts that need to take place.

Many times after that exhortation to swim with purpose, I’ve found myself flailing about, metaphorically, in various situations. I’ve found it helpful, if possible, to think to myself, “Swim with purpose!” More often than not, it helps to focus my efforts and thoughts, however briefly. Believing that I am trying to achieve something seems, mostly magically at this point, to eliminate most of whatever it is that I am not trying to achieve, leaving behind only the important parts of life. In this way, thinking about purpose is both effective for achieving goals, and for avoiding ruminating too much on whatever it is that purpose is. I often find myself unsure of things in the world, and so this little boost helps a lot.