I had the opportunity to be an absolute beginner again! I was fortunate enough to flee the United States at the end of 2020 to Australia and hide for a few months with my Husband’s family. I am hugely grateful.
During this escape I was concerned about maintaining my physical strength and stamina. I hoped to be proactive and fully utilize my time in this environment. Primarily to learn about the powerful and awe-inspiring beaches of New South Wales.
Sydney is famous for its epic ocean activities, as seen on the show “Bondi Rescue,” and a popular lifestyle of many Australians includes water safety and membership in the Surf Life Saving Volunteer clubs of the Northern Beaches. The first level of entry into the S.L.S. clubs is the “Bronze Medallion”. I figured this was the absolute perfect goal to set for myself. The only problem was, I didn’t know how to swim.
I love the water. I happily play in water. I can tread water. But I can’t get from point A to point B in a specific amount of time. And I absolutely had no idea what “Freestyle” swimming was. I had a lot to learn.
So I set out this year, on January 30th, with my first swim session. I got some old goggles, a Speedo swimsuit on sale, one of those tight fitting stretchy caps and basically went swimming at a nearby pool, everyday.
I immediately felt the thrill of learning a new activity, the caress of water across my movement and the buoyant feeling of flying. Not so different from partner dancing only in this case, the water was my partner to push and pull against. At the same time came the frustration of how slow I was, how weak, my awkward, over-thinking coordination of arm strokes and the panic of when and how to breath.
It occurred to me multiple times, “Wow, this is how it feels to be a beginner again”. A few key things stood out which I will remember firmly going forward as a teacher and a student.
1) The Beginner’s mind usually rushes ahead, impatiently jumping to the next step without fully gaining the needed skills to progress. Even though I knew I needed to practice my posture, or breathing, or just one arm at a time, I found myself throwing it all together and then tiring myself out in frustration. Being patient with the time it takes to develop one skill before moving onto the next was really hard. I had to sometimes think of it as a meditative experience where you really have to be present right where you are, doing what you’re doing, not thinking about the next bit. I find that extremely similar to when I’m partner dancing.
2) You have got to focus on one thing at a time. I was flopping around, losing the time to breathe, twisting my back, legs sprawled and this made my mind race, it caused fear which tightened my chest, and nothing improved. It wasn’t until I found Linda, the phenomenal teacher of Goodswim Manly, that I was given specific exercises which strengthened and focused on one thing at a time. Linda guided me to work in the correct order, doing the first necessary steps of motion, to then be ready for the next. As a teacher for Lindy Hop I completely understood Linda’s request and appreciated her approach. Knowing what to work on first is critical to smoother, faster progress.
3) Set small, bite size, achievable goals. Now this is a bit of a joke because my entire idea to learn how to swim and somehow miraculously become strong enough, fast enough and gain ocean skills in such a short time frame is laughable. But never mind, this is what I learned. I had to break up the final goal into small, little goals to make progress. For example, just learning to breathe correctly was a win! Then just doing two or three arm strokes with correct breathing was amazing! Then when I actually made it halfway down the pool that was reason to celebrate. And finally, swimming a whole lap gave me the ability to imagine eight laps. But there is no way I could have fathomed swimming eight laps, 400 meters, without the smaller steps first.
4) Be kind to yourself. I think that’s easier said than done. I got into the harsh habit of being really hard on myself (which goes back to number one with my impatience) and I would mentally talk myself down. Even though I was supposed to be focusing on one thing at a time and bite size goals, my brain knew how far I had to get and was usually criticizing my efforts. This was no fun. I ended up journaling after every single swim session to write down what I had worked on, what I had learned and what I wanted to remember. It’s pretty cool reading back over it. Appreciating the growth is really something that can not be seen until you have some perspective.
The Bronze Medallion training course consisted of six Saturdays. The first week, February 20th, I completed my First Aid certification. The remaining weekends were supposed to be scenarios for water rescue and ocean experience. But we missed out on three of the remaining weeks due to bad weather, closed beaches and unsafe surf conditions. So I didn’t get as much ocean experience as I was hoping for. But I kept up my swimming safely in pools.
On March 27th, I completed the course! The most difficult part was doing a Run – Swim – Run, where you have to run 200 meters on the beach, then immediately jump into open ocean and swim out and back 200 meters, and then (cause you’re not tired yet) run another 200 meters all under nine minutes. Well . . . as I said, I completed it, but I did not come in under 9 minutes. And you know what, I am totally OK with that. I went from Zero to . . . . A whole new survival skill set! I was really proud of this accomplishment and so grateful for the experience.
Remembering what it’s like to be a total beginner again was a wonderful and humbling way to look back at the way I teach dance and will help me to better welcome new people who are brave enough to jump in.