I love languages. I delight in discovering that, in some other tongues, nouns are gendered, reflexive verbs romp through the vernacular, and tenses (other than past, present and future) abound. Pronouncing vowels differently exercises my jaw and lips. Mastering syntax and grammar challenges my brain, and encountering nuanced concepts expands my mind. Having even basic familiarity with a foreign language helps me feel more at home when I travel.
Recently I got back into a Master’s swim program at one of Denver’s recreation centers. While I don’t consider myself an athlete, I wanted the structure to keep me focused. Still, deciding to try again meant overcoming the decade old memory of a humbling and harrowing Master’s class. Back in Boston, a friend (and Ironman triathlete) suggested I join him. I protested that I was a mediocre swimmer. As a youngster, I had been somewhat fearful of water. While I passed all the swim tests, I never enjoyed it enough to improve, let alone compete. He told me not to worry. Ha! While the rest of the group shot up and down the pool, I crawled along until I couldn’t take it anymore and switched to the breaststroke. We swam in circles, frequently four to a lane, so I inhaled mouthfuls of froth and feared getting kicked in the face. While others gracefully executed flip turns, I clung like a barnacle to the cement edge to stay out of the way. In the locker room, sinewy women chatted about split times and triathlon plans. I dressed silently to avoid detection as an impostor; I was happy to have simply survived. Still, the workouts strengthened me and after a few months I amazed myself by swimming a mile in open water and loving it.
At this Denver pool, I usually have a slow lane to myself. The mellow coach is even changing the program’s name to the less intimidating “Adult Swim Conditioning”. Yet, there are linguistic hurdles. At the start of each session, he fills a whiteboard with words, acronyms, and numbers to guide us through the workout. Standing in the shallow end, I lift up my goggles, squint to decipher the markings, and again try to memorize “Swimese” (or maybe it’s “Swimish”) so I won’t feel like an interloper.
OREO: Alas, he doesn’t serve treats, but like the cookie it means to swim hard at the beginning, soften in the middle, swim hard again.
FR: Freestyle (crawl to normal folks)
FLY: Butterfly (an odd name, since it makes people look like sea lions)
PULL: Place a foam buoy between your legs and pull with your arms.
KICK: Use a kick-board.
IM: Individual Medley, four strokes in sequence (FLY, BK, BR, FR). For me, it’s “II” (Ilona’s Improv) since I can’t FLY.
SKIPS: Swim. Kick. IM. Pull. Swim. Very sneaky to embed one acronym within another!
Catchup: A diabolical FR variation, where one arm stays extended in front of the body until the moving arm catches up. As I learned, you have to kick fast and pull the other hand hard to avoid drowning.
Clocks: FR with the left hand positioned at “11 o’clock” and the right hand at “1 o’clock.” It activates slightly different muscles.
200 FR 2-4-6-2: Swim four sets of 200 yards. For the first set, breathe every two strokes. Second set, breathe every four strokes. Then, you’re allowed one gulp of air every six strokes. If you survive that, again breathe every two strokes. My coach calls it a “lung buster.” He wasn’t joking; I sputtered for air several times.
Tombstone: A macabre version of KICK. Instead of holding the board flat in front of you, you grip the sides and stand it perpendicular to the water to create more resistance. I tried this and barely budged.
Yesterday, after the coach translated SKIPS for me, he mentioned that he enjoys acronyms and once invented a T.H.A.N.K.S.G.I.V.I.N.G. workout. Should I ever find something that complicated on the board, I just might CRY (Curse, Roar, Yell) WTF (Why Torture Folks)?!