Last month, in the blog Cancer as Opportunity, I related examples of how I’ve used instances of illness or injury to become a better swimmer. In the instances I described, the cited condition had put a significant dent in my speed and stamina and/or greatly limited my ability to train. Aging has the same effect. Illness or injury simply speeds up that process greatly—if temporarily.

When that has occurred, I viewed the situation as an opportunity to take a problem-solving approach, replacing physical capacity with a higher level of skill, something that prepares me for the losses that come with aging.

I wrote that I would be swimming a 1650y freestyle race on Dec 11, an event in which I swam my lifetime best of 18:02 at age 20. At age 55, I swam it in 19:50, adding only 1 min 48 sec from what I’d done 35 years earlier.

But my decline has become far more precipitous since, especially in the year since my cancer diagnosis. Last March, I swam the 1650 in 23:10. Though it was a ‘lifetime slowest’ I considered it the best swim of my life, all things considered. I described that swim in the blog 1390 Seconds of Unwavering Focus.

In that lifetime best/lifetime slowest swim, I added 3 min 20 sec, far more in nine years than I’d added in the previous 35 years.

Last Sunday I had another swim in which I take great pride, finishing in 25:57.6, remarkably close to what I’d estimated I could do, demonstrating how well I know myself.

Though I added just under 3 min in the past nine months, I’m enormously proud of this swim because of how I performed in challenging circumstances. After only 600 yards—with 42 laps (and flip turns) to go–I was already feeling quite breathless after each turn. It hurt enough that I considered doing open turns in a race for the first time in 50 years.

Instead I deepened my focus on stroke and turn technique, finding a way to relax slightly more and still maintain my pace. It didn’t hurt any less; I just didn’t have any available bandwidth to focus on discomfort, since I was devoting every brain cell to my stroke and turn form in an effort to maintain my pace.

When I hit the touchpad and saw 25:57 displayed for my lane I allowed myself a little celebration since it was an Adirondack Masters record for the 65-69 age group. And almost immediately I began thinking of how to go faster in the next few months.

In the Cancer as Opportunity post I stated that there are almost limitless opportunities in swimming to improve a performance, with little or no change in fitness. In every practice repeat, there are many mini-skills to hone. Your time for a 1650-yard/1500-meter/mile swim is the product of whether you’ve exploited those opportunities.

I cited breathing and turns as two great examples of areas that can be improved by specific focus. In my 1650 I took about 560 breaths and did 65 flip turns. And the greatest challenge I faced was breathlessness caused by turns!

In the heat immediately following mine, I counted laps for my friend Lou Tharp—he had also counted for me. My daughter Fiona filmed the last few laps of my race and the first few of Lou’s. While watching the video, I noticed that Lou breathed to his right coming out of each turn then breathed immediately to his left on the next stroke, continuing to breathe left the rest of the lap.

By not taking his first breath to the left, he traveled another yard or two coming out of the turn. By breathing on consecutive strokes, he compensated for the breath-holding one must do during a flip turn and pushoff.

I immediately recognized that as a skill I could practice and hone—it’s a great challenge to hold a straight line out of the turn and maintain good form while breathing on your first two strokes. I committed to practicing it until I did it well.

Last night, in just my third practice since seizing on this problem-solving opportunity I swam 3 rounds of 3 x 100 free repeats in an average pace of 1:30 and 60 strokes—five seconds faster and about 6 strokes fewer than I averaged during the race, and a considerable improvement on my training swims before I introduced this tweak to my repeats.

This is one small example of Kaizen. Nearly 50 years after swimming my first 1650, I’m experimenting with a significant change in how I come out of my flip turns on each lap, and seeing it pay off in measurable improvement to my practice.

I believe I can knock another minute off that record in the next few months. I’ll let you know how I do.