On Feb 15, the article A Swimming Hero Relearns How to Swim appeared in the Wall Street Journal. It featured Marilyn Bell DiLascio and Paul Lurie–78 and 98 ‘years young’ (this phrase fits them if it fits anyone, as you will see) respectively. I was also privileged to appear in the article with them. The article has uplifted and inspired all who read it. Leave a comment at WSJ if you feel the same.

I’ve known Marilyn for two years and Paul for four. In the article, Kevin Helliker, the WSJ reporter, provided details of which even I was unaware. In this post I’ll share aspect of their story which help explain why the Wall Street Journal became interested in them.

Last August 25 at 7:30 AM, I received an email from Marilyn which contained no text, only this image of her phone.

Marilyn's Phone: Paul's latest record

Marilyn’s Phone: Paul’s latest record

I knew instantly what it meant:  That morning Paul–just two months shy of his 98th birthday—had set another personal record for 20 lengths of the pool at Woodland Ponds, the senior residence where both live.

The world’s first 90+ Kaizen swimmer!

I gave Paul the first swim lesson of his life when he was 94. By that time–guided only by a TI self-coaching video–he’d already developed an impressively balanced and relaxed freestyle. Over the next few months, I taught him additional freestyle skills plus a relaxed, balanced backstroke.

Each morning at 6:45, Paul swam a 20-length standard practice in the 50-foot Woodland Pond pool. He alternated two lengths of freestyle with one of backstroke. To measure progress, he occasionally timed himself.

Like many nonagenarians, Paul suffers from atrial fibrillation; even mild exertion causes his heart to race. As a retired cardiologist, he knew that could be quite dangerous, so he waited patiently for his heart to return to a safe rate after each length.

Those long recovery periods occupied enough time that it initially took Paul 22 minutes to complete just over 300 meters of swimming. But he continued working patiently on improving efficiency. Every few weeks, when I swam with him, I could sense he was a little bit faster . . . and more relaxed.

As he gained efficiency, he need less recovery between laps. His 20-length time improved from 22 to 20, 18, and finally 16 minutes. One morning, he dipped below 16. He doubted he’d have swum that fast. The next morning, he asked Marilyn (she’d begun practicing TI and become Paul’s regular swim partner) to count his laps and time him. The stopwatch on Marilyn’s phone read 15:46 at the end of his swim.

A few days later, Paul said to both of us, “I think I should retire the record. It’s probably not healthy for a 96-year old to be pushing himself to swim faster.” But the thing is, Paul wasn’t pushing himself. His times improved as he learned to maintain greater ease.

A measure of that is that he asked me to teach him how to turn properly because “I feel relaxed enough now to swim two lengths before taking a rest.”

Several months later, Marilyn informed me that Paul’s record had dropped to 14:06. He’d kept his promise not to try to swim faster. It was just the opposite: As he gained in ease and control, he couldn’t help completing his laps faster. Speed ‘happened.’

Which brings us to last August 25 and Paul’s latest record.

A Man with a Plan

A short while after receiving Marilyn’s message, announcing Paul’s new record of 12:15, I received an email from Paul. It said:

“This morning I had a feeling I could record a new best time. So I went to the pool with a plan. During every stroke I just kept reminding myself ‘Rag Doll, Rag Doll, Rag Doll’.” (This TI focal point refers to an intention to turn off every muscle below the elbow, so forearm and hand hang from the elbow like a rag doll during recovery.)

I’d learned not to be surprised by anything Paul did, but I doubted that ever before in the history of endurance sport had a nearly-98 year old gone to the pool with an intention—and a plan–to break a personal record. I forwarded these messages to Kevin Helliker, who had interviewed me several times for articles on swimming.

I asked Kevin if he thought it was newsworthy, not only that someone Paul’s age was still able to conceive of setting new personal swimming records, but that he’d formulated a strategy for doing so. And finally that that strategy was completely counter-intuitive. (Swim faster by relaxing more?)

Kevin agreed and thus the article got underway.

The Back Story

I’d like to share two more details of the saga of Paul and Marilyn which I find exciting. The first is how quickly they felt empowered and confident to coach each other.  The second is how my experiences teaching them have influenced the latest refinement of the TI learning method.

Empowered to Coach

As I wrote above, using our self-coaching tools, Paul had already learned a freestyle of rare efficiency over the course of a few months before I met him. During the months I spent with both of them, I gave each only a few cumulative hours of instruction.

To avoid taxing Paul’s stamina, I limited lessons to about 30 minutes. Then he’d practice daily on his own for about two weeks before our next lesson. So Paul’s ratio of self-coaching to me coaching him was about 12 to 1 during that period.

Two years later, when I began coaching Marilyn, she needed even less instruction—just three to four hours total. Partly because she was such an experienced swimmer. But also because between my bi-weekly visits, Paul was coaching her. Or rather, they were coaching each other.

Using Marilyn’s ipad they regularly shot video of each other’s strokes, comparing her form with his and looking for kaizen opportunities in both. The speed with which they felt fully empowered to coach each other—and the demonstrated effectiveness with which they did it—is thrilling to me.

A Streamlined Learning Sequence

In 2012, I’d offered to teach Paul gratis because it seemed like an invaluable opportunity to learn, as Kevin Helliker put it, “how old is too old to improve at swimming.” My oldest student to that point had been 83.

I discovered that several drills we’d used for over 10 years (SpearSwitch and SwingSwitch and variations) were too difficult and tiring for Paul. They were fairly complicated and required more strength than he possessed.

I found I could teach the same skills by two means: (1) Using drills with fewer ‘moving parts’–Torpedo, Superman, and Skate, but adding a few new Focal Points for each; and (2) Practicing finer skills—mainly recovery movements–in a standing position, allowing Paul to be comfortable while I assisted him in ‘rehearsing’ mini-skills before he tried to do them while swimming. He was able to quickly absorb the new movements and integrate them into his stroke.

Since this simplified approach had worked so well, I used it again with Marilyn. And seeing how quickly both developed beautiful form, I thought “why shouldn’t everyone learn this way?”

Today, if you attend a TI Effortless Endurance Workshop or teach yourself with our Complete Self Coaching Toolkit, and find the learning sequence easier to master, give some of the credit to Paul and Marilyn

See Paul and me swimming in synch at Woodland Pond. Can you tell which swimmer is 62 and which 95?

See video of Marilyn and me synch-swimming  in Lake Minnewaska . . . her first open water swim in 32 years and almost 60 years to the day from her historic crossing of Lake Ontario.

Read my previous post on Marilyn and Paul. Marilyn Gets Her Mojo Back.