January 15, 2013

Can this triathlete finally learn to swim?

I did my first triathlon on June 27, 1999, at the age of 29. The almost-Olympic-distance race was held at Guelph Lake, Ontario. There were 13 of us in the 25-29 age group. The swim was 1.5K and I made it out of the water in 36:13, swimming breast stroke as I could not do freestyle, 11th out of the 13.

(The 40K ride took me 1:25:26, good for 10th out of the 13, and I needed 53:18 to cover the 9.5K run, 9th out of 13. My total race time was 3:01.)

My third triathlon was the half Ironman in Forster-Tuncurry, the home of the Australian Ironman for two decades until 2005, on December 3, 2000. In Forster, I took 46:38 to cover the 1.9K swim, among the last out of the water in a field of 732 athletes. Tim took 35:22. (I finished the whole race in 6:04:16, while Tim took 6:01:12.)

Next up the Canberra half Ironman on December 17, 2000; I spent 45:59 in the water and was the slowest out of the 22 in my age group by almost three minutes. The only other woman in my age group who needed more than 40 minutes to complete the swim took 43:01; the fastest woman in my category swam a super-swift 24:37.

To say that the swim was a struggle for me is an understatement. 

In early 2001 I got my first coach -- Sydney-based John Hill, triathlon coach and elite age-group triathlete who by now has more than 50 Ironmans under his belt -- 95 percent of those were Sub-10, according to his website.

By then I had completed four triathlons, two Olympic distances in Canada and two half Ironmans in Australia, where I had moved for work on my 30th birthday in June 2000. Those races cemented two things for me; I liked triathlon and I could not swim, especially compared with Australian triathletes seemingly born to move through water like fish.

Hill's group of triathletes would meet for open water swims, either at Bondi Beach, or one of the other Eastern Suburbs' beaches, or Manly Dam, and I was consistently among the slowest for the four years I trained with them. Hill's group included some outstanding athletes and several went on to become professional triathletes and age-group champions. Others were 'regular' age groupers.

(His squad also produced a slew of triathlon coaches. And triathlete marriages, and babies.)

All training in the water was helpful, though no miracles followed. It seemed to be a lot of hard work with only minor improvements at best.

In the 2001 Canberra half Ironman, I swam 44:17, 26th out of the 29 in my AG and 724th out of a field of 756 athletes. By comparison, I rode 3:03, 13th in my AG and 642nd overall, and ran 1:49:55, 9th in my AG and 502nd overall, for a 5:37 finish time. 

Still, it was better than the 50:05 I had needed in the Cairns half Ironman in June 2001, though this was an ocean swim days following a shark sighting. 

At the 2002 half Ironman in Canberra, I swam 44:33, 39th out of the 40 in my division, and 772nd out of 812 athletes overall. My 3:36 bike (28th in my AG and suffering a flat on my rear wheel) and 1:46:27 run (5th in my AG) helped me finish in 6:07:46, 18th in my category.

Hill, however, stressed the importance of continuing to practice the swim, often considered of relative unimportance by triathletes since it takes up little time of any triathlon; a race is rarely won in the water, and it's human nature to be drawn to spend more time on things we are good, or at least better, at.  

But Hill argued that the sooner you get out of the water, the better the athletes you'll be riding with. While drafting is not allowed, it's helpful to ride with stronger cyclists at a draft-legal distance (varying in distance but always at least 7 metres). It was key to keep working on swim technique in an effort to improve speed, he said.

So I kept at it. Tim and I did a Total Immersion Swimming course with Australia's Shane Gould who won three gold medals, a silver and a bronze at the 1972 Olympics.

I also remember swimming in a group coached by Spot Anderson, a talented and quirky fixture on the Australian triathlon scene since the 1980s.

The last time I swam with a squad was in early 2004, when I was swimming in the 50-metre Cook + Phillip pool in Sydney, Australia, initially coached by Neil Rogers before he moved to the Bondi Icebergs pool (another location for my swim workouts and one of the most stunning pools in the world).  Neil swam for Australia at the 1972 and 1976 Olympic games.

As I worked on my swimming, it remained my weakest discipline without a doubt. Even in my fastest half Ironman -- 5:22:11 in Forster in late 2002 -- I needed 40:24 for the swim, after clocking 38:23 on the same course the previous year, my PB and only time I dipped under 40 minutes for that distance.

In my first Ironman (Forster-Tuncurry, Australia) in April 2002, I swam 1:19:27 in the salt-water lake. The following year, on the same course, though different conditions, I swam 1:17:16, and in April 2004 I got out of the water in 1:20:20 -- though this was a non-wetsuit swim because of the heat.

Next up, three months after the previous IM, I did Ironman Germany -- a distastrous swim, starting in the middle of the pack, and soon enough hyperventilating in the crowd of about 3,000 athletes, finishing in 1:18:55. Still not very fish like.

By then, Tim and I were travelling for a year. We were still coached by Hill, though obviously unable to train with the squad. His programs always listed when to swim, though not how. In September 2004, Tim and I began following the detailed swim workouts from Paul Huddle & Roch Frey's book Start to Finish: 24 Weeks to an Endurance Triathlon. We also followed the book's strength training program for six weeks.

These workouts included plenty of drills. And in March 2005, at Ironman New Zealand, all my hard work finally seemed to pay off: I swam 1:13:35 to cover the 3.8K in Lake Taupo. I was thrilled, even though still only 32nd out of the water in my age group. By comparison, a 3:57:29 run split there ranked me 7th in my division.  

Of course that was my last triathlon. While I thought it a shame to let go of those hard-won gains, I also did not feel motivated at all to swim in the next 7-1/2 years, as I focused on my running.

I got back into the pool after signing up for Ironman Whistler 2013 to help pull myself from the depressed stupor a stubborn running injury had put me in. I anticipated another Herculean struggle. It is what I associated swimming with and I prepared myself for a very hard road back to a level of swimming fitness and ability that would allow me to finish an Ironman swim of 3.8K, regardless of time. 

Easing back into the first nine sessions on my own, guided by workouts Tim wrote for me, I moved through the water better than I thought I would in the first half of November in those first few laps.

Then the local pool closed for annual maintenance and upgrades, and I didn't return until January 7 when I joined the Squamish Titans masters swim squad coached by Roseline Mondor Grimm, an NCCP swimming coach and ex-competitive swimmer who is now a Master Long-Distance swimmer.

I was worried, for sure. But, surprisingly, the first four one-hour sessions have been OK; I actually feel good in the water -- there's more gliding than fighting involved -- and the coach even tells me that I'll be speeding up as my swimming fitness improves. While that doesn't mean I'll be heading for the Olympics any time soon, it does provide a sparkle of hope that I am finally learning to swim.

To be continued ...

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