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The (Re-) Education of a Competitive Swimmer


This is a guest post by TI Coach John Fitzpatrick, head coach of the Chicago Blue Dolphin swim instruction and fitness program.

I’d been a swimmer since early childhood, but I don’t feel like I started to understand swimming until the fall of 2000 when someone recommended I read Total Immersion:  The Revolutionary Way to Swim Better, Faster, and Easier.

Reading the book began a journey, which, before long, led to my becoming a TI Coach. TI taught me a new pain-free way of swimming, which I thought everyone should learn.

Birmingham MI, where I grew up, was kind of a swimming hotbed. I started lessons at age 3, and joined a swim team soon after. I continued through high school, specializing in backstroke and individual medley.

We trained in the usual way, doing long, intense workouts for months on end, then radically reducing volume and intensity over a week to 10 days. We endured constant fatigue and depressingly slow times for several months, in expectation of swimming much faster in a ‘tapered and shaved’ final meet.  Or so the theory went.

For me it seldom seemed to work that way and enduring the pain and tedium came to seem pointless. By the end of high school, I literally hated swimming and didn’t go near a pool for years after.

After graduating from the University of Michigan, I moved to Chicago for work in 1997. I joined a Masters team because swimming seemed like the sensible way to get back i shape and the team provided a great social outlet as well. I was soon back into a familiar training routine—attending four to five workouts per week, and chasing whoever was ahead of me in the lane.

But as the workouts picked up, my shoulders began to ache,  which eventually became searing pain on every stroke. When I told a friend how discouraging this was, he suggested I read the TI book. That was so eye-opening, I immediately read the 4-stroke TI book Swimming Made Easy

For the next five months, I didn’t so much as look at the pace clock. Instead I spent hours each week lap learning and refining drills from TI’s VHS tapes. I found myself absorbed by new sensations and distinctions I experienced in the drills, then applied in short, easy swims.

My Masters teammates thought I was crazy, but not only did my pain disappear (and has never returned) but for the first time in my life I was actually paying attention to how I moved through the water.

Among competitive swimmers, the idea of striving to feel good in the water is antithetical to an ethos that glorifies ‘pushing through pain barriers.’ Yet I found that feeling better translated into swimming better.

During all those years of hard training my freestyle stroke count was 18 to 19 strokes per length, at best. After learning TI, I swam  as fast as before—but much more easily–taking just 14 to 15 strokes per length.

I rejoined my Masters teammates in training and meets, and experienced far more success, despite reducing my training hours by 30 to 40 percent—to make time to coach at some of our workouts. My challenge was finding a way to incorporate what I’d learned from TI into  traditional interval workouts.

The less experienced swimmers had an immediate positive response to the TI drills I slipped in during warmups.  More advanced swimmers resisted the drills, so I resorted to what we call ‘Sneaky TI.’

I gave the interval repeats they craved–but included focal points and stroke counting. They still got their workout, but admitted that doing it with a concrete focus made it more enjoyable.

It dawned on me that, whereas traditional workouts usually amounted to little more than physical pounding, TI training—when applied in competitive-swimming framework—were actually a ‘rehearsal’ of the skills, strategies, and pacing that actually won races.  And, as Terry says: Training happened.

Twelve years as a TI coach have shown me that TI is a ‘holistic system.’ While those who simply learn the techniques swim more efficiently, those who take time to pursue the whole process, as I did, experience a farther-reaching transformation.

When you begin with ‘vessel shaping,’ then progress to refining and imprinting whole-stroke efficiency, you gain a foundation that sets you up for lifetime improvement.

When swimmers realize TI lessons aren’t the swimming equivalent of a flu shot, or simply a pro-forma exercise, they not only change movements, they also make behavioral and mindset changes that allow you to apply TI methodology to any task or goal.

For competitive athletes like myself and those I coach, this means gaining the ability to modify a generic workout to your own specific needs; and to focus on personal improvement priorities,  instead of racing and chasing lane mates.

As a coach, I strive to give my athletes a foundation of sound biomechanics, then train their physiology to support those mechanics at race speeds, counts, and tempos.

If you’re reading this and are just becoming acquainted with TI (and especially if your goals include performance-oriented swimming) I urge you to consider the process I followed. Allow yourself time to explore new sensations, and to measure your swimming by how good it feels, not by minutes and seconds. You’ll not only learn to love and understand swimming, but—over the long term–you’ll swim faster too.