An otter's life
Learning to swim
Like most Australians, I am a swimmer. A good swimmer, or so I thought. I grew up swimming in channels at Hanwood in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. My brother, Dare, and I, along with assorted cousins, would bicycle to the feeder channels where the water was the swiftest and deepest and try out various stunts, the more dangerous and exhilarating the better, while keeping an eye out for the bailiff. Back then, parents didn’t hover, although my mother sometimes came along to encourage us in our daring, even teaching us to water ski behind a car travelling along the channel banks. That same mother, a high school state swimmer, equipped me with waterwings when I was just out of nappies and chucked me into the deep end of the Griffith Olympic Pool. “Swim,” she said. A big believer in deep ends, my mother.
For our summer holidays, we surfed every year for six weeks at Narrabeen. My brother and my city cousin, Stephen, and I formed a feral and fearless trio, always making for the furthest wave and beyond. We didn’t know Pindar from Pinocchio, but we would’ve agreed with him that “water is best.” (Ariston men hudor. More on literary references in swimming literature later.)
We are now in our early sixties, and water is still, for all three of us, best. A solicitor at a big bank, Stephen clocks an hour and a half of sets most mornings before work. For a number of years, he was president of Masters Swimming New South Wales, and he competes in Masters meets, from local to world. My brother became a surfer, and his passion for the sport and its lack of imaginative board shorts led him to found a surfwear company. Dare surfs now at Batu Bolong at Canggu, Bali, because he finds the waves at Tamarama and Bronte, near where he lives, too clogged with aggressive surfers.
I hightailed it to New York City, which has a surprising number of public pools courtesy of Robert Moses, who reshaped the city for better and, debatably, worse in the middle decades of the last century, on the same scale that Baron Haussmann rebuilt Paris in the nineteenth century. Commissioner for parks in the 1930s, Moses was an avid swimmer and set about cramming as many pools as he could into the city’s boroughs. His motives were pharaonic and murky, for he was notorious for his disdain for “ordinary people”. One of Moses’ contemporaries remarked that “the public … is a great amorphous mass to him; it needs to be bathed, it needs to be aired, it needs recreation, but not for personal reasons, just to make it a better public.” To that end, he built 17 swimming pools, 11 bathhouses, 73 wading pools, and reconstructed three beaches. Some of the pools were whoppers, the size of lakes.
Apartment complexes also house pools. When I was hunting for a new apartment, a pool was at the top of my list of requirements. My realtor gave me a list of Manhattan buildings with pools, 138 at last count. Many, sad to say, are poorly maintained, badly ventilated, over-chlorinated, uncomfortably warm, too short to do laps. Bathtubs, essentially. After I had inspected a number of these sorry specimens, the pool in my current building made me cry out in delight. Simply gorgeous. On the fifteenth floor of a 52-storey building, the pool is 20 yards long, light-filled, clean-smelling, peaceful, always in immaculate condition, the water a comfortable 28 degrees. I now have the luxury of putting on my cossie, robe and flip-flops, pressing an elevator button and arriving at a heavenly pool. During workday hours, I’m often the only one there: no being a caboose in a train of lap swimmers. And, yes, I know how lucky I am.
For the first two years after I moved, I churned up and down the pool, usually doing 150 laps every few days and counting my blessings. The pool guard flattered me by saying that I must have been on a swim team. No swim team and no training either, unless you count the mad Serb at the East Side Asphalt Green pool who was so intent on telling me why murdering Serbian Muslims was OK that he neglected to signal that the wall was approaching, and I wound up concussed. (Soon after, he punched out the lights of another trainer and was booted from the pool.) Stephen and I marvel at the lack of stroke correction in our youth. “It was a case of, well, in you go,” says Stephen. “You knew it was one arm at a time and you had to kick a bit, but where your head was supposed to be, who knew?”
Everything changed for me when I broke a bone in my foot, which never mended. An operation was recommended, the bone fixed, but I sustained nerve damage from the anaesthetic block. I stopped swimming and the spectre of old age loomed, me dependent on a walking stick. And then everything changed again when, by serendipity, Ryan Orser entered my life, and I became as obsessive about swimming as I was when a teenager.
At a rehabilitation centre – NY SportsMed – I noticed a flyer for swimming training combined with physiotherapy. The pain from the nerve damage was such that I’d give anything a whirl. At our first session, Ryan, a beautiful swimmer and a gifted teacher, asked me to do a few laps. When I finished, I expected praise. He was rocking with silent mirth. “Australian crawl,” I said, peeved. “Thrashing machine,” said Ryan. “You’re just hauling yourself through the water with your arms and shoulders.” Cheeky for a lad a year short of 30.
In his dazzling short story ‘The Swimmer’, John Cheever gives his deluded suburban athlete “a choppy crawl [stroke], breathing either with every stroke or every fourth stroke and counting somewhere well in the back of his mind the one-two one-two of the flutter kick”. My stroke and breathing, I now grudgingly admit, were identical to Cheever’s character, but I barely kicked. As Ryan said, I hauled myself through the water with my arms and shoulders.
Unbeknownst to me, swimming had utterly changed in the mid ’90s. The sport had stagnated for years until Terry Laughlin, an ex-MIT professor and sprint trainer at West Point, and some other big-league coaches, such as Dave Marsh, the trainer of the Auburn Tigers, one of the university teams that have dominated American swimming for the past 25 years, and Doc Counsilman at Indiana University, deconstructed swimming and put it together again to maximise efficiency. They were aided by underwater videotaping and NASA-like technology that can measure swiftness and drag.
By lowering their heads until the nose points directly down and lengthening their bodies to create the least resistance, swimmers now slip smoothly through water. Instead of being the equivalent of snow ploughs, foreheads and shoulders pushing against the water, swimmers roll slightly, catching a breath with the roll rather than jerking their heads to the side. One arm doesn’t begin its stroke until the other has returned, the whole body in arrow-like alignment. The end result is far fewer strokes and seemingly effortless progress, the water barely broken, strength coming from the entire torso – the core of the body – not just arms and feet.
What’s extraordinary is how fast swimming went from low tech to high tech. The change has been so dramatic it’s said that if John Konrads and Michael Phelps were to race each other, Phelps would be out of the water, showered and dressed while Konrads was still finishing the race. This would happen not only because of Phelps’ dolphin-like abilities. Because Australia had virtually no indoor heated pools back in the 1950s, Konrads trained during the winter lifting weights. He had the physique of a front-row forward, not the ideal body for a swimmer.
Herewith a potted history of swimming. For details on stroke development, I recommend Cecil M Colwin’s Breakthrough Swimming. He writes clearly and can segue from history to technical aspects with ease. Another book I’d recommend, literary in focus, is Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer as Hero, which contains delectable historical titbits, although the author’s romanticism, evident in his title, can be cloying. The International Swimming Hall of Fame sells a documentary based on Sprawson’s book.
All the histories of swimming that I consulted, with the exception of Colwin, are skewed to the nationality of the writer. However, one can ascertain that the Assyrians were crawl-strokers, and it’s probable that other civilisations also were, although few descriptions remain. The Greeks and Romans used pools for bathing after athletic events or for relaxation, but not for competition swimming. The plague made aquatic activity unpopular for a few centuries; if anyone had to swim, they employed a medieval form of breaststroke, head poking out of the water, for obvious health reasons. Or they dog-paddled. Indeed, the Elizabethans studied dogs and other eras studied frogs, none more enthusiastically than the Victorians, who balanced themselves on benches, tummy down, with a frog in a tub nearby and imitated as best they could the movements of those agile amphibians.
Competitive swimming began in the mid-nineteenth century but, because the British thought splashing ungentlemanly, only breaststroke and sidestroke were acceptable. When Londoner John Trudgen visited Latin America and observed Indians swimming with a crawl stroke, he brought the idea back to England. Unfortunately, he combined his overarm stroke with a scissor kick. Awkward! Anyway, the Brits weren’t having any of it, calling it trick swimming. Their insistence on not splashing reminds me of the way the English built houses in Sydney facing away from the ocean. The unruly ocean.
Colwin sums the situation up best:
Most accounts of the history of the swimming strokes have led us to believe that there had been but one pure line of ancestry – a sequence from the dog paddle, also called the human stroke, to breaststroke, sidestroke, then trudgen, and finally to our greatest creation, the crawl stroke. In fact, this was not so because the principle of continuous propulsion, a derivative of the sport of ocean surfing, had already been observed for thousands [sic] of years in the overarm swimming strokes of the Polynesian peoples.
Actually, native swimmers almost everywhere sensibly used overarm strokes because they were the swiftest, most powerful form of propulsion, the best to escape carnivores and other enemies.
Competitive swimming continued to be gentlemanly until Australians brought about a sporting revolution. Some have Syd Cavill, son of Fred Cavill, a British immigrant who opened a natatorium in Sydney’s Lavender Bay in the 1880s, observing Samoans use an overarm stroke and bringing the method back to Australia. Others have George Farmer, a Sydney swimming coach, coming across Alick Wickham, a boy from the Solomon Islands, using an overarm stroke in the Bronte headland pool, the oldest of its kind, and exclaiming, “The kid is crawling!” Whatever. I will go out on a limb here and place the invention of the Australian crawl in the Bronte pool, not Lavender Bay, although no doubt the stroke was refined in Fred’s natatorium by his sons, of which he had a plentiful supply.
The Australian crawl was superseded by the Japanese crawl, in turn superseded by the American crawl. Note that there was no British crawl. Refinements took place and training methods evolved, but swimming remained stuck until the mid ’90s. Looking back over the development of strokes, Colwin makes an astute observation: “History abounds with stories of how people came close to discovering important new truths about swimming but were slow to follow up. For a long time the pursuit of swimming knowledge followed this desultory approach before scientific methods were used to analyze stroke mechanics.”
Ryan Orser’s mother and father accustomed him to water before he was one year old. He was a hyperactive kid, so his parents, instead of medicating him, kept him busy with every sport available until he fell over dead tired at night. Water became his life, and he was a top swimmer on his high school swim team in Buffalo, a New York city way up near the Canadian border, when he became ill and was ordered to cut down his training.
“I was 14 years old and I was always getting strep throat,” Ryan relates. “I had two coaches, both of them caring but both very different. Art Aungst and Dale Heimlich. Art only liked training girls. He reluctantly said he would train the younger boys. Dale was old school. He weighed 350 pounds, and he sat, never stood, and just pointed! ‘No warming up! No rest! Go!’”
Aungst had begun phoning and emailing with Terry Laughlin at West Point. “The story goes that Terry was looking at his fish tank,” says Ryan, “and wondered, how do fish do it? How do they swim so fast and so efficiently? When we test our efficiency in the water, it’s around 8%. The fish, it’s 80%. The scales have something to do with it, the shape has something to do with it, the movement of the body something to do with it. Well, obviously we’re not fish, but how can we make ourselves more efficient in the water, more like fish?”
This makes me cackle. How come it took humans centuries to get around to observing fish? You’d think that’s where you’d start. Forget frogs and dogs. “Terry started toying with his ideas, trying them out on his sprinters,” Ryan continues, “and they went from the worst in the league to the best. They broke all kinds of personal records. Terry was onto something, but he needed to perfect his ideas. He started talking with Art – this is around 1996 – and they realised that I was the perfect guinea pig because I couldn’t train full time. They said, we’re going to work on your technique and change it. We’re going to destroy your stroke, rip it apart, build it up again.”
“Aerodynamic swimming?” I ask.
“No. Others were heading in the same direction as Terry. They were doing stuff that made sense to their science minds. But efficiency in water is very different from efficiency in the air. Water has eddies, more friction. Remember, the longer the vessel, the skinnier the vessel, the faster the ship. Battleships are long and skinny because they need to go fast. Aircraft carriers are fat because they need to go slow and have more control.”
I had heard the battleship mantra many times during drills. I’d also been watching videos of swimmers on YouTube and I remark that sprinters really splash. “Yep,” Ryan replies. “You weigh each pro and con. Can I get more velocity if I bring my foot out of the water and smack it down and waste some of that energy while it’s in the air? Yes, I can. It’s beneficial. It makes me go faster. But for a longer distance, no, you would exhaust yourself.”
I ask him if he ever worked personally with Laughlin. “No. Terry is brilliant, but he doesn’t listen. He doesn’t teach much anymore. He gets other people to teach for him. He has an MIT personality, a West Point personality: You do what I say. But he’s a lovely man. He’s not mean. He’s just always in his head. He’s not present with you as a person. Art was able to translate what was in his head.”
Ryan continues with his odyssey: “We tore my stroke apart, and for about two and a half months during the swim season I went from the best on the team to the worst. So frustrating! Undoing 14 years of bad habits. A lot of neuromuscular re-education. I worked on it every day. I did drills over and over. A little guinea pig. Laughlin already had his guinea pigs with his West Pointers and Dave Marsh was doing the same with his Olympians at Auburn.”
“Two-thirds through the season I started to get back my normal times, but at the end of races, my parents said it looked like I wasn’t trying. Everyone else was thrashing and splashing, appearing to make an effort, and I barely looked like I was moving even though my times were good. I still had to think about everything I was doing. The second-last meet was the qualifying meet. I thought it was going to be my last. Before the race, Art and Dale came and said, do this, do that. And then they both looked at each other and said, ‘You know what, just forget about all that. Just swim.’ I love Dale. He could be crass. ‘Just fucking swim.’ And I cruised in way ahead of everyone. Best time ever. Will never forget that day.”
Ryan says that he sang to himself when he swam. Nothing fancy. Definitely no opera. More like Zip-a-dee Doo-Dah, Zip-a-dee Day. In fact, all his high school swim team sang Disney songs. Apparently the rhythm of Disney songs suits the flow of swimming. Myself, I sometimes burst into song – Ryan is used to this habit – when I finish a particularly hard drill: “He cried like a baby / He screamed like a panther in the middle of the night / And he saddled his pony / And he went for a ride.” But my mind no longer wanders while I’m swimming; it’s not the Zen-like experience it used to be once I’d warmed up. I have to concentrate on every part of my body. By the end of an hour my body hurts but my brain hurts even more from the effort of concentrating. Rebuilding your neuromuscular system is hard work. My cousin Stephen agrees. His mind doesn’t wander. “As you get older, you have to get smarter about your swimming,” he says.
I ask Ryan why he stopped swimming competitively: “I burnt out. And I was paying for college. Paying for getting up at five o’clock in the morning. Paying to swim six hours every day. My suits were always soaking wet, my towels mildewed. My eyes hurt, my skin was so dry it could soak up gallons of moisturiser and remain the same.” Now he is focused full time on physiotherapy. Still, when he looks back, he becomes wistful. The soggy suits and smelly towels are forgotten. Instead he remembers “the quiet rush of energy” he experienced when he dived into the water.
Books about swimming run the gamut from morbid rhapsodies, such as The Swimmer: The Story of a Passion by John Henry Mackay, to endurance biographies, such as The Great Swim by Gavin Mortimer, about Gertrude Ederle and her record-shattering 1929 English Channel swim and its aftermath. Last year, Nicola Keegan published Swimming, a coming-of-age novel that had some ravishing moments. And then there are curiosities for truly dedicated swimophiles, like Nicholas Orme’s Early British Swimming: 55BC–AD 1719.
But far too many swimming books are like Akiko Busch’s Nine Ways to Cross a River, which aims for lyricism and winds up sudsy. W Hodding Carter in Off the Deep End, an account of how he tried to become an Olympic swimmer at the age of 45, writes, “Mental note to self: do not make analogies.” A pity he didn’t realise that earlier in the book. I revisited poems on swimming that I’d always loved, such Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Otter’, Wallace Stevens’ ‘The Idea of Order at Key West’, and Clive James’s ‘Johnny Weissmuller Dead in Acapulco’, and found even these favourites laboured, with strained similes and metaphors.
The main problem, though, is not froth and bubbles and ham-handed profundity but jamming in the learned references, such as, ah, Pindar, until the book sinks to the bottom from erudition. Charles Sprawson, who is a dealer in nineteenth-century paintings, parades his scholarship, but his saving grace is a mind that does entertaining hops. Did you know that Dawn Fraser said she could have broken every record if allowed to swim naked? Speedos back then were made from cotton and became heavy when wet; we called them battleship sinkers. Another Sprawson anecdote: Shelley went down passively when he was knocked overboard in the squall near Viareggio, clutching a volume of Sophocles in one hand, when he could have made an effort to save himself. In love with water and easeful death. Sprawson also has a touching crush on Murray Rose and makes no secret of it. Touching, too, is his admission that when he swam the Hellespont he used sidestroke because he didn’t want to look down; he was frightened of what might be lurking in the depths.
Swimming the Hellespont à la Byron has become fashionable. Hundreds do it every year. And the turnout for open-sea swimming off Sydney beaches is growing by leaps and bounds, especially now that the water has become cleaner and clearer. The idea terrifies me. That and swimming in a lake that is thick with weeds. I like white tiles, black lines and warm-ish water. I questioned – actually, more like interrogated – two open-sea swimmers, Margaret Simpson-Lee and Clare Payne. Margaret is a travel agent and Clare an ethicist at Macquarie Bank. Both are small and slender: I’d never have picked them for marathon swimmers.
Margaret remembers her first ocean swim, how twitchy she was when anything touched her. As with everything else, the fear diminishes, she says, with perseverance. I ask the obvious question: Has she tangled with a shark? She explains that you get to know when the water feels sharky in the same way you get to know the rips, swells, tides and underwater rocks. On those days, she and Clare swim in the Bronte headland pool. Margaret and a shark have eyed each other off, but she was sure it was only a Port Jackson, which are not on record as attacking humans. Yet.
Margaret describes something else that can be just as scary: a massive school of fish extending from the surface to the bottom of the sea. She qualifies her feelings: not so much scary as confronting. She was frightened, however, when she and Clare came across a school of salmon in an early morning feeding frenzy, a seething mass, thrashing, threshing. It wasn’t just the salmon, which are large in themselves, but the possibility of the kill attracting even bigger fish, such as sharks. “I backstroked to shore,” Margaret admits, “because I couldn’t bear to look down.” But these experiences are outweighed by the beauty of an ocean swim on a glittering day.
Being an ethicist at a bank requires stamina in this base era, and Clare Payne has that quality in spades. She’s swum around Manhattan, a course that’s a flabbergasting 48 kilometres in length, alleviated a little by the tides. Under the Brooklyn Bridge, up the East River, through the treacherous currents at Hell Gate near Yankee Stadium, and down the Hudson. Many are so exhausted, they float rather than swim across the finishing line, carried by the river’s flux.
I live near the Hudson River and go there as often as I can, humming the great Al Green song ‘Take Me to the River’ – “Take me to the river, drop me in the water …” – but while I admire its majesty, I wouldn’t put a toe in the Hudson, much less allow myself to be dropped in it. Infamously, the Manhattan sewerage system overflows into the Hudson after rainfalls, so marathon swims have to be well timed. But the foul water didn’t bother Clare; it was the unseasonable cold the year she did the circuit. She complained bitterly, she remembers. And because she breathes to the right, she didn’t even have the Manhattan skyscrapers to inspire her, just the boring boroughs.
Although she finished the course in a respectable eight hours and 35 minutes – many surrendered, even those used to low temperatures – Clare felt she had bellyached too much about the frigid water. To restore her self-respect, she undertook a solo swim from Coogee to the Opera House, the same distance as the Manhattan marathon. A sonar system to repel sharks didn’t arrive in time, but she decided to swim anyway because the city council approvals are time-consuming. As she headed out beyond the waves at Coogee, a dolphin appeared and flanked her protectively to the Heads. Experiences like this with dolphins aren’t unusual for ocean swimmers. Clare told me of a boyfriend who attempted the swim between the North and South Islands of New Zealand, thought to be the toughest swim in the world. He was succumbing to hypothermia when a pod of dolphins surrounded him and brought him in.
Clare’s longest swim, time-wise, was the Rottnest Channel: ten hours. The Channel is half the distance of the Manhattan circuit, but the conditions were much more difficult. After we talked, Clare emailed me a list of the all-time top Australian female ocean swimmers: “Australia has a great history with Annette Kellerman, Linda McGill, Shelley
Taylor-Smith, and Susie Maroney. Ocean swimming seems to be one of the only sports where women beat men and often hold the overall records. There’s something in that (more than just our buoyant bottoms!). It’s quite a tough sport, against the elements and the mind. I think women are good at that.”
I ask Stephen why he has kept up with his swimming. An easy answer: his father died of a stroke at the age of 53. He wants to stay fit, to have a much longer life than his dad. My brother, Dare, would say the same thing. He thinks that riding surfboards and motorbikes keeps you alert and staves off ageing. This is not wishful thinking. In Off the Deep End, Hodding Carter cites research that proves that if you stimulate your muscles, they will respond right up into your eighties. According to Indiana University kinesiologist Joel Stager, Dara Torres making a comeback at 41 and competing in the 2008 Summer Olympics wasn’t an anomaly.
Lately, Dare has given himself another kind of challenge. Every morning through the winter, he takes himself down to the Bogey Hole, a natural rock formation next to the Bronte pool, and plunges into the frigid water. He says he is kick-starting himself. He also says he hasn’t been sick since he began, and none of the other regulars, most of them in their seventies and eighties, ever get sick, either.
People who like to swim in cold water have a name: psychrolutes. My brother can’t properly be called one. “The point is I don’t like the cold,” he says. “I don’t find it pleasant. But the others don’t mind the cold at all. They sit in the water like walruses. They try and engage me in conversation to make me stay in longer. And they are always cracking jokes, like how I needn’t bring a towel given the time I spend in the water. Or, ‘you broke your personal best for the least time spent in the water today!’ Still, I find it invigorating.”
Dare might be in and out, lickety-split, breaking his personal best over and again, but his discipline – he goes even if it’s blowing a gale – surprises me. He says he is as surprised as I am, not seeing himself as a disciplined person. Stephen admits occasionally to thinking about how nice it would be to sleep in, but once he’s in the water, all’s right with his world. Ryan has heard every excuse in the book from me. Even though I know a training session will lift my spirits and make me feel ever-so-virtuous – a double dolphin kick with my fly stroke! – I’m a baulker.
Sprawson relates that the aesthete Walter Pater was asked what would he be, if not a man. Pater replied, “A carp swimming forever in the green waters of some royal chateau.” For my part, I’d be an otter. Ryan: A seal. I ask Stephen what form he’d take, and he answers instantly: A platypus. My brother pauses before admitting that he’d be a shark, and it’s not because sharks are alpha, at the top of the food chain. “They’re beautiful,” Dare explains. “And I relate to the fact that if they stop swimming they die.” Margaret wants to be an octopus: I’d like to be under the sea / In an octopus’s garden in the shade. Clare, though, who has spent more time in the sea than any of us, flatly refuses to be a water creature. The reason: “The ocean at night. Terrible. People always want their ashes scattered in the ocean because they think it’s a peaceful place. It’s not.” Clare wants to be a cat.