The Distracted Swimmer

by Dean Ottati 1

May 01st, 2020 Lifestyle, Training

With the world shutting down, we’re reaching into our archives and pulling some of our favorite stories from the SwimSwam print edition to share online. If you’d like to read more of this kind of story, you can subscribe to get a print (and digital) version of SwimSwam Magazine here. This story was originally published in the 2017 College Preview edition of SwimSwam Magazine.

After six straight days of rain, a weak high-pressure system has parked itself on top of the San Francisco Bay Area, resulting in one of those January days with the rare form of midwinter warmth that makes you want to pause and say grace, at once cool and warm, the sun not threatening, and smogless skies. But it’s an arrangement that won’t hold. Far to the south and west, El Nino fueled storms are lining up for their landward march, making this a singular day to savor.

It’s noon and I’m standing on the edge of the pool deck, stretching, fiddling with my goggles, saying hello to other swimmers, anything to avoid jumping in the water. My mind wanders…

I couldn’t swim with my regular 6:45 practice group because I had an early call to the East Coast. The rest of my morning went about like this: email, interrupted by more phone calls, both landline and cell. Meanwhile, multiple instant messages popped up on my computer screen. Some friendly and conversational, “how are you doing,” some serious. and work related, “can you send me a copy of the spreadsheet with the business case?” Each received equal attention.   While multitasking, an already-read email message with an impatient question from my boss sat unattended because it seemed lackluster compared to what I might find in other unopened email. Next, I popped open the Web with its countless, spinning, dancing, blinking, multicolored and goodie-filled margins. I could reconnect with my high school friends on, get a great rate for refinancing my home, check out the top 10 movie stars that don’t have any talent.   I clicked over to see if there are any responses to my latest blog post, and scanned the headlines of a couple of newspapers. I finally got around to replying to that urgent email from my boss and then resumed my skimming, surfing, and low grade decision making. Interruption on top of interruption, until it came time to leave for noon workout…

Now, standing on the edge of the pool, a horrifying realization washes over me: I spent the majority of my morning in the land of the Lotus Eaters, transfixed by the limitless data flowing in my direction, forever chasing the next brightly colored shiny blinky thing. With my attention scattered in a thousand directions, I wonder where “I” disappeared to in the process. It was all so mindless and meaningless.

More than anything, I am my attention. So how could I let it go so freely? Why don’t I value it more? I value my skills, my body, my knowledge. But my attention? It is the heart of who I am, the seat of what there is inside me that can be called good and the only hope to exercise what one might call free will. How could I have let it wander without so much as a care? How do I bring it back? If I’m serious about wanting to bring my attention back, why do I keep finding excuses to not turn away from the stimulation? Could it be that I like my absence more than I wish for presence?

With this thought, I press my goggles into my eye sockets and dive in. It’s a shocking and cold crash of water, followed by the sound of bubbles rising, and then mostly quiet with muffled splashing noises in the distance. The quiet is nice, and the water feels simultaneously strange and familiar. I linger under the surface until my forward momentum gives way to a slow rise to the surface. I start swimming and take inventory. How do I feel? Is anything sore, fatigued? How is my energy? My breath? Does my stroke feel right? Do I feel fast? I’m suddenly present and attuned to my body and environment in a way I wasn’t a moment ago.

Zen masters have been known to whack their students with a stick to refocus their attention on the present moment. Every day, my plunge into the water is just such a whack…Wake up! Be present now!

I finish warm-up, 300 swim, 200 kick, 200 pull, and the team gathers at the wall for the first set. Twelve 50-meter long course swims. The set consists of 3 groups of 4. On numbers 1- 4, we are to descend the number of strokes we take. So on the first 50 I reach the wall in 37 strokes. Each successive 50 after that, I dolphin off the wall a little more, kick a little harder, try to pull a little more efficiently, bringing my stroke count down to a total of 34. On numbers 5 – 8, we are to descend the number of breaths that we take on each 50. So on number 5, I take 6 breaths, then 5, then 4, then 3. On the last four 50’s we are to keep our lowest stroke count, 34 in my case, and our lowest breath count, 3 for me, and hold those two things constant while we get faster on each one. To swim this set properly, I must know my stroke count, the number of breaths I take, and my time. It’s a lot to keep track of..

Today, the most accomplished practitioners in the skill of attention are the Buddhists. I’m often struck by how much the descriptions life in a Buddhist monastery mirror my years in the swimming pool.   The beginnings of Buddhist meditation practice are about minimizing outside stimulus, sitting in meditation, attending to one’s breath, constantly bringing back a wandering attention over and over again. In the process, through drills, repetition, and practice, a young monk develops capacities for judgment, character, will, wisdom, and compassion far beyond the normal reach.

Meanwhile, competitive swimming is about entering the sensory deprived world of a concrete box filled with water, staring at a tiled black line for long periods of time, counting laps, holding a breathing pattern, constantly monitoring for and attending to little imbalances in ones stroke. In the process, swimmers develop speed and endurance in the water far beyond the normal reach.

Consider this description of swimming by Ryan Lochte “the best American male swimmer not named Michael:”

Even though Lochte has been swimming since he was 9, he has not yet perfected his strokes. “I spend more time on stroke mechanics now than I ever have,” he said.

He also spends part of each practice slowing things way down.

“The only way to really work on technique is to swim very slowly and really think about every little thing that you’re doing,” he said. “How your body is positioned, what your hips are doing, the positioning of your shoulders and hands and feet.”

”I work a lot on staying high in the water, not fighting the water, moving with the water,” Lochte said.[1]

Now compare that description to this description of a walking meditation by Jack Kornfield, founding teacher of the Insight Meditation Society and the Spirit Rock Meditation Center:

“Select a quiet place where you can walk comfortably back and forth, indoors or out, about ten to 30 paces in length. Begin by standing at one end of this “walking path,” with your feet firmly planted on the ground. Let your hands rest easily, wherever they are comfortable…center yourself and feel your body standing on the earth. Feel the pressure on the bottoms of your feet…

“Begin to walk slowly. Let yourself walk with a sense of ease and dignity. Pay attention to your body. With each step feel the sensations of lifting your foot and leg off of the earth. Be aware as you place each foot on the earth. Relax and let your walking be easy and natural. Feel each step mindfully as you walk…”

“As with the breath in sitting, your mind will wander away many times. As soon as you notice this, acknowledge where it went…Then return to feel the next step. Like training a puppy you will need to come back a thousand times…in this simple way, [you can] begin to be truly present, to bring your body, heart and mind together as you move through your life.” [2]

If we had to pick just one thing to do to improve the quality of our lives, few choices would be better than daily exercise. Few would argue the physical benefit. But there may just be an aspect to swimming uniquely suited to deepen the voyage of our lives. …

Today’s load set consists of four rounds of a 100 followed by a 150, each on the same interval. The idea being that we are alternating a smooth swim with a very fast one. On rounds 5 and 6, we are to keep the same interval, but add an extra 150 to the end of each, making them 100-150-150. As I push through the set, I monitor my breath, feel the pulse of my heart inside my chest, swimming as fast as I can on the 150’s to make the interval, attempting to ride right up to the edge of anaerobic threshold without spilling over so I can finish the set. I work my turns and my streamlines, and by rounds 5 and 6, I focus on holding my stroke together as it falls apart under duress. The rest between my last two 150’s consists of an open turn. I finish, exhausted, leaning back in the water gasping for breath. As my heartrate settles, I reflect on the set and I realize the endless chatter that usually fills my skull, broadcasting my moods, fantasies, plans, regrets, opinions, and delusions, all ceased, and for a brief time there was just the swimming and the challenge of the set at hand…

Few topics these days are as trendy as mindfulness. It has reached such a level of hipness that it is now recommended as a cure to just about every ailment under the sun. Stressed? Anxious? Depressed? Broke? Sneezing? Want a promotion? Try mindfulness meditation…Maybe, but I’m not qualified to speak to all these claims. What I do know is an hour ago I started practice feeling scattered and diffuse, having spent my morning habitually distracted, drained of meaning.   Now I feel more collected and focused, closer to the person I aspire to be…

I swim one last easy 100 to warm down. I love watching the marbled reflection of sunlight dancing off the bottom of the pool. The thought occurs that perhaps there are things we swimmers should explore to more consciously and skillfully incorporate the powers of attention we develop in the pool as a kind of antidote to the chronic distractibility that has become the norm in modern life. After all, there are powerful economic interests that thrive precisely when we are driven to reactive distraction. Maybe we are giving up too much of ourselves without even knowing it, so perhaps we should work to level the playing field a bit…   But those are thoughts for another time. Right now, at the end of practice, I just want to enjoy the feeling of how good it is to be a swimmer. Especially one who has just finished practice…

[1] A Swimmer’s Different Strokes for Success, by Gretchen Reynolds. New York Times, March 20, 2008.

[2] A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield pp 66-67.

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2 years ago

Excellent piece.

About Dean Ottati

At various time in his life, Dean has been a summer rec swimmer, an AAU swimmer (yes, he is that old), a swim coach, a swim team director (social suicide through volunteerism), a meet director, a starter, an official, and just about everything else a swimmer/parent can be.  He currently …

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