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Life Arts    H4'ed 4/22/12

Former Competitive Swimmer Muses on Skills Gained in the Pool

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My guest today is Ellen Emrich. Welcome to OpEdNews, Ellen. We see one another regularly early mornings at the pool.  You've been swimming a long time, haven't you? 

photo credit: Richard Emrich

Yes, I learned to swim when I was about five at the ETHS [Evanston Township High School] Learn to Swim Program.  I moved from lessons to a swim team around junior high, and then swam competitively in high school, and for two years in college (Division 3).  My parents say that I swam in meets before H.S. but I have very few memories of that.  I think that they were just blending me in with all my other siblings, and to them it felt like they attended many meets.  I am one of six kids and my parents were always looking for inexpensive ways to get us involved in activities.  Needless to say, we all swam, and we all wore nylon suits. (Nylon suits never wear out, except for the color)  I don't think that swimming is an inexpensive sport anymore and no one wears nylon suits.  

And you continue to swim as an adult. In fact, that's how we know one another. What is it about swimming that gets you up early and into the pool all these years later?

Joan, I think there are two questions here, why in the morning and why do I work out? 

Why the morning: If I wait for a later time in the day then I don't always get it done. I love the way it feels to have my workout behind me all day long vs. not dreading it all day (hard work first, then fun).

Early morning allows it to be only my time and not modified by sick children, appointments, work, volunteering, school start time, or other obligations. No one else is awake in my family so I don't need to feel guilty about taking time for myself (this was especially true when my kids were little).

Why do I work out: I like being physically fit.  It feels good, and gives me moments of feeling powerful.  It is an excellent stress reducer. It is very meditational for me. I exercise to keep my engine in the just right zone. I am a creature of habit.

I so know what you mean. That "zone" thing is terrific. I've noticed that, more often than not,  you sit at the edge of the pool for quite a while before you actually get in there and start swimming. You've just laid out the many benefits you reap. So, what's that hesitation all about, Ellen?

So, I don't know for sure.  I get up in the morning with as little thinking as possible.  The alarm goes off and I get out of bed.  If I think, then my choice is almost always to stay in bed.  I love to sleep.  I am always tired in the morning and my body is frequently cold, bed is warm.  I go through the routine without thinking and I arrive at the pool and then I can allow myself to think because I know that there is no turning back.  I know that I will get in and swim and I know I love that feeling when I am done (and sometimes during).  Maybe those 10 minutes are wake-up time.  Maybe it's time for my body to adjust to the temperature change.  
When I first touch the water with my toes, it feels super cold.  I hate when the water splashes on my body. But after about 10 minutes, the water doesn't feel so cold and I have usually talked to a few people or watched some swimmers, and I know if I don't get in, then I can't do my full swim.  Another part is that for the past 18 years (my life with kids) life has been pretty busy and not much time is allocated for me.  I am an introvert and I really like my alone time.  As a parent, it's not always that easy to get the alone time that I need.  My morning swim is all mine to use as I choose (slow or otherwise). Dread, maybe a little of that feeling too.  No pain, no gain.  Motivation, it is all mine.  I don't work out with a team anymore, so there is no more peer pressure to start at a specific time or someone else to dictate the workout.  I know for sure that I am done with swimming on a team.  

I enjoyed swimming at that level when I was younger, but now I really just want to swim the distance to get the good feeling and physical benefits and get out.  I don't need to compete like that anymore.  I am going for the life distance, not to sprint my best times.  I am aware that there is some fallacy to that statement because swimming does tap into my competitive side and I do care if someone is swimming faster than me.  Seeing someone move ahead of me will frequently get me to pick up my pace.  But, I have no longing for being on a team.  I have taken what I loved about competitive swimming and created that at the YMCA in my own way (physical fitness, endorphin release, and friendship).  Finally, my engine tends to run in the low zone.  I use exercise to bring my engine to just the right level.  The truth is that I feel most comfortable when I am able to think slowly, go with the flow, and I don't need big excitement to keep me happy.  10-15 minutes on the edge of the pool satisfies that in me.   

Your parents sought out swimming as an inexpensive way to keep their kids physically active. Have you repeated that pattern in your own family?

Definitely!  I can say retrospectively that I ramped up some of my children and tamped down others with organized physical exertion.  ADHD is a part of my family. At one point when we finally sought out a diagnosis for one of my children, I sobbed when I understood why I was so committed to keeping my kids involved in organized sports.  It made me feel a little less crazy about the money that I lead the way in spending for sports.  It is no longer cheap to have kids play sports.  

When my son and nephew were about three years old, they were racing in our back yard.  My son ran to win and beat his cousin.  He ran straight and fast and turned to look and see by how much he had won.  My nephew ran for the joy of running.  He ran straight up and down almost as if he was jumping with each stride and had a smile on his face the whole way.  I don't think that he noticed or cared that he had not finished first.  It still makes me smile to think of it, the differences between them so clear at such a young age.  

My sister and I both earned degrees for similar professions, and we both swam in high school.  She was the faster swimmer between us, stronger and more powerful. I still swim and love it, she has moved on to other forms of exercise.  We both feel pretty equally about the benefits of exercise, and that it allowed us to be better moms/individuals (physical fitness, stress reduction).  But participation in organized sports was very different for our kids.  My kids all played organized sports and I can't imagine life without them for many reasons.  I spent a lot of time thinking about what sports would benefit my daughter the most.  I knew that she needed either swimming or ballet based on her strengths and weaknesses. We tried ballet first.  I loved it, and thought it was a wonderful match for her.  But when she was about four, she said to me after a class, "It looks like a lot of fun, but it is really just hard work."  

That was the end of ballet, we finished the session and moved on to swimming, she never complained.  My sons both loved soccer.  As an OT [Occupational Therapist], I know how important it is to find that activity that allows you to lose yourself and your thoughts as you participate.  I seek out those opportunities all the time for myself, and I think that is the skill and gift that I wanted to ensure that my children had.  I don't know if I was successful.  I hope that it is a seed that has been planted for them, and that it will grow and they will discover and define its value for themselves.       

Time will tell! You and I have talked several times about Venus Williams's 2010 book Come to Win: Business Leaders, Artists, Doctors, and Other Visionaries on How Sports Can Help You Top Your Profession .   My son played basketball competitively through high school and I felt he developed a lot of positive qualities along the way, because of it. Apparently, I'm not alone. Can you talk about anything you've noticed you, your siblings or your kids have gotten out of athletic competition?

Swimming on a competitive team gave me confidence in my abilities, and allowed me times of feeling powerful.  Swimming also enhanced other traits that existed within me: time management skills, a strong work ethic, organizational skills, math computational skills, leadership opportunities, perseverance, independence, and faith in my own effort.

As I drove my daughter to swimming the other morning, it was dark and we were both quiet, still waking up.  Few cars were on the road by the high school, but the ones that were out were likely dropping their kids off at swimming also.  There was one lone swimmer riding his bike to the pool. I too, often had to ride my bike to swimming as a high school student.   I loved the independence that I felt, but longed for someone to take care of me, too.  I watch my daughter, and I am aware of the support that I give her in an effort to provide her with what I wanted.  Yet I also see the requests that she makes of me in order to make it to morning practice, and the pick-ups she expects in the evening.

My experience with swimming was different from her experience and the benefits she would cite are likely different from mine.  There is no doubt in my mind that swimming on a competitive team is one of the hardest sports.  No other teams at the high school level require two practices per day.  She has, like I had, the experience of feeling what it feels like to meet physical exhaustion and need to dig deep, persevere, and continue to complete the set or the practice. These are the moments that developed confidence, and a sense of power for me.  But on every swim team there are also the quitters, those who cheat, go to the bathroom during a difficult set, make excuses for why they can't, and ultimately don't believe in themselves.  I don't see that everyone on a competitive team develops perseverance, a sense of power, and confidence.  You get out what you put in?   

Yes, I think you do.  You mentioned all you've gained through competitive swimming. The only surprise was the improved math skills. Can you take a second and explain that one?

The clock runs continuously, so the line leader needs to know when to go. [Here, Ellen gave some examples but, frankly, it was too technical for me, so I've left that part out.]  Seems easy enough, but some sets can be tricky.  Over time, it can make a difference.   

Things have gotten a lot faster over the years.  The sets seem to have changed, too.  I used to do 10 or 12 repetitions of the same thing on the same time.  Now I hear about the distances and corresponding times being mixed up and then repeated a number of times (100 yds, 75 yds, and 25 yds) x4.  I think it helps decrease the monotony and dread of swimming.  Although, from that monotony, I learned how to play mind games to decrease the dread and make it feel manageable.

Thanks so much for doing this, Ellen. I'm intrigued by those mind games you came up with. Can't wait to chat about it next time I see you at the pool!

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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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