OK folks, soapbox time. (Those who know me feel free to
begin rolling your eyes.)
At various times in various discussion groups I have noticed
that a number of people who are new to swimming have a mistaken assumption
about U.S. Masters. To wit, they believe one has to already be pretty proficient
at swimming before one can join a team and participate in its workouts,
or participate in stroke clinics, or basically do anything that would help
move past that awkward feeling beginner stage. Several people have tried
to gently dispell this misunderstanding.
Let me shout this from the rooftops: YOU ARE GOOD ENOUGH,
FAST ENOUGH, AND COMPLETELY WORTHY TO JOIN USMS JUST THE WAY YOU ARE!
USMS is about anyone who wants to improve their swimming
and enjoy the fellowship of like minded people, period. Any swimmer, regardless
of ability, can have a goal, and no one's goal is more or less worthy because
it is faster or slower than someone else's. We have some people in USMS
who's speed and power in the water are almost beyond comprehension. But,
there is no inherent significance in one of their world record swims. All
significance is assigned by people. Your goal is just as important to you,
and just as worthy.
Let's talk about the medium of water for a minute. At
top speeds, it is much less forgiving than air, much more dense and resistant.
However, for less intense exercise, it is much more forgiving. Your natural
buoyancy will hold you up, or at minimum drastically reduce the weight
you have to support against the effects of gravity. Moreover, water is
a much more efficient medium for dissipating excess body heat. If you have
some kind of physical problem, you really ought to be getting your exercise
in the water because you can do it better, longer, and with less risk of
injury than on land.
Now, let's talk about who can benefit most from swimming
with a coach or a group. For all you triathletes out there (I know I pound
on you guys a lot, but I really do admire your willingness to take on a
completely foreign sport) let me use an analogy to bicycling. When you
were a kid just learning how to ride a bike, did you do a lot of conditioning
for your legs, maybe some jogging or lifting weights, before you jumped
on the bike for the first time, because you wanted to be sure you were
in good enough shape to bike a half mile that first time? Heck no! That
isn't how people learn to ride a bike! So why would you think that you
have to be able to do something like swim 500 yards without stopping before
you can get coaching or join a team? The easiest and fastest progress you
will make is refining your stroke technique so that you can swim at a sustainable
pace (like easy walking) and go as far as you like. So get your instruction
right away, conditioning can come later. And, a Masters team can be one
of the best places to get your coaching.
On a similar topic, a number of former swimmers think
they have to get themselves in shape before they start working out with
a team. "So I don't embarass myself." Why?! These people don't
know you and don't know how fast you were ____ years ago. Why would you
want to deny yourself the fellowship and the variety of working out with
a group? (In the final analysis, the greatest enemy to regular exercise
is not age, or busy schedules, or injury, or lack of athletic ability;
it's boredom.) So start out in a slower lane, and amaze everyone by how
fast you move up!
Let me offer a few tips for picking the right team for
you. Please do not interpret this to mean "I am not worthy."
Look at this as a method for directing trafffic. For most Masters teams,
you will have a difficult time if you cannot swim one length of the pool
without stopping. Does that mean you need to suffer on your own? Of course
not! Find yourself some good coaching to improve your technique. Conditioning
can look after itself; let's get those training wheels off your bike. You
may also find that you will benefit most from finding a coach who works
with competitive or Masters swimmers, rather than starting with a rinky-dink
learn to swim class. Best to learn good mechanics right away, rather than
the australian crawl circa 1950.
When you want to find a team, understand that all teams
are different. You should try several until you find the one that is most
comfortable, and makes you want to come to practice. Understand that some
teams have different levels of participation based in part on ability,
and in some high Masters density areas, some teams even have strict ability
and minimum participation requirements. That's cool. It is not about who
is more worthy; it's about directing traffic.
Swimming can be a challenging and frustrating sport. It
certainly allows less interaction with other people than most other sports.
There is no need to turn it into a solitary sport. Find your group of swimming
mates ASAP, and treasure them like gold. They will keep you far younger
than you ever imagined possible!