FEEL THE viscosity of the water, coach Kyle Johnson urged as I swiveled side to side in the outdoor pool at Somerset Recreation Club in Bellevue. Notice how the water moves off your body; let the water slide off you.
I felt like I’d entered some aquatic alternate universe that had nothing to do with swimming.
This was a good thing. I’ve never liked swimming. Hey, I don’t like getting wet.
But I figured even if I was not triathlon-bound, I could still learn something from Johnson, an accomplished triathlete and Eastside-based coach.
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After an hour with Johnson working on my crawl, I have seen the liquid light. Swimming rules.
The root of my dislike was my approach. I was forcing my way through each swim, wasting energy and fighting the water. Water always wins.
Johnson’s approach is based on sensation rather than the more traditional instruction based on form. Most triathletes who come to him used online videos to learn form.
The real challenge for most of them is emotional. In open water, it’s cold, they can’t see the bottom, they get anxious and panic. He focuses on getting them comfortable in a watery environment.
He first had me freestyle swim across the pool to warm up. I was soon out of breath and thought crossly that swimming is hard. And cold. Johnson had me stand, hold my ribs and breathe deeply, concentrating on the exhale. We did this several times, and he told me to pay attention to my breath for each lap.
Next, I hung face down in the water in the deep end, muscles and joints loose. Most triathletes are lean, tight in the shoulders and hips, and their legs tend to hang vertically down toward the pool. The same happened to me.
Johnson wants athletes to get a feel for the natural buoyancy of lungs and the heaviness of your pelvis and neck, where gravity pushes down on the body in the water. That’s where most swimmers lose their form.
Next, he had me concentrate on lengthening my neck, stretching through my head as I swam. He told me to feel like I was moving my legs from my tummy so my legs undulated like a “tree branch,” rather than kicking in a disconnected fashion. He doesn’t use the word “kick” when coaching.
I tried to feel my core. Sometimes I sputtered, doing everything at once.
It was time for the alligator. Johnson had me lower myself into the water with my mouth open until it was halfway submerged. He told me to breathe through my mouth. This exercise helps you not panic when water gets in your mouth while breathing. A-ha! The next lap was much calmer.
After that, Johnson had me work on curving my arm up through the water.
During the next lap, I focused on that. Apparently, my stroke changed. I also used fewer strokes to get to the other end of the pool, Johnson said.
Lastly, we did dolphin jumps up into the air and down to the bottom of the pool, then back up again to get a sense of momentum and speed.
Johnson said his main goal is to get triathletes out of their own way. “I remove the clutter and get them back into their body.”
Yes, we were in an outdoor pool; the next step would be to do the same exercises in open water.
I discovered I was wrong about swimming. My body likes water. I can’t wait for my next swim.
Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Benjamin Benschneider is the Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.