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An excerpt from THE UNDERWATER WINDOW
A novel by Dan Stephenson
From the author:
In swimming, the real work is done underwater. If your over-water recovery is pretty, good for you, but it doesn’t mean you’re going fast. To fully analyze a person’s stroke you have to observe from underneath. In Chapter 8, a technique analysis through an underwater window shows Doyle something unique about his stroke that symbolizes his position in the universe.
—Dan Stephenson, author of THE UNDERWATER WINDOW.
Man was made to swim. Swimming is a natural sport, performed in harmony with nature.
There are those who say that if man was meant to swim, he would have been given great big flippers like dolphins, or gills like fish. There’s no question about it: man is not the best swimmer on earth. I’ve been swimming with all kinds of fish, sharks, seals and dolphins. It’s a humbling experience. With just the flick of a fin, they can leave you eating bubbles.
I almost drowned once. I was body-surfing in California, trying to catch the biggest wave I could. My favorite part of body-surfing is right when the wave curls and I’m at the top. At that moment, I’m on the edge of being thrown downward and thrashed by the wave, or riding just ahead of it at twice the speed of regular swimming. I’ve had plenty of both experiences. One time the wave sent me downward and crashed over me. Amidst all the turbulence, I couldn’t tell which way was up. I struggled in three different directions before I finally saw some sunlight through the water. I came up gasping, relieved, utterly in awe of the power of the wave. Then another one came and crashed on top of me.
The humbling, to me, is part of the harmony with nature. Man isn’t meant to be arrogant. Everyone has moments of arrogance, some more than others, and we don’t enjoy being humbled. But it’s part of the ride. The moments of triumph in life are best viewed in contrast to the humblings. Every swimmer who thinks he’s something special needs to swim with dolphins or ride the waves at Malibu.
There is another sense in which swimming and nature are in tune with each other. Swimming has symmetry, like nature. The arm and leg movements are balanced about the body’s centerline, the same amount of roll to each side. Swimming has a relentless rhythm, like the ocean waves, like the beating heart. One stroke after another after another, day after day. Swimming has a beauty, an artistry. I have heard it compared to ballet and poetry. It has rhyme and meter.
Swimming, like nature, also has a built-in decay mechanism. Things get old, slow down and die. Swimmers intentionally use every ounce of energy in a race and sputter in on fumes. That’s how the best swims are made. Oxygen debt produces lactic acid in the muscles, which degrades the ability to do more work. It can’t go on forever. In swimmer parlance, someone who is overcome with pain, slowing down and losing ground, is “dying.”
In swimming, as in nature, there is a great deal of order. The planets orbit the sun, the moon orbits the earth, and radishes grow from radish seeds. It’s predictable, measurable, quantifiable. Almost everything in swimming is mathematical, from times to distances to heart rates to stroke technique.
And yet, there is a little bit of chaos among all the order. Nature has its hurricanes, its mutations, its freaks. Swimming has turbulence, drag, missed turns, and fatigue. No one has the perfect stroke. No one has ever swum the perfect race.
The chaos keeps us wondering, searching. It keeps us on our toes.
Excerpted from THE UNDERWATER WINDOW © 2012 by Dan Stephenson. Excerpted with permission from the author. All Rights Reserved.