Shouts from the Stands: From a swim mom to a swimmer

by SwimSwam 3

April 27th, 2015 Lifestyle, Masters, Opinion

SwimSwam welcomes reader submissions about all topics aquatic, and if it’s well-written and well-thought, we might just post it under our “Shouts from the Stands” series. We don’t necessarily endorse the content of the Shouts from the Stands posts, and the opinions remain those of their authors. If you have thoughts to share, please [email protected].

This “Shouts from the Stands” submission comes from Stina Oakes:

Four years ago my family joined Daleview Pool, our neighborhood swim club. We did it on a whim; a friend told us we should, that it was an amazing, supportive community and a good family activity, and so we joined. My daughter signed up for the swim team and fell in love with the sport. Before I knew it, we were hooked. We became a swim family.

I quickly became a full-fledged swim mom: driving cars of girls to and from practices and meets, cheering on the side during the races, celebrating when they did well, and consoling when they didn’t. I learned to speak “swim.” I knew all about lane placements, seed times, heats, intervals, sets, drills, DQs. Throughout it all, though, I couldn’t do the one thing I wanted – I couldn’t actually swim.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I could swim. Sort of. I could manage to get from one end of the pool to other other. It wasn’t graceful and it wasn’t a “legal” stroke by any definition (I might have even been DQ’d from free). I took the requisite lessons as a kid, but could not remember ever having been able to actually swim. Sure, I passed the swim test at my summer camp, Camp Calumet in the lakes region of NH, but it involved me stealthily touching the mucky bottom of the pond and pulling on the ropes. Besides, who really swims in NH? The weather rarely is hot enough for a day at the pool and the water is always cold.

At my daughter’s practices and meets I watched the swim team kids dive into the water with confidence. They were strong, determined, focused, and powerful. All things I am in other parts of my life, but not with athletics. I’m the person who when my husband tosses the keys to me, I back up to let them fall in front of me rather than attempt to catch them. I’ve never been athletic. When it comes to anything physical, I’d rather fail than try. And I was good at failing.

There wasn’t a moment where I had an epiphany and decided I was going to learn to swim. Instead, it was a slow progression; I signed up for lessons. At my first lesson I almost backed out – I wasn’t feeling well, the sitter canceled last minute, it was too cold. But I sucked it up and repeated what I’ve told my kids countless times: you only have to try.

That first lesson I was embarrassed and awkward. I tugged at my swimsuit and kept readjusting my goggles. I had spent the last two years watching other people swim – surely I could do it, too. Instead, my stream line was a disaster. I didn’t know anything about arm placement and my kick barely had any power. The instructor was encouraging and positive, but I felt defeated. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t know it would be this hard.
I stuck with it for the initial five lessons, but as soon as they were over, I gave up. It was too hard to get to the pool regularly to practice. I had a cold that wouldn’t go away and resting would cure it. I had too much work to do. I’ve got a lot going on: three kids and a full time job as a university professor. Any excuse I managed to come up with wouldn’t have been that unrealistic. And I came up with endless excuses.

Something made me try again, though. This time I roped my twelve-year-old daughter into helping me. We went to the local pool and we worked. The Piney Branch Pool is in an elementary school so it was normal to have little kids splashing around and playing near me. At the same time we practiced, a Stroke and Turn Clinic was in session so I’d often have little kids lap me. I’m still not sure if that was as motivating as I’d like to think it was.

Through it all, my daughter stayed focused and told me what to do. She watched me, and then corrected me. She stood on deck, looking down at me as I attempted to remember and do all the things she told me. Reach your arms out more. Keep your core up. Look down at the line. Slowly I could swim a length of the pool. It wasn’t easy or pretty, but I could do it. I learned breast stroke, then back. It was rough, but I did it. And, I kept going back to it.

During one of those mother-daughter practices I was working on my back stroke kick. I was kicking as hard as I could, yet not moving. My daughter stood at the side of the pool, watching me. I stopped, stood up, and said, “I can’t do it. I’m not going anywhere.” She looked at me with a determination and seriousness I had never before seen from my thoughtful, compassionate girl, and said, “Mom, you can do it if you think you can. So do it.” So I did.
It’s taken a lot of effort and grit to get me where I am now. I’ve joined my swim club Master’s program (Masters just means we’re old, not “masters”). I’m the slowest in the slow lane. In no way am I a great swimmer, but I can do a 50 free without stopping. I can do a flip turn, but not while I’m actually swimming yet – I need that extra second of recovery and breath at the end of the lane to make it back to the other side. But I can do it. I could more than pass that camp swim test now. I’m even beginning to have brief moments where I actually enjoy what I’m doing, when things click into place, and I see why people fall in love with it. Granted, those moments don’t happen very often, but when they do, all the hard work and effort seem to make sense.

I hesitate to say I’m a swimmer. While I can do the strokes and make it from one end of the pool to the other, I’m nowhere near where I want to be yet. I’m still working on the fundamentals.

At the beginning of every Masters practice I have to remind myself how far I’ve come, that I can make it through another session. I pull my swim cap on, tighten my goggles, and lower myself into the water. I take a deep breath and push off the wall. In the seconds when my body takes over and I glide through the water, I get it.

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Gary P
8 years ago

Nice story! Stick with it, it will get easier.

8 years ago

Welcome to the ups and downs of swimming! I gotta say, I was nowhere near as patient and selfless with my own mom when I was 12 years old. Your daughter may have a future in coaching.

8 years ago

Congratulations on learning to swim, Stina! Like many things in life, it’s a LOT more difficult to learn to swim as an adult! 🙂