Thursday, May 24, 2012

Swimming Lessons: More Difficult than Learning French!

In a recent note, I vaguely equated French tuition with learning to swim. After two weeks of splashing about in our local pool, under the zealous tutelage of Esther, it seems that swimming lesson are far more onerous than learning just about anything else I can imagine, including French.My folks never had the dough to send us to proper Y or country club classes when I was young, growing up with four siblings. The cheap solution was to take us to a verdant corner of Western New England called Laurel Lake (in Erving State Forest) and throw us in. That was the way I thought I had learned to swim. Of course, my only claim to fame until last week was that I had never drowned. Now I know there is much more to this art. It beckons us to move like dolphins through the water, but at this early stage, I will not insult Flipper or his kin by invoking their ilk.
I am cheered to have survived all these years especially since there have been some unbelievable scares. When I was 9, my friend Mike took me to his local Seagull Beach in West Yarmouth, on the southern side of Cape Cod. We dove in to that choppy, briney, churning ocean (my very first time in salt water) and I soon learned about undertows! It was a harrowing experience for an intrepid rube from the hinterland.I still can picture Mike's mom standing on the shore waving her arms to us and shouting at Michael to "get your friend out of the water!" They soon taught me the basics of how you never swim directly against the current, a lesson which I have always associated with politics and debate rather than swimming.
I revisted that horror five or six years ago or so at a semi-secluded cove area of Gran Canaria called Playa del Hombre. Here a South African friend of mine surfs religiously at all hours and never mentions currents. I relearned the desperate art of survival as the waves eerily took me out to sea. The fact that I am here to write these lines is a miracle I attribute to the white Virgin of San Mateo, Our Lady of Fatima. She pulled me from those murky depths and as I lay gasping on the fine, dirty blonde sand, she whispered words of wisdom: sign up for proper swimming lessons! Of course, it took me a half dozen years to get around to this endeavor but I am glad Arminda put us on Esther's list.
I mention dolphins because Esther brings our clever cousins to mind when she swims, so effortlessly and with such grace. Arminda has grace too, but I, alas, seem to have known.This is not strictly true but I am frustrating with the crawl which requires rhythmic breathing as you gently pass over the water. That's the idea.
For years I have been a back stroke swimmer because it does not require a command of breathing techniques, as far as I know. But now the crawl and the breast stroke (with the froggy leg kicking included) are my main goal.
Esther is a former champion swimmer from the western Canary Island of La Palma (in the province of Tenerife) and she has a palmera sense of joy and enthusiasm which I hereby attribute to years of swimming. She loves swimming and we are blessed each week with her instruction. She is also a despot. So we are ordered to do terrible drills that I can hardly recount here without a shudder and an aching in my shoulders.In fact, there are so many drills you cannot fathom the routine.
Our twice-a-week 45-minute sessions (9:15 to 10 pm, right after I finish work) include some "normal" crawl, breast, backstroke and back butterfly, but more often than not we have to do them with styrofoamy type floaters of varying shapes and sizes. Have you ever tried swimming with a little floater in each hand? Not recommended!
But obviously there is a method to Esther's zany madness. She is not strictly sadistic: every manuever is aimed at improving our technique or building up some aspect of our swimming ability.
The good news is that after five lessons (and coupled with my daily cycling around town) I feel in better shape than I have been in 20 years, so that is rather satisfying. The biggest challenge is to NOT have a big meal (the dreaded Spanish cena) after swimming lessons. We arrive home starving but I generally sate this appetite with lettuce and salady stuff.
No,I still have no grace but I am splashing about with more confidence. It is a pain, no doubt, but it is easy to appreciate that swimming is one of the most complete forms of exercise and a high art. Of course, the big challenge will be to venture further out into the Atlantic Ocean. Swimming in the sea is still my passion and I think we will enjoy it more than ever as we hone our talents.The good news is that our Canteras Beach in Las Palmas is very safe and protected by a wonderful reef.
The other good news is that it is never too late to learn! I promise! The bad news is that Arminda has signed us up for three lessons a week next month instead of two.

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