Jeanne Safer and I were in the middle of a lesson in the Endless Pool at our home Swim Studio in New Paltz NY, when Jeanne suddenly stood up and blurted out: “You can change profoundly–in body and mind–at any age.”
What prompted this? Jeanne and I had spent the previous 15 minutes trying to effect a pretty significant change in her breaststroke pull. Over the past few months, Jeanne and I had been working to change the way her head returned to streamline following the breath.
I’d noticed that when her head followed her hands as they speared forward and slightly down, her stroke gained effortless power and she formed a sleek arrow-straight line that sloped slightly downward from her hips–the highest point of her body in the water–to her fingertips. At that moment, Jeanne, a 69-year old psychotherapist and author, almost exactly resembled elite athletes such as Rebecca Soni, gold medalist in the 2012 Olympics. I found it so inspiring to see that I regularly froze that moment on the underwater video so we could both admire and marvel at her form.
Jeanne and I meet once a week for an hour–an appointment we’ve kept with few exceptions for 12 years! Between lessons Jeanne works tirelessly in the Endless Pool at her weekend home, and a college pool near her NYC apartment to tweak, improve, and imprint the subtle mini-skills we worked on together.
Though she’d mastered the new head movement–and the ability to maintain it at a variety of tempos–the change in one part of her body had affected another. Her arm stroke felt a bit alien. So we’d worked for several weeks toward a more crisp instep and forward-spear, matched to the new head movement pattern.
At the beginning of today’s lesson I asked Jeanne to make the stroke more compact–seeking a feeling of natural leverage. To help her better feel what I was seeking, for several strokes I ‘caught’ her elbows with my hands, to redirect her arms forward a bit more quickly. (Anyone who coaches in an Endless Pool LOVES the ability to make those sort of instant adjustments because the swimmer stays in place in a current just inches away. We sometimes describe it as “like being a chiropractor in the water.”)
Jeanne picked up quickly on my ‘kinesthetic guidance’ and her stroke began to look quicker and crisper. On her next sequence–without any hands-on guidance–magic happened. She swam about 20 strokes, gaining confidence and awareness almost with every stroke. I was recording video the entire time.
At first I watched her directly, observing what she did above the surface. Then I turned my attention to the video monitor to observe what was happening underwater. As I did I could see dramatic transformation in the space of about eight strokes, as she increased the power, quickness, consistency, and assurance of this new movement. At one point, I involuntarily breathed out “Wow!”
Jeanne sprung to her feet excitedly as soon as she stopped swimming and said: “You can change profoundly–in body and mind–at any age.” And, in the next breath, she said: “But I’ve spent 12 years with you learning how to learn.”
What happened with Jeanne today was made even more striking by an observation I’d made less than 24 hours earlier. Last night I dropped in to watch the local Masters group work out. I swam with this group from 1993 to 2006, but not since. But next week the current coaches (college students) will leave for the summer and I will step in for them for the next several months.
I’ve known many of these swimmers for years. Last night their strokes looked exactly as they have since the first day I met them. In fact, one of them was a college teammate of my eldest daughter. He looked exactly the same last night as the first time I saw him swim 24 years ago.
When I begin coaching them next week, I will offer to help those who are interested to change their strokes for greater efficiency–and possibly to learn you can change profoundly at any age.
And when you realize your capacity to change your stroke, you may then begin to think: What else can I change?
May your laps be as happy–and evolving–as mine.
Want to change your stroke–and yourself? Our Complete Self-Coaching Toolkit is designed to create transformation in how you swim and think.
Jeanne Safer’s latest book is The Golden Condom: And other essays on Love Lost and Found.