I spent the first week of October at a TI Open Water Camp in Turkey. On our last full day, we did an ‘adventure’ swim. A group of nearly 30 swimmers and coaches left our base at Ugur Pansiyon, near Cirali, and swam north, around a nearby headland, to a remote bay, usually accessible only to intrepid hikers. I wondered if we might have been the first group to ever visit the bay that way. We swam in three groups, organized by speed, escorted by kayaks carrying snacks and water.
I swam with the fastest group-several campers and two coaches, our ages ranging from 40+ to 60+. We followed the least direct route, not only to coordinate our arrival with slower-swimming groups, but to explore the rugged shoreline. We swam over submerged boulders and crevasses, beneath looming cliffs and, once, between the rock wall and a rock pillar. At times there was barely room–vertically and/or horizontally–to squeeze through in single file. With our leisurely pace and meandering route, it took about an hour and 40 minutes to reach our destination, where we shared our good fortune in being able to explore ‘Planet Water’ in ways that only a vanishingly small number of our species are able.
But the best part was yet to come. After hydrating and snacking (we had kayak support) we returned by the most direct route and at a brisk pace, taking just 50 minutes to get home. What I love most about open water swimming—even more than exploring hard-to-reach places—is a form of collaboration or teamwork not possible in the pool. On our return, we swam for nearly two miles in a tight formation–five abreast. I was in the middle with two swimmers to each side. The entire time we were separated by inches, regularly brushing arms, hips or shoulders, yet never distracted or impeded by contact. For long stretches we also swam in near-perfect synchrony—five hands entering the water at the same moment . . . that looked like this:
(Video shot and edited by Johnny Widen)
But the best part was the sheer beauty I observed each time I took a breath. Whether I looked left or right I never saw a single droplet of splash and each arm was poised identically—gracefully–for a deft, clean entry. And though we were swimming into a stiff breeze, which pushed waves against us, below the surface I glimpsed four identical, sleek-and-stable bodylines, and not a single bubble–looking more like aquatic creatures than human swimmers. As I told my partners after we finished, staying in formation and synch that way for 50 minutes made it the best swim I’d ever been a part of.
Reflecting on this later that day, I recalled the first day of my coaching career, just over 40 years earlier. Within the first 10 minutes—standing on deck surveying 15 swimmers, rather than with my face immersed as it had been the previous seven years—I noticed that every swimmer In the pool appeared asymmetrical. Those who breathed to the right (bilateral breathing was still rare in 1972) twisted their bodies toward that side and those who breathed left torqued that way.
The next day I instructed the team to breathe on the ‘wrong’ side and all were symmetrical. While I can say with complete confidence that symmetry enhances speed, I found it more enjoyable to watch swimming—something I would spend tens of thousands of hours doing in ensuing decades–when the movements were more esthetically pleasing. And seeing how quickly I could improve the esthetics of my swimmers encouraged me to perform more such experiments and led to an extraordinary team performance at season’s end.
Forty years later, TI Coaches now have a detailed understanding of human biomechanics and fluid dynamics and can precisely describe the mechanical advantages of a balanced bodyline, fluent strokes, seamless breathing and well-tuned kick. Yet our strongest motivation remains that which I discovered on my first day as a coach—that creating beauty in a swimmer is even more satisfying than producing speed. We know, for instance, that a Geometric Recovery and Mail Slot entry improve lateral stability, channel more power from the weight shift into propulsion, and maximize natural leverage in the armstroke. Yet the most satisfying aspect of teaching them is the far deeper pleasure of creating beauty.
If there’s one thing more satisfying than creating beauty in other swimmers, it’s doing It with others. While swimming in the middle of the group, I also strove to reflect back the graceful lines I saw to either side and am certain the others did too. And that all of us likely thought about how we looked to observers on shore as we left the beach starting our swim or approached it at the finish.
In swimming beauty consistently leads to speed. Two of us have won open water national championships in middle age–Lennart in Sweden and me in the U.S. Yet, while both of us talk frequently about how much we enjoy swimming in synchronized grace with fellow swimmers, I can’t recall any mention of how it feels to beat others across a finish line.
You can participate in beautiful group swimming in beautiful settings at the TI Open Water Experience Camps at Maho Bay Campground January 6-12, January 13-19 or January 20-26, 2013.