“Never be afraid to try something new. Remember, amateurs built the ark. Professionals built the titanic.”
My first memory of swimming (or lack thereof) was not one that most people would think would be inspirational or moving. However it was a memory that made enough of an impact on my life that it started to shape the respect and love I have for the open water and swimming today. It goes back to when I was about 6 years old. I was at a state park with my parents one afternoon on a nice summer day. They loved to fish together and on this particular day they were fishing off of some boat docks. The lake was not very large and seeing the other side was pretty easy. I was not into fishing that much, so I was just playing around on the shore and the boat docks. I remember seeing some other kids playing across the lake. I am not sure what happened to my brain in the next few moments but I pulled a typical 6 year old move. I said “hey mom, I am going to go and play with those kids over there”. She was not far away from me, however she was focused on landing the big catch. Her reply was “Ok honey”. So the next thing I knew I took off and ran to where the kids were playing, remember they were on the other side of the lake. I knew the quickest way to anywhere was a straight line, so instead of going all the way around the lake I ran straight off the end of the dock.
It was not the brightest move I have ever made in my life, but I was 6, so cut me some slack. Anyway the memory that has stuck with me all the way until this day is what happened next. No I did not walk on water, I sank straight to the bottom. I remember the scene like it happened yesterday. I remember my feet hitting the bottom of the lake, it was not that deep though, maybe 12 feet. But for a 6 year old it seemed like the bottom of the ocean. I saw a whole new world, the plant life, the fish, big rocks, and all sorts of new things. It seemed like I was down under the water for hours, but it was only a few seconds until my mother was down under the water making the rescue. The one thing I do not remember is any sort of panic. Maybe it had something to do with my age, maybe I did not know my life was in danger. But it was that feeling of calmness with the water that has stuck with me ever sense.
People fear new things or things that they just don’t understand. Fear of the unknown is a huge show stopper for someone wanting to swim to be healthier or to do a triathlon. Lack of confidence is step toward fear. Confidence (especially when we speak of the water and swimming) is gained by an understood respect, a continuing knowledge, and most of all learning to practice the correct way. Maybe you are saying to yourself right now “I am not afraid of the water, I go to the pool all of the time and try to put in the yardage, but it just does not work for me, it is too hard”. I hear from triathletes I coach all of the time that they have to put in the yards of the necessary evil (swimming) just so they can make it through the swim. What if you didn’t have to look at swimming like that anymore? Lack of confidence in your ability and technique in swimming is fear, not fear of the water but fear of what you can truly accomplish. Confidence in swimming is gained by an understood respect (of swimming technique), a continuing knowledge (always learning more about swimming and your swim stroke), and most of all LEARNING TO PRACTICE the correct way.
“Learn to Practice” is based on a theory that I have developed through many of my life’s trials and also just by watching. I grew up swimming on swim teams and doing triathlons throughout high school. After high school I went into the military and qualified for an elite special forces group that spent a lot of time in the water. Part of my entry test was a timed swim of 1000 yards. I smoked it. However due to some unfortunate situations I did not get to start the training. I ended up becoming a mechanic instead. My life changed at that moment, instead of swimming through it, I just started to drift. I was stationed in Florida and my life went from healthy choices to the late night adult beverage at the tiki bar on the beach. Near the end of my 4 year term in the military my father passed away from Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. And about a year after my father passed away I had my first child, a wonderful son. I decided to leave the military and go back to my home state of Iowa. I tried several jobs from a landscaper to a beer salesman. Nothing worked for me or sparked that passion that I had for the water. I ended up going back to school and then getting a job as a project manager for a techy company. Three years into that job I was at my all time low. Not all was bad though, I had bought my second home, was pretty much debt free, married, I had two beautiful daughters, and had learned to be pretty handy around the house. However, I weighed in at 300 plus pounds and was pretty unhealthy. Walking down the stairs took the wind out of me. The sad truth is that today if I was at that weight and health I was back then I would be in the majority. That has to change! And no one will do it for you. However that is another book.
I knew I had to do something, if not for me then for my two little girls and son. I tried everything from weight management groups to joining local gyms. Nothing was working. Lack of self confidence was working well in my life or maybe it was the fear of “I can’t”. My wife at the time said to me “you used to do those triathlons when you were in high school, why don’t you sign up for one of those and start training, set a goal other than your weight”. That was a great idea, because that is just what I did. I think what she meant was to sign up for a local shorter triathlon. Instead I took a walk off the end of the dock, kind of ironic. I signed up for Ironman Florida and I had 11 months to train.
The 11 months of training changed me physically and it started that fire inside of me again for competition. But come race day it was a different story. I stood there on the beach, now at 200 pounds and in the best shape I had been in a long time, thinking there is a journey ahead of me today and I am not sure what is going to happen. I remember the day being long and hard all the way upto the last half mile of the marathon. I heard the crowd cheering, I remember seeing all of these people at the finish line, but the part that stuck out most was as soon as I stepped across that finish line I heard over the loud speaker “Jason Wulf YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!” It was not the fact that I completed one of the toughest races known to mankind, it was at that moment I was an Ironman. No one did it for me, I took on the challenge and did it all myself. Yes I had support all along the journey, but I had to make the journey, I had to practice improving my confidence one small piece at a time and I had to accept the right support where it was offered.
Swimming and helping others learn to swim or improve their swimming has become a passion of mine. At the beginning of my coaching career I was kind of thrown into the deep end of training brand new triathletes to complete their first Olympic distance triathlon. I had lawyers, a judge, students, and stay at home moms in that group. I also had athletes in that first group, most of them just didn’t know it yet. In the sport of triathlon you swim, then get on your bike and ride a while, and finish with a nice run on jelly legs. The hardest part for most…..wait lets change that statement, the part where most people lack confidence and show fear is the swim. I had no idea of how I was going to get all of these non-swimmers out of the water after about a one mile swim in just 16 weeks. I knew how to swim, I went to classes so that I could teach others to swim, and I watched numerous other coaches teach people swimming basics. I noticed in watching other coaches that their success rate of teaching another person to swim so that they could enjoy it was about 50/50. I wanted 100% success, not only did I want my people to be able to swim the full length of their swim in the triathlon they were doing, but I wanted them to feel accomplished when finished and not beat up. I wanted them to learn a new form of exercise that they could do for the rest of their lives. I hoped that they could realize the same thing I did when I crossed the finish line at my first Ironman, that anything was possible. But how was I to accomplish all of this?
I gained a ton of great knowledge from other coaches and I still continue to look for that knowledge every time I am around another coach. But I gained the most knowledge and understanding of the swim stroke by watching people swim. I would watch for hours why their whole body was doing what it was doing as they worked their way from one end of the pool to the other. Today you will still find me on the pool deck watching other people swim. Someone said to me once “Jason you are bad with names when you see a person, but I bet you could describe their swim stroke perfectly.”
I thought about all I had learned and seen in the swim stroke and thought about why so many people have such a tough time learning to swim better. And when they get better at swimming it is still the one workout they do not enjoy much. That is when I came up with the theory of “Learn to Practice”.
Learn to Practice is the concept of taking the complexity of the swim stroke and breaking it down into its smallest parts and then taking those small parts through certain drills and over emphasizing them one at a time using focal points. Then we let the body and brain do the rest when we swim.
As deep as that theory may sound, it is what makes swimming simple and enjoyable. Now it is time to “Learn to Practice”.