Naji Ali swimming from Point Bonita to The Bay Bridge (9.3 miles)
Guest blogger and T.I. Swimmer Naji Ali learned to swim as an adult in 2008, when he took his first T.I. workshop. Since that time he now swims year-round in San Francisco Bay and is scheduled to swim the Santa Barbara Channel in 2019, from the mainland to Anacapa Island. If successful, he’ll be the first African-American man to accomplish this. He follows official channel rules in his practice and does not wear a wetsuit– he trains in a regular bathing suit, cap, and goggles. He rises at 4 AM, 5-6 times a week, and is in the water by 4:45 AM. He usually swims in the dark and, at times, swims till sunrise. Water temps in the Bay range as low as 48F in the winter, and as high as 60F in the summer and fall, with the temps usually hovering about 55F. We are delighted to share his inspiring story with you– he truly exemplifies the spirit of mastery, kaizen learning, patient dedication, and enthusiastic practice that are hallmarks of our approach to swimming with Total Immersion. Enjoy… and Happy Laps!
I have lived near the water my entire life. I love it. I absolutely love living next to the Pacific Ocean, watching the waves crash upon the shore, seeing surfers ply their trade. I can sit around and gaze out over the water for hours and never get bored.
To me, the water is magic. About as close to paradise as one can get.
As luck would have it– or more appropriately, upon the demands of my mom– at 13 years old, I got a summer job working for a marine biologist at Scripps Institute of Oceanography, located in La Jolla, CA. Every day I’d hop on a bus and ride an hour down to my job. My boss, a very kind man, taught me about sea turtles, seals, sea lions, and jellyfish, better than any school teacher ever could. In fact, I can still dissect a frog and list all its organs in detail to this day.
About two months into my time with him, he invited me to go on a boat that was going out to fish for albacore tuna. He and several other biologists wanted to be the first scientists to bring one back in captivity. We went out about 20 miles from shore to fish. I remember that day being very calm, with gentle “rollers” rocking the boat like a mother would a sleeping child. I also remember that it was very hot, so hot that one of the crew members decided to go for a quick dip. He stripped down to his trunks and dove in. I ran over to the railing and watched as he swam breaststroke, backstroke, and freestyle. “Wow,” I thought to myself, “I wish I could do that.” Afterward, he climbed back onboard and toweled off. I approached him and asked: “That was pretty cool… could you teach me how to swim like that?” He looked on and said: “Kid, Black people don’t swim.” The whole boat erupted into laughter. Even I was laughing… but not really.
I was embarrassed. Embarrassed because I was the butt of the joke, and more importantly, that I didn’t know how to swim.
I told no one about that day and didn’t think about it for another 27 years. Fast-forward to 2008, and I’m sitting watching the Beijing Olympics, and witnessing history as Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals. Although this was a truly amazing feat, the most exciting thing for me was watching the Men’s 4 x100m relay final [click link to view race]. No, not because Jason Lezak, the anchor of the relay, came from behind to win the gold for the Americans and defeated the French; nor was it that they set a new world record. I was excited because a young Black man named Cullen Jones was a part of that record setting team. At that moment, I determined that I was going to learn to swim. The memory of everyone laughing at me on that boat– and my embarrassment– needed to end. I had to learn to swim. The question was: How do I get that done?
I looked online and found a man not far from me that taught swim lessons. He showed me how to float with my face down in the water, float on my back in a comfortable position, and the rudimentary skills of pulling, kicking, etc. He was a nice enough person and certainly knew how to swim himself, but it didn’t feel right for me. So, I went to a second person who specialized in working with adults who didn’t know how to swim. She too was kind, but didn’t offer much more than the previous person. But one thing she did do, and I’m forever grateful that she did, was mention a system of learning how to swim called “Total Immersion” (TI).
“What the heck is that?” I asked, confused.
She told me to look it up online and see for myself. So, I started researching TI and noticed that they had a book that a man I had never heard of– Terry Laughlin– had written. I went to the library and checked out a copy. The minute that I started reading, I knew this was what I needed. But just reading the book wasn’t going to help me– I’m a visual person and I have to see someone doing something, or get in-person teaching to catch on. That’s when I discovered that there was going to be a TI workshop held in San Francisco not far from where I lived!
Naji Ali doing a training swim in Aquatic Park in San Francisco
To say I was initially confused and intimidated at my first TI workshop would be an understatement.
I was with about 20 people, all of whom– with the exception of me– had either average swimming skills, were triathletes, or were former competitive swimmers. At this workshop, I was coached by Coach Fiona Laughlin and Coach Dave Cameron. They showed me all the drills: Superman glide, right skate, left skate, torpedo drills into right skate and left… Well, you get the idea! I did my best to try to keep up, but the more they did my video analysis, the more I cringed. “What the heck have I done?” I said to myself. “I can’t swim. I’m never gonna learn to swim. The guy on the boat years ago was right.”
I should say that throughout this workshop, Coach Dave and Coach Fiona never had the negative attitude that I had about my learning process. They saw the positive that I couldn’t see. They focused on continuous improvement.
After the workshop was over, and I was left all alone to try and sort things out, I began going to the pool to do the drills. At first they were beyond frustrating; I rolled too far to stacked shoulders in skating, I wasn’t moving forward during Superman flutter, my head position was incorrect… Arrggghhh!
But instead of packing it all in and calling this a big scam, I decided to heed Coach Fiona’s advice. She said: “Just concentrate on two things at the pool, not five, just two. Give all your focus to those two throughout the whole practice.” So, that’s what I did, and over time I began to see small incremental improvements. No “aha” moments, but small baby steps. This went on for several months. Some days I would leave the pool feeling exhilarated, other days I was ticked off and ready to pack it all in. Luckily, by this time, I started following along on the TI blog site. I was able to voice my frustration and reach out to others for advice– one of them was Terry, who wrote: “Always make sure that you can focus on one thing that you did well at the conclusion of your practice, even if it’s just coming down to practice itself.” I kept remembering that and somehow I kept coming back and running the drills until I felt comfortable enough to try a lap or two of whole stroke.
I remember that day very vividly. There I was in the slow lane, adjusting my goggles, making sure my earplugs were in properly. I reminded myself to just concentrate on two things: “Don’t concern yourself with the others, just those two,” I said to myself.
What happened next is what made me a TI person for life.
I swam the entire length of the pool (33.3 yards) in 17 strokes! I looked back with my mouth agog: “What the heck was that?” I tried it again– same thing! Then again, ditto. After years of thinking about how the words of that man on the boat inhibited me from swimming, here I was, doing it with ease and enjoyment. This came because someone taught me a simple way to swim faster, easier, and with more enjoyment than I could have ever imagined.
To be honest, I’m not a fan of the pool and do most drills in the San Francisco Bay. But one thing that I have never wavered from is always concentrating on two things. TI has taught me how to be able to sense when something is just off in my stroke and correct it on the fly. The kaizen approach [lifelong, continuous improvement] that Terry spoke of so much is what has pushed me to learn to be a better swimmer and better person. More importantly, I have been truly blessed by the folks that I have met online and in person, over the years, who are TI enthusiasts and coaches. In particular, Coach Mandy McDougal and her father Coach Stuart McDougal have been instrumental in taking my swimming to the next level.
TI has been a godsend for me in many ways, as I’ve stated above, but the most important focus of TI for me is its emphasis on water safety. Remember back when that man on the boat said that Black folk don’t swim? He was right. According to the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Black children drown at a rate five times greater than that of White children. In fact, remember Cullen Jones, the Olympic Gold medalist I mentioned earlier? He nearly drowned when he was a toddler at a water park and look at him now!
Oh, don’t get me wrong– I know plenty of Black folk that swim. In fact, we’ve had a rich swimming history dating back thousands of years, but the ugly face of racism, discrimination and our own perceived fears of the water prevented generations from my community to learn water safety and the enjoyment of swimming.
But all of that is going to end in the future, if I have anything to say about it.
Let me tell you all something: I had the pleasure of meeting Terry in person back in 2009, when I hosted him for a day at The South End Rowing Club, where I regularly swim in open water. He was in town to do an advanced workshop. We spoke of my desire to become a TI coach and teach Black people to swim regardless of their ability to pay. I also spoke of my dream of training more Black people that want to learn to swim in open water. I can still see how his eyes lit up as he told me: “Naji, we have to make your dream a reality because it’s mine too.”
Terry, I promise one day it will be.
Naji attending a swim briefing at The South End Rowing Club
Naji Ali is a TI enthusiast based in San Francisco, CA with his wife Chrissy and their cat, Mrs. Chippy. He works at a soup kitchen and swims 5-6 times a week, year-round in open water. He is scheduled to swim the Santa Barbara Channel in 2019, from the mainland to Anacapa Island. If successful, he’ll be the first African American man to accomplish this. You can follow his thoughts and musings about being a marathon swimmer at his blog: https://adeadkennedy.wordpress.com
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!