Mark Fromberg coaching an open water swim clinic at Okanagan Lake, Jun. 2012
Guest blogger and T.I. Swimmer Dr. Mark Fromberg lives in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia and first learned to swim in 2004 at the age of 49, through practicing exercises in the learn-to-swim sequence in Total Immersion’s “Happy Laps” video. Since then, he has swum in many long-distance open water events and raced in triathlons, including some world championship events. Most notably, Mark has become the longest term director of Kelowna’s “Across The Lake Swim,” Canada’s largest open water swim event, and recognized in 2015 as one of the “World’s Top 100 Open Water Swims” by openwaterpedia.com. As a retired physician, he has also provided medical support for dozens of triathlons, including the Kona Ironman World Championships. From October to May, he swims with his local triathlon club twice a week and enjoys trying to keep up with club members half his age. From May to September, he swims in the Okanagan Lake 2-3 times a week, mostly for fitness and relaxation, and often accompanies novice swimmers who need to build their open water swim confidence. He’s recently started to kiteboard and hopes to get good enough to travel to some fantastic kiteboarding meccas—in addition, he also plans to pursue scuba diving certification, something he could never have considered when he was younger!
Mark pausing during a swim at at Gellatly Bay, Okanagan Lake, Sept. 2016
I just read the T.I. blog posted today regarding the common theme of how swimming changes people’s lives, so I thought I would respond to share the story of how swimming changed my life. For me, it was one of Terry Laughlin’s older T.I. DVDs—“Happy Laps”—that changed everything for me. In early September of 2004, I was playing an extended game of squash with a younger and fitter opponent, when I had an awkward twisting injury to my back as I lunged into a corner to try to return a ball. Fatigued and dehydrated by that point, I had to stop due to the acute spasms and my sudden inability to even walk normally, or get into and out of my car. For 3 weeks I couldn’t do anything physical at all—even walking, sitting, and rolling over in bed caused sharp back spasms. After just a week of this, with no ability to exercise, I was going into some kind of exercise withdrawal—I had to do something. So, even though I didn’t swim, I thought I would find some rehab value in just walking chest deep in a pool, since I used to work in a rehab center where this was a common strategy. I discovered I could walk easily in the pool and both floating and doing basic breast strokes were pain-free, as well. So learning to swim became my salvation to recovering from my back injury.
But even before I had started lessons, I found myself asking what it was about me that kept me a non-swimmer all this time. I recalled having a couple of YMCA-sponsored free swimming lessons when I was 7 or 8 years old, in a public, unheated outdoor pool in Vancouver, in a group situation that really didn’t allow for much individual coaching. Needless to say, I didn’t get far, and only remember how afraid I was of being asked to go into the deep end. The one time I was asked to tread water there for just a minute, I was all but exhausted as a result of how frantically I was moving, afraid I would sink to the bottom if I didn’t. Although nothing bad happened, I never learned to relax in the water and, as a skinny kid, I never enjoyed the coldness of the water either. And deep water? Not me! When I decided to learn to swim as an adult, I remember thinking how embarrassed I often felt about my non-ability to swim, and since my own kids were both in early adolescence then, about to start their Bronze Cross training to become pool lifeguards, I wondered how it was possible that they could be such naturals in the water, while I was not. Since I have always prided myself on being able to learn anything I put my mind to, I decided to take on this challenge to learn to swim: for rehab for my back pain, to end my chronic embarrassment, and to not be the “weak link” of the family in the water.
So before I showed up for the first day of lessons at the local community center, I resolved to find some kind of easy-to-understand study guide for beginners like me. That is how I came across Total Immersion’s learn-to-swim DVD called “Happy Laps”—I actually no longer have it because I lent it out to other beginners a few times too many and lost track of it years ago! However, what I still remember in the video was a sequence with a middle-aged, non-athletic-looking African-American woman who followed a very simple and logical progression over what appeared to be only a single session in the pool, and then she was swimming by the end. Seeing that was very inspiring for me– despite my 49 years of age at the time, and despite my successes in health and fitness in a variety of milieus, I was still completely stumped by swimming. It was a sport that I just had not been able to master, or even feel comfortable with, for no explicable reason I could discern. I thought I was smart enough, fit enough, competent enough, and still young enough to learn something that kids could do, and yet… something was missing.
Mark enjoying a midsummer swim in Okanagan Lake, Jul. 2016
When I watched the practice sequence in the “Happy Laps” video over and over again, I recall saying to myself, with each progressive drill, “I can do that”… “I can do that”… “I can do that…” and “I can do that”… all the way to the end of the sequence. When I signed up for some local learn-to-swim lessons at the community center, armed with what I had learned from Terry’s instructional video, I became a swimmer very quickly! I went from maxing out after a gasping, frantic, anxiety-provoking 25 meters to 400 meters of calm stroking just a half hour later. I was a swimmer!! Something I could never have said for the previous 5 decades of my life. I did my first sustained, relaxed swim around my 49th birthday, but in the year following, by joining the local masters swim club, I really learned the finer details of swim strokes to the point that I could do a triathlon just a few months shy of my 50th birthday.
Thinking back to my university years in an undergraduate kinesiology program, there were a couple of occasions where I did ask swimmer-classmates to teach me how to swim. And although they were happy to oblige, they would focus just on the arm strokes, without any discussion of how to integrate breathing—so my frustrations continued back then. I find that adult swimmers who learned to swim as kids do not recall what they learned way back when— for example, forcefully and completely exhaling in the water eventually feels natural as a kid, but it sure doesn’t for an adult swimmer. Thanks to the exercise hiatus that was forced upon me when I strained my back, I finally wanted to get to the bottom of what I was not understanding about swimming, so I decided to read about it, and then watch instructional videos about it, both courtesy of Terry’s T.I. teachings.
I must say that, for me anyway, successfully learning how to swim has first and foremost been a conceptual exercise, much of which can be done as a thought exercise without being anywhere near water. In fact, in recent years, I have conceptually “taught” swimming to people who were interested in learning, even while chatting with them socially—by simply telling them the sequence that appeared in “Happy Laps,” combined with what wound up being a similar process in my community pool lessons. I would ask them, “Do you think you could blow bubbles into water, for 5 minutes, while standing in chest deep water and holding on to the edge of a pool? Where the only rule is, every exhalation has to be in water?” Then I’d ask, “Okay, if you can do that, can you do the same, but not hanging on to the edge of the pool?” “Can you do it while walking in the shallow end of the pool?” “Can you do it while floating on your side/back with flippers on for easy propulsion, with one arm extended, in the shallow end of the pool?” And so on. Most beginners, like I did when I saw the video, would embrace the baby steps of progression, responding “Yes, I can do that.” Prior to even getting in the pool, I had watched the steps on the DVD again and again, and then, while in the pool, the consistent instruction made it easier to believe in it as the right way of doing it—so I progressed very quickly.
Mark savoring the open water near Tulum, Mexico, Jan. 2016
A major epiphany I had when first learning to swim was realizing that my breathing rate and pattern would dictate my arm stroke frequency, and not the other way around—a simple lesson that took 4 decades to understand! Once again, learning to swim was actually conceptual for me, much more so than physical, although I did need to get comfortable with being more forceful in breath exhalation when my face was in the water than when it was in the air. In my experience, once you shore up and believe in a principle that makes sense, it is easy to progress, even rapidly. My first “aha!” moments were:
- that breathing control is of paramount importance—these days, I teach that it is the only thing that matters—if you do not have breath control, you can’t swim
- that breath control can be quickly lost if you are not fully committed to full and complete, forceful exhalations (lest you build up CO2, which quickly gets you short of breath)
- that breath control can be quickly lost with the shock of cold water, so ease into it, and do some easy strokes to get used to the cold and establish your breathing
- that swimming is probably the only sport where breathing matters—a lot—and cannot be taken for granted
- to manage a sustained (especially open water) swim, you must stay relaxed, so that your breathing stays under control
Learn about breathing in our video “O2 in H2O: A Self-Help Course on Breathing in Swimming”
After learning to swim, I went on to tackle things that I had previously thought would be impossible for me–swimming in distance open water swim events (I have swum across Okanagan Lake in B.C. about 20 times, and I swim along its shores for exercise every summer), and racing in triathlons, including some world championship events. Learning to swim, and feel comfortable swimming in open water has been one of the most liberating experiences I have ever had—swimming was once a challenge that for so long seemed insurmountable, and now it is a part of my life, a great exercise, and a great reminder of what you can attain if you believe you can succeed.
Mark at the finish of Beijing ITU Aquathon World Championships, Sept. 2011
When I swim in the lake now, even when I am with others, I am really swimming by myself—I feel embraced by the water, one with the water. I do not feel it is my enemy, or that it is out to get me; instead, I feel for what it wants to show me, what it is doing that day, whether with waves, swells, or currents. I give myself to it freely, since I have confidence in my abilities now that I never had before. Just like the Japanese concept of “shinrin-yoku,” [which means “forest-bathing” — see link here: http://www.shinrin-yoku.org/] I think swimming in open water has a remarkably meditative quality, allowing you to connect with the primordial soup from which we all evolved. Just like the intangible, calming experience of communing with nature within a forest canopy, regular open water swimming has a profound effect on people that is hard to describe in words. But I am sure every one of the T.I. instructors, and certainly Terry himself, would have been intimately acquainted with this experience.
Since my transcendent experience 15 years ago, I have become deeply involved in nurturing Kelowna’s “Across the Lake Swim,” becoming its longest term director, while growing it from about 250 swimmers, to now over 1200 per year–and becoming Canada’s largest open water swim in the process. Because of the many unique attributes we have incorporated into the event, most especially our obsession with safety, a de-emphasis on racing (we call it an event, not a race), a 6 week training period in open water, unparalleled swag, and an inclusive, supportive environment, we were recognized in 2015 as one of the “World’s Top 100 Open Water Swims” by openwaterpedia.com. In addition, all of our proceeds go toward supporting swimming lessons for kids in our area. Last year, we sent 3000 3rd and 4th grade kids in our region for a series of lessons, as our way of both: 1) drown-proofing a generation of kids in our community– Okanagan Lake, being a tourist town, is the most-drowned-in lake in British Columbia; and 2) exposing everyone here to the gift of swimming from a young age, a sport and experience they can enjoy for life. We consider swimming as a life skill. As a primary care physician, I frequently counseled older people to consider swimming as a great exercise for those with chronic health problems, but I was always dismayed when I would hear the retort similar to, “I could never do that. I am petrified of water.” So we want to change that too.
In fact, in June 2015, the Doctors of British Columbia’s Council on Health Promotion advised us that our Across The Lake Swim Society was selected as the 2015 recipient of the Doctors of British Columbia’s Excellence in Health Promotion Award – Nonprofit category. They stated that, “We felt your program is of great importance to youth growing up in the Central Okanagan, and ensures prevention of needless fatalities in your region. This program also empowers children to live healthier lifestyles and experience the benefits of regular activity that will hopefully continue into their adult life. We consider you a very deserving recipient of the award and would be honoured to present it to you at the Doctors of B.C. Awards ceremony and banquet…”
Mark directing the start line of Kelowna’s “Across The Lake Swim” in 2016
I especially enjoy the teaching aspect of open water swimming to the many adults that, like me, need to get over a mental hump to become a competent swimmer, and they use our event as the “bucket list” item to prove that they can do it. Last year, I even wrote a book on how to become less anxious and more confident when swimming in open water, and stated several times throughout it how learning to swim in open water will change your life [link to book in blogger bio below]. Since I am a recently retired physician, I have also taken a medical interest in swimming, and especially open water swimming. I have provided medical support for dozens of triathlons, including the Kona Ironman World Championships, Ironman Canada for three years, and Kelowna Apple Triathlon Canadian National Championships. In that time, I became aware of the unsettling trend of triathletes dying in the swim portion of their event, well before fatigue or dehydration would normally be expected to occur. I personally reviewed virtually every one of these cases in the hope to gain a better understanding of these deaths, so we could take the necessary steps to reduce risk at our open water event. I eventually wrote about this in another book as well, to reassure aspiring open water swimmers that most risks are preventable [link to book link in blogger bio below].
Here are some further insights I’ve had in more recent years:
1) Recognizing just how many adults have never learned this life skill of swimming because they never understood the breathing aspects that I think are pivotal. I always get excited hearing of someone who has reached the same barrier that I did 15 years ago, since I know how to fix them!
2) Discovering just how liberating learning to swim is—I am more willing to take on learning challenges, I enjoy the water like never before, and I find extended open water swims pure meditation, which is a stress-releaser I never knew existed previous to learning to swim.
3) I have come to realize how important it is for all of our communities to get committed to getting every child to learn how to swim—an inexpensive exercise for a lifetime, a drowning prevention strategy, and a confidence and self-esteem builder. Unfortunately, fears get hardened with age, yet deep down, most people who have had a history of bad swimming experiences or fear really know that they could learn swimming if they really wanted to. The mental game of swimming is the most important aspect of successful learning.
Anyone can learn to swim, whether young, old, weak, strong, big, small– even paraplegics and amputees. Like most skills, it is easier to learn as a kid, before you develop multiple fears or overthink it. To learn swimming as an adult, you have to accept some seemingly paradoxical messages—like learning to forcefully exhale into water, like prioritizing breath control over stroking your arms, like staying relaxed while doing something physical. And you have to have the courage to face your fears, and revisit them as just a mental barrier to overcome. Do not compare your swim progress to someone else’s—we all learn at our own rate. If you really want to learn to swim, you can, especially if you are doing it in a reliably safe environment.
Given the interest I have developed in promoting open water swimming, it should be pretty obvious that learning to swim, and particularly, learning to swim in open water, has changed my life. I have thrived on my swim event volunteering, open water swim coaching, and have become an impassioned author and website designer as well. I am now starting to write my third book– it will be a race director’s guide to running a successful open water swim event, a treatise to inspire more people to take the plunge. And I have recently organized the first swim-run event in British Columbia (kelownaswimrun.com).
For me, learning to swim was certainly about proving to myself what I could finally do, but now it has really become more about “sharing the wealth” afforded by swimming– the riches of self-discovery, self-efficacy and personal growth, and the joy that fulfills you once you learn how to swim competently. After a long career of helping people mostly return to their normal state of health, I find tremendous satisfaction mentoring people to become something more than they ever were, helping non-swimming adults (like I was) overcome what is often a large hurdle (and vulnerability) in their lives—doing so within the context of our bucket-list signature open water swim event. Despite Terry Laughlin’s many amazing personal swimming accomplishments, I really think Terry’s greatest contribution to the swimming world was his loving embrace of this sport, and one that he shared in earnest every way he could, helping all of us T.I. followers to become swimmers. For me, he deconstructed my most daunting hurdle into simple components, and led me to a promised land I never thought I could reach. And I am certain he and Total Immersion have done this for many thousands of others.
Mark finishing a summer swim in Okanagan Lake, Jul. 2016
Guest Blogger and T.I. Swimmer Mark Fromberg is a recently retired physician from the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia who only learned how to swim at age 49, primarily with the help of one of Total Immersion’s dvds: the learn-to-swim “Happy Laps” video. Since then, Mark has been making up for lost time, having completed innumerable open water swim events and almost 50 triathlons, and has become deeply involved in providing race support for a variety of triathlons and swim events, most notably Canada’s largest and longest running open water swim event, Kelowna’s Across The Lake Swim. This event is now on the “World’s Top 100 Open Water Swim” events, due to its commitment to safety, its great swag, its unique pre-event training program, its financial support of swimming lessons of every grade 3 and 4 child in the community, and its remarkable growth in the last decade, now over 1000 participants per year. In 2018, Dr. Fromberg published two books on open water swimming (linked here): one to help get over open water anxiety and develop confidence, and the other to better understand some important physiological principles that can affect open water swimmers. Mark’s wife is also an open water swimmer and former lifeguard, and they have two grown children in their late twenties, one of whom worked as a lifeguard for many years at their local YMCA.
Do YOU have a personal Total Immersion success story that you’d like to share with us? We LOVE hearing about the positive impact– both in and out of the water– that learning to swim with T.I. has had on those of you who have experienced transformation using our approach. If you’d like to send us your success story, please email blog editor Carrie Loveland at firstname.lastname@example.org — we look forward to reading your stories!