Fifty Years of Swimming Lessons
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on March 25th, 2014

To celebrate my 63rd birthday (today) and 50 years in swimming (I first joined a team at age 13 in 1964) I’ve decided to devote a series of posts to reflecting on what I’ve learned about swimming along the way. Like many people, I started out ignorant of what lay ahead—and indeed ignorant about most everything to do with swimming, but have come to a place of enjoyment, awareness, and understanding I could not have imagined at the start.

School Daze

From age 14 to 20, I swam on high school, college, and club teams. I’d

tried out for the swim team at St. Aidan’s grammar school as a 13-year old 8th grader—mostly because I tried out for every sport and had already been on football, basketball, baseball, and soccer teams and run in a diocesan track meet. Swimming was the last sport I attempted and the first for which I failed the tryout. (The coach who cut me is nearly 90 now, and whenever we meet, we share a laugh over the irony of his cutting the Total Immersion guy.)

When I began high school, my school, St Mary’s, didn’t have a swim team, so I ran cross-country my first year. Crossing the finish line last of a hundred or more runners in a freshman invitational convinced me I had limited prospects as a runner.

In my second year, St. Mary’s started a swim team. Having swum on a village team for two summers, this time I made the grade. I was happy simply to belong, but knew nothing about technique or training, and my only goal initially was to keep up in the breathless 25-yard sprints that were our sole training routine.

Our coach was a Marist brother with no swim coaching experience. He gave pep talks, but no instruction at our single weekly workout (the better swimmers were on club teams and swam more often.) We’d line up at one end of a 25-yard pool, sprint to the other then, then climb out and do it again. No matter how furiously I churned my arms, I always found myself in the wake of faster swimmers. But I was happy simply to be on the team and go to workout.

Over the holidays, a guest coach–Tom Liotti an All-America distance swimmer from nearby Adelphi University–taught us circle-swimming and told us to swim 500 yards–20 continuous lengths.

This was a revelatory moment: I discovered I could keep pace while others tired on a longer swim. I left the pool that day feeling a sense of identity I’d never had in any sport. I’d always been a ‘utility’ player with no designated position or role. Ever since that day, nearly 50 years ago, I’ve thought of myself as a distance swimmer. This sparked a desire to learn more.

The Spark of Curiosity

I visited the local library in search of a book on swimming. Though I’d played every organized sport, I’d never before got the bug to pursue ‘research.’ I can’t recall exactly what prompted me to search for a book, but believe I may have sensed that study might yield some clues to success in swimming.

The Williston Park library had only one swimming book–Competitive Swimming and Diving by University of Iowa Coach David A. Armbruster, published in 1942.  (I keep a vintage copy, found online, on my bookshelf.) I checked it out–then took it out again at 2-week intervals for months, studying it with far keener interest than any school text.

A brief section on technique advised I should “ride high” in the water, by “keeping the waterline between eyebrows and hairline” and “pressing down constantly with arms and legs to keep the hips near the surface.”  It seems that technique theories in 1965 had changed little from 1942, since the little I did learn about technique was pretty similar to what the book advised.

But mainly there were dozens of examples of workouts done by champions from the 1940s. Though coaches always dictated my workouts and I wouldn’t have the opportunity to try those in the book, I still studied them avidly, hoping they might yield clues on how to swim faster.

In the fall of 1967, at the beginning of senior year, I persuaded my parents to let me join Manhasset Swim Club, directed by Bill Irwin, who was Tom Liotti’s own coach. Bill was the first professional coach I’d been exposed to. I was now training four to six hours a week, rather than one. I also received my first instructions in technique—but proved an uncooperative student.

Several times, Bill said “Laughlin, you’ll never swim fast until you slow your arms down.”  But I couldn’t understand how stroking slower could possibly lead to swimming faster so I made only half-hearted efforts to apply his advice. Bill, at 85, remains a dear friend and we both enjoy the irony of my now being such a strong advocate of what he could not persuade me to do back then.

Bill Irwin (l) and Tom Liotti (r) in July 2013.

Bill Irwin (l) and Tom Liotti (r) in July 2013.

As my final season came to a close, my times were still too slow for the NYC Catholic Schools championship. But I swam in the ‘novice’ Championship, competing mainly with 9th graders, placing 3rd in 200 Free and 2nd in 400 Free, earning handsome medals, and came away eager to continue swimming in college.

6 Responses to “Fifty Years of Swimming Lessons”

  1. Pat says:

    Belated happy birthday Terry, here’s wishing you another fifty years swiming

  2. Tom Patsch says:

    I just wanted to say hello. I was the diver on the 1971 and 1972 Kings Point swim team. I’m sure you remember the greenhouse they tried to turn into a swimming pool. The place was at its’ best in the dead of winter…right there on the L.I. Sound. It gave new meaning to the word “Cold”. I had a pretty good career working in Water Shows, off and on, for about 5 years, after my senior year at KP. Yes…I did manage to graduate Kings Point too. It was not easy, but I managed it. I am semi retired now and have some fairly serious health issues. I just wanted to say I appreciated you as a coach. That…and…you were a great swimmer…with a great sense of humor. I wish you all the best in the future.

  3. Mary Brown says:

    Thanks for this post. It is very interesting and informative post. Swimming is very much necessary for all people to stay healthy. I am very glad to read this post and I wish you all the best for future.

  4. Kelly Cossman Maloney says:

    I too swam for Bill Irwin at Manhasset Swim Club and Gotham. I was there when Wally Thompson, and his son Dave swam. It was a great time. I am glad to hear Bill Irwin is doing well- keeping warm in the South. I am in NC doing the same! I went to St.Marys HS and swam as well. We had a good team from 1976-1980. Great Read!

  5. Kelly. Thanks for reading and commenting. I can’t tell you how exciting it is to hear from another St Mary’s and Manhasset Swim Club alum.

  6. John Blass says:

    Wow , What a trip reading about Bill . I swam for Manhasset SC and Adelphi (1976-77)
    Eddie Zeilman and I qualified for the NCAA’s the last year and we owe it all to Bill .
    Great to hear about stories with names like Dave Thompson . He swam with us
    when he was a skinny HS swimmer . And Tom funny how it is , I lived about 200 yards from that pool on the sound on Sinclair drive . Swam in it many many times and got
    kicked out many many times . Small world …

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