Coach Frank told me this morning, during a fairly awkward 3500-yd workout in the pool after my 10 days in Maine, that my freestyle breathing was a little off. He wants me to angle my head farther forward, exhale sooner while my face is underwater, and breathe forward, while reaching down and out with my right arm. Right now I’m a bit cock-eyed, with my left arm plunging ahead and my right never quite catching up.
He also said that, as I sit just under 8 weeks out from the Bermuda swim, that improving my breathing is the biggest change I can make in my swimming before the race.
Breathing in the water is the key point, the thing we mammals can’t really do that well, the thing that reminds us we’re not well-suited to the water. Turning my head, and following it with the trunk of my body, every stroke or three impedes my forward thrust. When it’s working, I get a decent side to side action along the keels of each side of my ribs. But it doesn’t always work, esp when I’ve been out of the pool for a week or so.
Thinking hard about breathing while swimming reminds me of a great Ozzie novel, Tim Winton’s Breath (2008), set in the wild surf country of Western Australia. It’s a rich, moving, intense story of physical danger and the lure of the ocean, following two friends, Picklet and Loonie, who compete at holding their breath underwater and then end up surfing remote breaks with sharks and a mysterious American surf-loner. It takes an odd but moving turn toward other kinds of asphyxiation in its second half, in sexual games and, eventually, in Picklet’s adult career as an emergency medic. An exhausted, deeply felt melancholy broods over the second half of the novel.
But at its center is a hymn to surfing as a way of being-in the world ocean that’s as gorgeous as any I’ve read —
I will always remember my first wave that morning. The smells of paraffin wax and brine and peppy scrub. The way the swell rose beneath me like a body drawing in air. How the wave drew me forward and I sprang to my feet, skating with the wind of momentum in my ears. I leant across the wall of upstanding waters and the board came with me as though it was part of my body and mind. The blur of spray. The billion shards of light. I remember the solitary watching figure on the beach and the flash of Loonie’s smile as I flew by; I was intoxicated. And though I’ve lived to be an old man with my own share of happiness for all the mess I made, I still judge every joyous moment, every victory and revelation against those few seconds of living. (35)
Losing and not-quite recovering that youthful joy structures the novel, for Picklet and Loonie and for the American couple Sando and Eva. The final image of the novel returns to Picklet as a 50-year old divorced surfer with slightly opaque relationships with his two daughters and his former self, but still aesthetically connected to moving salt water —
My favourite time is when we’re all at the Point, because when they see me out on the water I don’t have to be cautious and I’m never ashamed. Out there I’m free. I don’t require management. They probably don’t understand this, but it’s important for me to show them that their father is a man who dances — who saves lives and carries the wounded, yes, but who also does something completely pointless and beautiful, and in this at least he should need no explanation. (218)
It’s the sort of thing that makes an old swimmer like me want to take up surfing.
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