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Health > On the MoveSpring 2012 IS Magazine

Of Mermaids, Manatees, and Masters

Reconnecting with my inner swimmer.

By Paula Bender

When I was pregnant with my first child in the very hot summer of 1999, I took advantage of a lap pool, where I enjoyed my buoyancy and felt more like a mermaid than a manatee. I was at home in the water, which was a wet refuge from a lumbering pregnancy.

I learned how to swim when I was 3 years old, grew up swimming competitively, and was a certified Red Cross lifeguard as a teen. But it had been a while since I dipped my big toe into a pool, tucked my curls into a swim cap, or wore a racing suit. It had been a while since I tucked my body into a flip turn and pushed myself off the wall underwater, like a bullet leaving a trail of bubbles in her wake. I missed all that.

I enjoyed it as a kid and when I got pregnant, and I enjoy it today. So I recently joined a masters swimming program. Masters is for anyone over 18, but I think it’s really for former swim-team members who want to cling to their cut-throat, competitive youth.

Swimming is a full-body, zero-impact workout. When a woman reaches 50, her metabolism seems to indicate that she needs to fatten up for hibernation. I decided it was time to get in touch with my inner swimmer.

It wasn’t fun pulling on a swimsuit for my first masters swim practice, but I had assessed my physique and decided it needed some serious assistance.

My advice: Be brave. Once in the pool, the watery distortion hides bulgy sins. Arms and legs remember how much they enjoy the rhythm of the swim. Memories of every swim team coach, pacing alongside the pool’s edge and demanding more effort flash by. My coaches are demanding, but they don’t holler at me like I’m a kid with a title in the balance.

Swimming is new again. Although I was content with my form, my coaches, brothers Joe and Tom Lileikis, informed me that swimming had evolved in the more than 30 years since I swam competitively. They shot videos to show me how I looked and what to improve.

Did you know that instead of paddling with your arms going in the water above your head, it is more efficient to paddle with them a little bit wider, at 11 and 1 on an analog clock? In the water, we’re now told to look straight down, which naturally causes the lower body to flatten onto the surface instead of dragging below. We’re now taught to turn the head to breathe when that side’s thumb sweeps past the thigh. As the head turns back into the water, the arm snaps up and into the drink. I have finally figured out how to comfortably breathe on both sides, which is ideal for rough-water swims and for watching the shoreline.

The benefits of adding a swimming component to an exercise regimen are innumerable. Swimming works the entire body, tones the skin, and helps improve the cardiovascular system. The methodical sessions are contemplative, great for working through a problem. And of course, nothing feels better than the end of a workout. You just have to dip your big toe in the pool. Be brave.

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