About a month ago, I started swimming again.
I spent the first half of my life as a swimmer. It was part of my identity. My daily schedule revolved around it. Swimming provided constancy for me. It centered my being.
I didn’t realize how much I missed it until about two weeks into the month. Once submerged in the water, my 48-year-old body began to think with a 27-year-old brain, which is about the age where my swimming had almost completely tapered off. I was concentrating more on my kick. I was focusing on the pull of my arm stroke, reaching for the bottom of the pool as I glided over the lane line. The “machine” was beginning to find its groove, and the result was, frankly, exhilarating.
But my 27-year-old brain was not considering the current limitations of my 48-year-old body, and I began pushing too hard, too soon. I began feeling sharp pains in my lower back, and the muscles in my upper back were knotting up with knuckle jabs. I thought I might have done some real damage to myself, so I stopped swimming and went to see my doctor.
My doctor. I like this guy. We’re the same age, and I assume because of that we probably share some of the same health concerns. You can’t beat an empathetic physician, right? When I had my first appointment with him, nearly three years ago, I was primarily concerned about losing weight, and I had hit rock bottom with my physical and psychic health. I told him this and he said, “Yeah, I’m working on developing my six-pack…got about three months to go till it’s just right!” I can imagine the look on my face (it’d be like the one I had when, while I was retailing music, the woman asked me for a recording of Warsaw Concerto in Blue). So I’ve got a doctor with a healthy dose of self-confidence, maybe arrogance, but it sure as hell beats the alternatives. And I can learn from this.
So, Doc checks me out, and after making an initial guess of “kidney stones!” and seeing the color drain immediately from my face, he concludes that the issue is most likely musculo-skeletal. He refers me to a physical therapist. I make the appointment.
Meanwhile, I have four days to wait around, and the pain isn’t getting any better, though it’s not getting worse. I decide that I can’t stand the downtime any longer and I go to the pool. I concoct a swimming plan that involves a lot more kicking and less full-stroke swimming. Two lengths of kicking only, followed by four lengths of very easy-going crawl stroke. This actually seems to work quite well. The kicking is giving me a respite from the back pain, and by the time I hit the wall at the end of the crawl segment, I am feeling only the lightest pain response in my back.
While kicking, I have plenty of time to watch my surroundings, and I start to focus on the time clocks at either end of the pool. I begin timing my laps (which would be two lengths, there and back, per lap). In my competitive swimming days, we called that one lap a 50, as it was 50 yards round trip, ending at the point where you began. After I time one of my “easy-going” 50s, my 27-year-old brain becomes filled with self-loathing over my 48-year-old body, as it believes a 78-second 50 equals failure as a human.
I mentioned my competitive swimming days. The house I lived in for the first ten years of my life was next door to the municipal swimming pool and, as a result, my sisters and I spent quite a bit of time there. There were swim meets on a regular basis, and we each collected our individual piles of blue, red and white ribbons for placing in the top three positions. It was good training for high school, which is the period of my life I am thinking of when I say “competitive swimming.” On the swim team, I was the final member, or anchor, on our relay, and swam the 200 or 400 long-distance events, depending on the strength of our rivals in those races. But my best event was the 50 Free. The 50 was an all-out sprint, and it demanded more intense and concentrated focus than any other event I swam in. I would take only two or three breaths per length, and could flip-turn without even thinking about it. The event was over in a flash, in one big adrenaline-rush flash. One of my best friends on the team was also a swimmer in the 50, and it was great motivation for both of us to excel at the meets, having that friendly competition at each practice. We constantly battled to see who could beat the other’s time in the 50, and by beating time, I am speaking of mere fractions of a second. We were consistently timing less than 30 seconds for the 50, and clocking 27 to 29 seconds in the event at swim meets.
My 27-year-old brain is thinking of this as I clock in at 78 seconds on a 50 yard lap. My 27-year-old brain says to my 48-year-old body, “Hey, Body, let’s just try one balls-to-the-wall 50 for old times’ sake, to see what this machine can do.” My 48-year-old body compromises: I decide to finish my workout as planned, do a few stretches, and then swim a 50 with abandon and attempted finesse. Just like in the old days. When I was 27, or 17.
It went surprisingly well. My 78-second “easy-going” 50 was now a 59-second middle-aged 50. Hey, it was below one minute, and I didn’t damage myself.
I tried a full-power 50 the next day. My time was 56 seconds.
And on the third day, 54 seconds.
The next day was my physical therapy appointment. The therapist was aghast at the stiffness in my back and claimed, basically, that I had the mobility of a wooden library chair and, to be honest, I felt about as flexible as one. I couldn’t do even the most simple trunk extensions very well. After doing a fair amount of prodding and kneading and shaking of her head, she got me to lay on the table while she placed electrodes on my back in preparation for a procedure which she called “Tingle.” I lay on that table under a heat blanket for about 20 minutes, while electricity zapped my back muscles into a merciless state of alertness. I’ve not ever felt anything like this. It was fantastic. When the therapist came to turn off the Tingle, I told her just that. Fantastic! I said. She said, “Well, now for the not so fantastic part,” and began digging the heels of her palms into my back. She knocked the wind right out of me. While doing this, she says “I should have had my Wheaties this morning!” I was grateful that she hadn’t. We finished up with some lessons on stretching. When I left the hospital, I felt that I was walking a quarter-inch taller. No joke. We scheduled two more visits for the week.
With permission from the therapist, I returned to the pool in the afternoon. The difference from just that one session was obvious. I found I could now swim underwater, something I hadn’t the availability of movement to do before. But I decided not to get carried away and do more damage during this recovery phase. I stuck to my half-mile swim of two lengths kicking alternating with four lengths crawl. When I finished, I went to the deep end and did stretches, preparing for another shot at the 50. And you know what?
I did it in 47 seconds.