The Ladder

“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

Winston Churchill

About 5 years ago, my late wife had the bright idea to sign us up for a four hour swim workshop at an annual pre-season triathlon fair.  I said no way in hell.  She said, I just paid and registered us.  The instructor was four-time Olympic athlete Sheila Taormina. She was the first (maybe only?) woman to compete in three different Olympic sports, swimming, triathlon, and pentathlon.  As an aside, I love Olympic trivia.  My family still laughs and reminds me of my 63 page hand-written paper in 8th grade (back in the stone age before Macs or PCs), about the Olympics. I can recite where each of the modern Olympics took place, and what was the major political controversy that clouded the games.  And there was always something.  But I digress.

Anyway….Sheila knows about grit.  At 5’3”, they told her she was too short to be a competitive swimmer.  She proved her critics wrong when she and her teammates won a gold medal for 4x200m freestyle relay in 1996.  She also has won several world and international titles in Triathlon.  So basically she’s a badass.

To say I was dreading this workshop would be an understatement.  I’m a triathlete who learned how to swim when I was 48.  I didn’t have many years of swimming under my belt, so I rationalized that could use all the help I could get with my technique.  I knew however, I would be taking this workshop with younger, more buff gods and goddesses who could tread water indefinitely and do 100 yd repeats 100 times.  So with much trepidation, I suited up in the locker room and entered the MIT pool area.

I was used to swimming at the local Y, where the deep end is maybe 6 feet and the shallow end is well under 4 feet. The kind of pool where I could stand up in the shallow end,  put my hands on the edge of the deck (which is just a tad bit higher than waist level), and push up to heave ho myself out of the pool.

Well, I don’t think the MIT pool even has a shallow end.  And in fact, when you’re in the pool, all you can see is wall around you.  And the starting blocks looked more like high diving platforms.  Ominous.

Sheila came on to the deck. She was friendly, enthusiastic, and full of energy.  She outlined what we could be doing, including a before and after underwater video of our technique, individually critiqued by her.  Very cool.  So we hopped in the water to warm up.  Our warm up included first treading water for what seemed like an eternity and taking warm up laps while she videoed everyone.  I remember quite clearly after the critique (which was very informative), the next part of the workshop consisted of drills designed to have you swallow and/or inhale significant amounts of water, as sometimes swim drills do.  But again there is no real shallow end, and no hanging onto the edges, so you’re treading your ass off in between drills, and swimming your ass off so the buff god/goddess behind you doesn’t swim over you.  And while you’re doing these drills she’s shouting out more tips (and by now she’s memorized our names so there is no anonymity). Tips like, “Ok Marie, even though your feet are bound together with rubber tubing, don’t flail your arms to try to stay afloat, just turn your body.”  I had more of a chance of drowning in this evil vat of water, than any open water swim I’ve ever done.

And then came more fun!  We were going to practice diving off the 10 feet tall blocks.  I thought, ok my arms are about the fall off so at least I get a chance to get out of the pool and breathe on my way to the death blocks.  So I swam to the edge of the pool, my arms reaching well over my head to grab the edge and I proceeded to attempt to pull my body weight out of the pool.  Fail.  I tried again.  No freakin’ way.  So of course, the next logical step was simply to swim over to the ladder and climb out.  I had my hands on the rails of the ladder when I heard her yell, “GET OFF THAT LADDER!!!”  (Voices reverberate quite well in the pool area by the way.) At first I thought “ha ha ha, oh Sheila, you’re such a kidder,” and proceeded to get one foot almost on the first rung, when I looked up and at the top of the ladder, there she stood, all 5’3” looking down at me, and said, “Get back to the front of the pool!!!” (Again echoing) Now no athlete makes it through training without a swift reaming by their coach, so I gingerly doggy paddled (the only stroke my arms could muster the strength to do) back to the looming wall.  My wife happened to be there and I said, whimpering in almost a whisper, “can you help me?” She just looked at me like, you’re on your own with this one babe.  So this time I used the sloth method of climbing where I pulled myself up far enough to latch my foot onto the edge of the deck, and then desperately grabbed for the starting block and pulled with all my might.  Then using one of the fundamental laws of physics, F=MA, I flung my other leg for momentum ended up on my back. I’m sure no one there had ever seen someone roll out of the pool with the grace of an elephant flipping over on its back. And so ended our four hour workshop.   I don’t think I spoke to my wife for a week after this 😉

Seriously, we laughed so hard on the drive home.  I tell this story as if it were a 4 hour horror show but guess what?  I knocked about 20 minutes off my 2.4 mile swim time by the end of the season by using what I learned in that workshop.  And it goes without saying, one of life’s lessons is no matter how weary or uncertain you may be, get off the ladder.  No one can do it for you. It may not be pretty or with finesse, but you’ll be glad later on that you found your own way to climb (and even roll) back onto the deck.

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