The strange thing about exercise is that you can't help but learn through repetition.
The first time I tried to swim, as a grown-up, for exercise, I managed one length before collapsing at the edge of the 25-yard pool. Clinging to the cold tile like a life raft, gasping for air, arms spent of their strength, I realized that swimming isn't just dragging your body through the water. There is technique involved. A year earlier, I had almost drowned in a lake. It wasn't because I was out of shape, but because I didn't actually know how to swim. I needed to learn.
Ideally, we never stop learning. But by adulthood, most of us are done studying. And I never knew how to do that even when I was in school. I remember kids showing up for science tests in junior high, boasting of the hours they'd spent studying. And I'd think, "How?" No wonder I flunked out of school.
Swimming promised a great cardio workout while also stretching and building muscles on my shoulders, arms, chest and legs (or "the body," as doctors call this area of a person).
Sharing the slow lane with an elderly woman (at the time I was working out at the University of Toronto's Hart House gym, where everyone is either a young student or old professor), I slashed at the water with my arms in a crude attempt at what I now know to be a front crawl. Out of breath, unable to swim even the other half of my one lap, I limped back to the change room, conceding the slow lane to the woman who must have been twice my age, the quiet splash of her calm breaststroke echoing in the art-deco chamber.
But I set a modest self-improvement goal for myself. The next day I swam a full lap (that's both ways, as I discovered). And having achieved a lap, the next time I did two, then three and so on.
There was no end goal to my self-improvement. I wasn't trying to be the guy with abs. I just didn't want to be the guy who has a heart attack way too young.
But still, I hadn't actually learned how to swim. At first, I pestered the lifeguard with questions. Do I turn my head with each arm stroke? When do I kick with my legs? How do I do that fancy flip turn?
And that's when I discovered the Atlantis-sized realm of YouTube swimming lessons.
There are some skills, such as cooking or driving, that require hands-on instruction with a teacher who can correct your form in real time (before you hurt yourself or someone else). With weights, one poor-form deadlift can destroy your back. But the only danger in a pool is drowning and there is a full-time employee paid to prevent that. And as helpful as a private teacher can be, they don't have underwater cameras and slow motion. YouTube does.
YouTube is amazing for swimming instruction videos. For every stroke or technique, there is a video illustrating exactly where your arms and legs are supposed to be to maintain form.
There are so many series and channels of swim videos, you can take your pick of accents, hearing the front crawl explained by narrators from England (Simply Swim), Australia (Effortless Swimming) or Kentucky (TriMasters Swimming). The videos come in a variety of qualities, everything from a single-camera short to ambitious productions with bird's-eye, poolside and underwater tracking shots, slickly edited with slow-motion sequences and occasional graphics to isolate body movements.
The best videos are by Speedo, professional short films showing every conceivable angle, all scored by a pulsating chillwave beat.
Starting with breathing, I practised timing my exhalations to avoid inhaling chlorinated water through my nose. That took a couple weeks. Then I worked on how much (or little) to rotate my head in order to inhale with my mouth. Next was the breaststroke and then front crawl, each morning watching a video before heading to the pool, where I rehearsed proper kicking (six per cycle, from the hip, not the knees) instead of dragging my legs behind me. No butterfly stroke for me. That's jock nonsense.
The hardest swimming skill to learn is the flip turn. Making a slow U-turn at the end of the pool dissipates a swimmer's momentum. Athletes do a flip turn, spinning their bodies and reversing direction as fast as an otter. Executed underwater, at lightning speed, it's hard to see what they are doing. I choked on a lot of water before learning this move.
Around this time, I was fortunate to have dinner with an Olympic swim coach, who gave me a few tips (follow the line on the pool's bottom and begin your roll when you see the "T"). But I didn't get it until I watched one of the Speedo videos, the slow motion revealing the underwater posture and split-second timing of a proper twist to avoid corkscrewing.
Focusing on each technique individually, I eventually became a good swimmer.
For the past month, recuperating from pneumonia, I've stayed out of the pool. During that time, rewatching YouTube swim videos, I've realized two things about myself.
First, there's a little jock in all of us. Physical training breeds pridefulness in even the nerdiest nerdlinger. As I improved, I developed a pride and competitiveness that has never been a part of my picked-last-in-baseball identity. It only needs the confidence booster of self-improvement to be released.
Also, I knew how to study all along. It's innate. You just review the same material until it's memorized, then force out evidence of the knowledge under pressure. If I had to, I now know that I could ace a Grade 7 quiz on photosynthesis.