New Tricks For An Old … Grasshopper

This week the U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials are taking place in Omaha, Neb. Since I recently began swimming again after decades away from the pool, I’ve been watching with extreme interest.

Every four years, it seems like the technology for broadcasting the Olympics—and even the Olympic Trials—gets better and better, and the programming folks do a better and better job of packaging it. There are some amazing slow-motion shots of water splashing around the swimmers as they cut through it, and excellent underwater videos that allow the viewer to dissect all manner of stroke mechanics. Throw in a DVR that allows me to replay short clips over and over again, and I’m in kinesiology heaven.

For me, it’s a chance to see how to swim “right,” and maybe how to figure out to fix my own flawed mechanics.

Some time very early in my swimming career, I developed an odd way of kicking while swimming freestyle: instead of the usual up-and-down flutter kick, my legs crossed over each other in kind of a twisting, propeller kick. (OK, “propeller” only works as a metaphor if you can conceive of a propeller that reverses direction every 180 degrees.) I suppose what I do is kind of a modified “two-beat” kick, rather than the more standard “six-beat” kick.

This page explains the differences between a two-beat kick and a six-beat kick.

And for a real-life example of the difference, check out this video of Australian record-holder Jessica Ashwood in a recent 800-meter freestyle event. She uses a two-beat kick for most of the lap, but when she gets to within 10-15 feet of the wall, you suddenly see the splash at her feet as she switches to a six-beat kick (I suggest fast-forwarding to about 8:15 in the video [not the race time] for a good view.)

The two-beat examples above don’t show my two-beat “crossover” style. In my case, I guess the crossover works to kind of stabilize the rest of my body as my arms pull through their motions. It’s certainly not something I ever consciously tried to do. The more I think about it, now, the more I think that it might just have developed out of laziness—by simply not focusing enough on kicking properly.

I’m sure some coaches along the way tried to wean me from the habit, but by the time I got to high school and college, it was pretty firmly ingrained in how I swam, probably too much so to try to change it.

I’m not sure it was even detrimental; after all, my legs were still kicking, but there was just more of a side-to-side, criss-cross motion than an up-and-down motion. And it’s possible that, late in my swimming career—when I’d switched from distance freestyle to sprint freestyle—I used a more standard flutter kick when I was going all-out in races. I can’t remember now if I even thought about it by then.

All I know is that now, when I allow myself to swim naturally, without thinking about it, the legs twist around each other in a criss-cross two-beat kick. With each stroke, the shin of one leg bangs against the calf of the other leg, then they switch positions with the next stroke.

I’ve been watching the Trials to see if anybody else in the distance events did something similar, and lo and behold, I thought I saw some of it in Leah Smith’s 400 freestyle. Maybe I’m not a freak after all. I love the underwater views.

But since I’m still getting back into swimming after basically three decades off, I feel like I have a chance to change some of my old, bad habits. Every time I go to the pool now, I spend at least some of the time focusing on doing a real flutter kick while I swim. It’s actually something I have to concentrate on, and my little brain doesn’t have enough voltage to do it for a whole workout, not yet anyway. But I can definitely feel the difference in the propulsion power when I use a “normal” flutter kick, so it’ll be a great skill to learn.

I’ll Fly Away

Another area I’m trying to work on is the butterfly stroke. I’ve never been a good butterflyer; not sure if it was a problem with timing or strength, both of which are critical to do the stroke right. I’ve always loved watching good swimmers do fly, though, and I’ve resolved to try and improve my own stroke.

Actually, way back when, I thought I was OK at butterfly. And then someone had a video camera at a practice once, and I got to see what I looked like. My elbows were bent, my hands were too close to my body, and I honestly looked like a grasshopper. It was the ugliest thing I’d ever witnessed, and I probably never tried to swim butterfly again in the last two years of my swimming career after that.

Now, though, in my new/old body, I feel like I can make some changes. And even though swimming butterfly is about the hardest thing for me to do these days, I set a concrete goal of doing a total of four 100s fly in one workout by the end of July. Every time I get a practice lane to myself, I work on that, too, focusing on spreading my arms as wide as possible to avoid the dreaded grasshopper effect.

I have a long way to go; I can barely make it through four 50s, and the difference between a 50 butterfly and a 100 butterfly, is well … let’s say that after 50 yards, this butterfly turns back into a caterpillar.

But, I’ll keep working at it. It’s nice to have some goals.

 

Fitbit

FBApparently, bending over and tying my shoes is worth about 25-40 steps.

The act of leaning over to my left side while I’m sitting at my desk, unzipping my briefcase and pulling out a phone-charging cord and then plugging it in, is also worth about 25 steps.

Rubbing my wife’s shoulders while watching TV, about 30 steps per minute.

Steps, however, don’t always count as steps.

These are the kinds of things you think about when you get a Fitbit, one of those wristbands you wear that supposedly keep track of your fitness. It does this using a three-axis accelerometer that can detect when you’re taking steps, even if you’re swinging your arms, walking with your hands in your pocket or carrying something. The device also keeps track of the total mileage that you walk or run each day, how many flights of stairs you climb, and how long and how well you sleep. By pairing your Fitbit with a mobile device and/or a computer, you can track your steps and other metrics over time, which is great for a stat geek like me.

At my work, we started the year with a fitness program, which involves Fitbits for everybody in the office, twice-weekly group workouts during our lunch hours, and weekly competitions to see who can log the most steps, along with a three-month competition to see who can improve their body-fat percentage the most. All good stuff. And after the first quarter, in the office, we recorded modest improvements in weight, waist measurement and body-fat percentage.

Some observations on Fitbit:

•  I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the step counts, or the other metrics measured by the Fitbit. Sometimes, I can take the stairs to our office, and the number of “flights” of stairs can be different from day to day. Sometimes I’ll try counting steps, to compare with the Fitbit. It’s usually pretty close, but not right on. But hey, close works. And as I mentioned at the top, sometimes other activities will generate “steps,” but on the whole, it’s not enough to worry about.

•  The goal of a Fitbit isn’t necessarily “fitness,” so much as “movement.” Walking won’t really give you the kind of cardio workout that will make you “fit”: you need to do some kind of exercise that will get your heart rate up for that. BUT, there’s definitely something to be said for movement; you’re definitely better off walking than sitting.

•  The basic goal with a Fitbit is 10,000 steps per day. On days when I go for a run, that’s definitely a makable goal. Otherwise, I really have to make an effort to be up and walking if I want to reach 10,000. Which I guess is the whole idea, right? Unfortunately, though, I’m not running as much these days, and (warning: stat geek!) I’ve only reached 10,000 steps 27 times since we started in mid-January—that’s fewer than a third of the days.

•  However, a recent addition to the Fitbit app is that it will keep track of your steps per hour; the goal there is a much more obtainable 250 steps per hour. The app will tell you how many of the one-hour periods between in a given day you’ve gotten up and moved at least that much. So even if 10,000 steps for the day seems attainable, you can still go for 12 hours with 250 steps. Which, to be honest, might just be a better goal than 10,000 steps in a day.

•  I wish they had this technology for swimming, so I wouldn’t have to count laps.

Back To The Pool

IMG_4894

On January 24 of this year, I jumped into a swimming pool and swam laps for the first time in many, many years.

It felt great—for about one and a half laps. Then the pain started, and once it started it didn’t go away. I managed to complete 1,000 yards that day, but I don’t think I swam more than 75 yards at a time. In between, there were lots of breaks to catch my breath and to remind my arms that they really do know how to do this.

Two days later, I was sore, but I was back. This time, I was able to make myself do “repeats” of 100 yards—four laps—separated by easy 50s, either swimming breaststroke or kicking with a kickboard. Stopping for a breather after each 100 or 50, of course. It wasn’t pretty, but it was progress.

Growing Up In Pools

Between the ages of about 10 and 23, much of my life was spent in swimming pools. I joined the local swim club the summer after fourth grade, and swam summers for a couple of years before starting to swim year-round. But it was years and years before I really got the hang of it. In high school, I wound up swimming distance freestyle, mostly without distinction.

After high school, I went to Missouri U., where I had no shot at making the swim team. But I did keep swimming—evenings, during open swim. I found it was a great way to both keep in shape and blow off college stress, just doing my own workouts without a coach barking at me.

After a couple of years at Mizzou, though, the weight of the big university was getting a little much for me, and I switched to North Central College—about a tenth the size of Mizzou—where suddenly I could be an editor on the school newspaper and be on the swimming team.

So for the last two years of my college career, I was a swimmer again, and in many ways it was the best two years of my life.

At North Central we didn’t do the crazy yardage that some swim teams were doing those days—we’d get in about 5,000–6,000 yards a day as I recall—but our workouts were intense, with lots of high-quality sprint work. During the height of the training season, the cumulative fatigue clouded everything we did. Too tired to study, too muscle-twitchy to sleep. The payoff, though, came at the end of the season, with the magical taper before the conference meet, when the workouts were cut back and suddenly we had all of the energy we’d been lacking for the previous three months. In my senior year, that taper led to the best swimming meet of my entire life, where I dropped my times like crazy, and had a lot of fun doing it.

But after the intensity of my two years swimming at North Central, and after more than a decade spent in swimming pools, I was ready to get out of the water. I took up running to stay in shape and to satisfy my competitive urges. I realized that hey, you could work out AND see the world at the same time. In a pool, you can only see what is within nine walls—the four walls and bottom of the pool, and the four walls of the natatorium. Within those walls, your vision is further limited by your goggles, which, besides restricting your field of view, more often than not get fogged up within a lap or two. Any entertainment during a long swim pretty much has to be supplied by your own imagination.

But with running, you can take in a lot more. Until I started running, I had no idea how boring swimming had been.

Hoofin’ It

So for the next 30 years or so, I pounded ground and took part in running races of every distance from the mile to the marathon—just once, for the marathon—but mostly stuck to 5Ks, 10Ks and half-marathons.

But while running gives you more in-flight entertainment, it does carry its risks. Namely, all that pounding. I had a couple of stints on the DL—i.e., physical therapy—once for a bad knee and once for a herniated disc. But I recovered, and in 2015 I was having a pretty good running year, including three half-marathons in the spring.

But on one run in September, it all came crashing down, with an acute pain in my calf near the end of the run. The pain mostly stopped when I stopped running, but when I tried again a day or so later, it returned immediately, and I knew my running was done for a few weeks.

And as it turned out, I was finished for the rest of the year. My calf recovered, more or less, but then I caught a nasty cold. And whenever I would try to run, I would get some kind pain in my lower legs: calf, knee, ankle, whatever. Something was always hurting. I heard the message loud and clear—these old legs have had about enough running.

Back To The Pool

So it was back to the pool. I made it a New Year’s resolution to start swimming again, but it took me more than three weeks after the new year to actually get up the guts to join the YMCA and get in the water.

It was painful at first, as I knew it would be. But with each workout, I was gradually able to do a little longer swims without resting, and a little longer total yardage for the day.

One gratifying thing: even if my arms and shoulders would turn to jelly in a short time, I still had my flip turns. It was almost like I’d never left the pool in the first place; with the very first time I approached a wall, I knew exactly how to adjust my last stroke, and then duck my head, flip over, twist and then bounce off the wall. After doing millions of them as a kid, I guess the movement has become imprinted in me. That was a pleasant surprise.

I kept up with it. After a few weeks, I was up to 2,000 yards per session. That’s barely a warmup for world-class swimmers, but enough for me to feel like I’ve had a good workout, and is a decent yardage for the amount of time I usually have available. I’ll go longer if I can.

One day in late March, I had some extra time and I pushed the total a little, and also, for the first time, swam a 500 freestyle without stopping. It felt remarkably good, and as I got down to about four laps to go, I felt just as strong as I had on the first lap. I decided to find out just how strong I actually was. After the turn to start the last 50, I hit the gas, accelerating steadily through the penultimate lap until I was going at just about Top Speed—faster than I had swum in decades—as I approached the last turn. I executed a perfect turn, got a strong push-off, grabbed a powerful pull to bring myself to the surface, easily resumed Top Speed for a few strokes and then pushed it to Beyond Top Speed, and it still felt perfect. I was gliding along, high in the water, my turnover furious but mechanics not degrading at all. It was like the second-best feeling in the world. I slammed into the wall at the end, heart pounding and lungs heaving, and it felt like I was back in college. It had taken me a couple of months, but I could swim again.

Of course, I know that the “now” me would appear to be treading water against the 35-years-ago me. I know that, even if I could survive a season of the training rigor we went through in college, I wouldn’t approach the kind of times I swam then. But just to be able to touch that feeling of sprinting full out again was something special. The goals are different now: I just hope to get, and stay, in some semblance of “shape,” and maybe to stave off the grave for a few extra minutes. And if I can enjoy it while I’m doing it, so much the better.

A Christmas Card

This year, I’ve been looking back at  the year 1980. There’s one more story before the year winds down.

*****

North Central College is laid out predominantly in a narrow north-south strip, with the athletic facilities at the south end, and the library and a couple of the dorms at the far north end. My first term there, I lived on the third floor of Seager Hall, which was fairly close to the south end, and near the all-campus Kaufman Dining Hall. My room was on the north side of the building, so in the evenings from my window, I could see all of the students walking back from dinner to their night classes, the library or their dorms up campus.

It sure beat looking across at my assigned roommate’s wall, which was adorned with a large Confederate flag.

Studying in my room was not possible, partly since the same roommate who hung the rebel flag also had a big television set, which he used a lot. I found early on that the best place to study was at the library, so it became a regular trek for me up to the north end of campus. It was kind of a lonely, dark, walk, though, and it was always nice to have someone to talk to along the way. Sometimes, from my northside perch, I would watch for people I knew, and then hustle down the stairs and catch up with them and share the walk.

For me, that first semester, most of the “people I knew” were swimmers. Once training begins, swimming pretty much takes over your life, and your circle of acquaintances becomes smaller and tighter. Almost all of the early friends I made there were swimmers, from both the men’s and women’s teams, since the two teams naturally tended to hang out a lot together.

A few of those evenings, I found myself walking up campus with Jean, a junior on the women’s team. She lived in Kimmel Hall at the far north end, and always seemed receptive to a little friendly conversation along the way. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a terribly long walk to the library, so we didn’t exchange life histories or anything, but we did begin to develop a friendship.

The fall trimester played out. We had a swimming meet or two, then finals, and then the swimming teams headed for Florida. Jean didn’t go to Fort Lauderdale that year, for one reason or another; I think they had a family ski vacation planned later in December. After our Florida trip, the men’s team went back to Naperville for a week of training, and then one meet — the Rockford Relays — before I went back home to St. Louis for winter break.

NCC did pretty well at the meet. I’m not sure if we won the overall meet, but I was on one winning relay; I know this because I still have the award: a engraved mug. For the last 20 years, it has held pens and pencils on my desk at work. (OK, I see the official name of the meet was the “Regent Invitational.” Trust me, everyone called it the Rockford Relays.)

Rockford, Ill., is not far from Woodstock, Ill., which is where Jean lived, and she came to the meet to watch. I got a chance to chat with her a little, during those long breaks between races that characterize swimming meets. We compared Florida stories: mine from the trip just completed, hers from previous years. When the meet was over, we wished each other merry Christmas and happy travels, and said we’d see each other after the break.

I went back home to St. Louis to get ready for Christmas. By now it was just mid-December, so I was able to get an early start on my shopping.

A few days before Christmas, a card arrived for me in the mail. It was a Christmas card, from Jean. Nothing fancy, just a nice little card, with a short note to wish me a merry Christmas. Now, I was a guy in college;  nobody sent me cards, so it made quite an impression. I’m not going to say that Christmas card changed the course of history — I’m guessing Jean and I would have ended up together that next trimester anyway — but I will say it definitely made my holiday, and gave me a reason to look forward to getting back to NCC after the break.

The rest of the story, you probably know: before the end of January, we were together as boyfriend/girlfriend. After we graduated in 1982, we had a long-distance relationship for several years — lots of mail back and forth between us during that period, as you might imagine — until we finally got married in 1986. This coming summer, we’ll celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary.

Merry Christmas from Shoulblog!

An Odd Note During The Game

Our romp through the year 1980 continues. Previous posts are here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

*****

The NCC swim teams spent more than a week at the Horizon Motor Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, waking up early to do grueling three-hour workouts in the mornings, and then spending the afternoons recovering. That involved a lot of lying on the beach and some swimming in the ocean. It was my first time to see an ocean, and I actually figured out the body-surfing thing over the course of the week; the key, someone told me, is to keep your body stiff, as stiff as, well, a surfboard.

In the evenings, we’d hang out. Sometimes we’d walk down and find a nightclub, but a lot of nights we just stayed in the hotel room, watching TV. We were all college kids; there might have been some alcohol involved, I can’t remember. 😉 Actually, one of the features of the Horizon was that they would have a “rum punch” party by the pool on Monday afternoons for all of the guests. As I remember, it tasted awful. But, true to its name,  it did pack a punch.

After a week, we were all pretty much exhausted. On the last Monday, the folks who had driven to Florida left to drive back to Chicago; they probably took off after that morning’s workout, but before the rum punch party. The lucky ones, myself included, were flying back, so we got to spend an extra day or so. Maybe it was the cumulative effect of a week-plus of intense swim workouts, or maybe we had a little extra punch that afternoon to make up for those who had left. But we were all pretty wiped out as we settled into our suite to watch whoever was playing Monday Night Football. Even our coach, who—that day, had uncharacteristically partaken of some of the punch—was looking groggy when he staggered in to hang out with us for a while.

So we were watching the game, probably trying to keep a conversation going without much success, when ABC broke into the football broadcast with an odd news bulletin; a man had been shot in New York, and they thought it might have been John Lennon.

And then back to football. We weren’t quite sure what we’d heard; it was one of those nights when you weren’t certain of anything five minutes after it happened. It wasn’t like TV news today: you couldn’t instantly switch over and check out what the three news networks were reporting—you pretty much got what they gave you.  As the game went on, more news bulletins, with increasing levels of certainty: yes, there was a shooting at the Dakota in New York, and John Lennon was there; then news that Lennon was taken to the hospital, and then, ultimately, confirmation that the former Beatle had in fact been killed outside of his apartment.

Stunning news, to be sure. We probably called it a night long after that, with another workout coming up early the next morning.

We flew back to Chicago the next afternoon or the day after, then had a week of workouts at school before the Rockford Relays, and I went back home to St. Louis for the rest of our “interim” break. All you heard on the radio for a few weeks was Beatles music. I can’t remember if I had bought Lennon’s and Yoko Ono’s new album, Double Fantasy before that trip or after he was murdered, but I did buy it, and loved exactly half of it — it featured alternating John and Yoko songs and, well, hers never really did it for me. His songs, though, were great, and of course were hugely poignant following his death. After reinventing music and culture in the 1960s, and rebelling against the world in the 1970s, Lennon had seemed to be settling down with a family in the 1980s, and now he’d been cut down by a lunatic with a handgun.

The Horizon Motor Hotel is long gone now, undoubtedly replaced by something way out of the price range of a college swimming team. But I’ll always remember the scene in that hotel suite, watching through bleary eyes the news that a Beatle had died.

1980: A New Setting

I’ve gotten a little behind in my reliving the year 1980, so will try to catch up a little bit here.

In September, I went away to college. Yes, I had done this before—to Missouri University in 1977—but Mizzou was sort of the expected thing to do, and I knew a lot of people there. I had fun during my five semesters in Columbia, but ultimately Mizzou turned out to be just too big for me. I left halfway through my third year and looked for someplace smaller.

I found North Central College in Naperville, Ill. At about 2,000 students, NCC was about 1/10th the size of Mizzou. I didn’t know a soul there when I moved in, but oddly, I don’t remember that fact bothering me at all; instead, I think I welcomed the chance to make a new start.

A big part of my new college experience was going to be swimming. After being on swim teams from 4th grade through high school, I “retired” after my senior year, because there was no way I was going to make the Mizzou squad. But with the change to the smaller, Division III school, swimming was front-and-center again. I was welcomed onto the team, and immediately had a group of people to hang out with. I also offered up my services to the Chronicle, the NCC student newspaper, and they put me to work right away writing articles. So almost immediately, I was immersed in activities that were beyond my reach at Mizzou.

It was a good fall. I was getting to know a few people and was pretty much enjoying the college experience. I rode the BN commuter train into Chicago for a couple of concerts—Jethro Tull at the Rosemont, and the Police at the Aragon Ballroom. I was reading a lot of Hunter Thompson. And every afternoon, there were two hours of very intense swimming workouts; I was getting into the best shape of my life.

*****

In 1976, I had turned 17, still too young to vote in that year’s election. 1980 would be my first chance to vote for a president. Unfortunately, 1980 was also the year that President Jimmy Carter pulled the United States out of the Moscow Olympics to protest the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. Now, I’ve always loved politics, but I’ve also always loved the Olympics. That spring, I wrote a letter to Time Magazine  registering my protest over the Olympics boycott. “President Carter has lost my vote…” the letter began. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever written a letter to the editor, certainly the only one to a national publication. They didn’t publish it, but I’d made a commitment. And that fall, when it came time to send for an absentee ballot and fill it out, I cast my vote for the independent, John Anderson. I knew full well that my vote would result in the lesser of the major-party candidates being elected, but I wanted to make sure that President Carter got the message.

(Somehow, though, he never got back to me to apologize about the Olympics thing; and he seems to think that the economy was the reason he lost the election.)

I had a class on election night. It finished up about 8:30. I rushed back to my room to start watching the election returns come in. But as soon as I walked in the door, my roommate gave me the news: Carter was already conceding. At North Central, at that time, if you were 21 you were allowed to have alcohol in your room. I’m guessing I had some that night, because I have no memory of the rest of the night. That election, my first presidential vote, was the only time I’ve ever cast a ballot for a third-party candidate, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever do it again.

*****

The North Central swim teams had a tradition of going to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a team training trip each winter. The school’s first trimester ends just before Thanksgiving, and the Florida trip is the following week. I took the Amtrak home from Chicago, and then on Sunday, November 30—thirty years ago today!—I took my first plane trip: St. Louis to Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale. Coming in for the landing, I also got my first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, or any ocean for that matter. That night, a few of us would run across the road and dive into the water,  swim in the crashing waves, figure out how to body surf. My baptism, as it were, at 21 years old.

July 1980

Several key events from July of 1980, continuing my 30-years-ago reminiscenses:

• Sometime around the middle of the month, I saw the Doobie Brothers in concert, with my old Mizzou roommate Bob. This was at the Checkerdome, like the earlier Who concert was, and again we had floor seats. From what I remember, it was a great show.

Interestingly, it now appears I’ll be seeing the Doobie Brothers again in a few days — almost exactly 30 years after that Checkerdome show. It’s an interesting question as to whether rock bands should even EXIST for 30 years.

• A day or so after the concert, both I and my brother Jim took trips that would help define the rest of our lives. In his case, he moved away from St. Louis for what turned out to be the last time. Until then he had lived in several places, including Boston and Provincetown. He wasn’t entirely comfortable in St. Louis, I know, and finally he packed up and moved back to P-Town. We were able to spend a lot of time together that spring — we were both helping out in my dad’s business — but those times were coming to an end.

• And I got in a car with my parents and drove to Naperville, Ill., the home of North Central College. After leaving Missouri University in December ’79, I was looking for a smaller school where I could, perhaps, be more be more visible than at a mega-sized university. I swam, that spring, with an AAU team in Clayton, Mo., just to keep in shape; they practiced at Clayton High School, and on the bulletin board of the pool were tacked several college brochures. One of them was NCC. Comparing my times with the school and conference records shown in the brochure, I thought it was someplace I could be reasonably competitive. One thing led to another. I talked on the phone with the coach a time or two, applied and was accepted. That mid-July trip was for the orientation and registration. I met with Dr. Van der Muellen in the economics department. (He thought it a little odd that I said that in addition to an econ major, I might also pursue a sociology minor. He did end up being my favorite econ professor at NCC, though.) I spent the night in one of the dorms — me and mostly a bunch of incoming freshmen. And on the second day, I finally saw the pool. Through the magic of wide-angle photography, it looked much bigger and nicer in the brochure photo than in real life. And I met the coach, who was just as nice in person as on the phone. On the whole, it looked like a school I could like.

• Also that month, I turned 21. But perhaps the less written about the destruction of that day, the better.