Learning something new

(This post is a day late and very long)

When I was 10 years old, my family moved from Shillong to Kolkata (then known as Calcutta). As is the norm, my parents went hunting for a suitable school for me and finally decided to put me in M.P.Birla Foundation HS School. Besides the usual criteria like – proximity to residence, good teaching staff, reputed management etc., the other factor that apparently favored in the decision making was that the school would be providing facilities to learn ‘swimming’ and ‘horse-riding’. Unfortunately, the same year was the first year of operation of the school and things took time to sort out. Eventually I passed out after 6 years and the two above mentioned coveted activities never happened. I haven’t visited my Alma mater in a long time and am not sure how things stand at present.

Getting me to learn swimming was high on my parents’ list, but given that there were no pools in a radius of 10 kilometers and our individual study/work schedules were grueling the idea was promptly dropped (or rather never brought up again). However, I had it in my balti-list and this year I decided to literally test the water and step in. And for that one needs a swimming dress. I chose a bad day/time to go hunting for one. It was a saturday afternoon and all the sports shops on M.G. Road were closed for siesta. Finally we (I+knowledgeable-crowd-about-swimming-dresses) located one shop that was open and I got myself a military green dress and a rang-birangi vibgyor cap. Next up was getting a membership, so off I was dragged to the gymkhana by pjp to get me enrolled for the swimming classes.

All administrative trivia done, next day I land up at the poolside for my big party. Since I am blind beyond 10 centimeters without my glasses, the locker room lady was kind enough to show me to the pool and introduced me to the coach. The first day the coach told me to dunk my head in the water and taught me how to breathe. Thats when I realised that the most common mistake people do while falling into water is that they open their mouth and try to breathe with their nose and as a result they gulp water in all possible wrong ways. I had done that a week back when I had jumped into water at a team outing. Initially I could not hold my breath for too long, but coach was relentless and he made me practise for one long hour. Since it was early-February and I was not used to spending so much time submerged in water, especially late in the evening, I started getting cold. Thankfully coach let me off for the day. Once out of the pool, I was faced with an even greater challenge – to find the way back to the locker room. After a couple of false starts, I managed to end up in the proper locker room. The breathing routine continued for another 2-3 days, by which time I also started to float a bit by hanging onto the railings for dear life.

Next up, was gliding. Here I have to mention that the pool is about 4’6” deep and considering my height its a pretty scary depth to be submerged in when one doesn’t know how to keep oneself afloat. Gliding was fun. I had to keep my arms straight, breathe and push myself off into the water to float until my breath gave up. The feeling of floating, was liberating. In whatever little way, I was finally in control of my body. However, I needed more practise and coach packed me off to the smaller pool to do it by myself. Another time another place, maybe I would have been embarrassed at this demotion, but in this case I was actually quite happy for two reasons – I won’t get scared because the depth was less and I could develop and practise a convenient personal spin off technique for a considerably longer period of time, without assistance. Coach kept popping on and off to give me tips about posture, breathing etc. And each day he would fish me out of the smaller pool and make me glide again in the bigger pool. One of the important things I learnt around this time was the technique to get into a standing position unassisted. This boosted my confidence as I now knew how to bring myself back into a safe position whenever I needed to.

So the day came when, I started working on a stroke. The breast stroke is the preferred one for beginners here and the first thing one is made to learn is how to move the legs. 1-2-3 the way a tadpole moves. For the next 5-6 days I was put on a glide+tadpole-legs routine. Again I was bundled off to the junior pool for practise practise and then practise some more. Seeing my predicament, one little kid (expert swimmer if I may add) came by and after a closer look at my faltering movement sagely said ‘Aunty, you are moving your back too much‘. In another couple of days, coach handed me a flotation device that would help me learn to lift myself out of the water, breathe and then continue moving forward while maintaining a steady tadpole movement. By this time, I bid goodbye to the junior pool.

I was pretty happy floating in and out with this flotation device, until one fine day coach swooshed past me and snatched it away from my hand. He showed me how to disperse water by using an outward movement of the arms and lift myself out of the water to breathe. For two days I struggled to do one complete stroke without faltering. I gulped water everytime I tried and could not keep myself afloat whenever I tried to lift my head out to breathe. I traversed the entire breadth of the pool.. half walking half gliding and struggling all the way. And then one day, I managed to stay afloat for two complete strokes. I was so surprised that I gulped down some more awful tasting water. Coach grinned back at me and I restarted practise. I started swimming the breadth of the pool (~25 mtrs) with a couple of breaks in between. And one day I simply kept going and reached the other end. I had started timing myself and eventually I cut it down by a minute to complete each lap in 2 minutes. Its probably pretty bad by normal standards.

Last week, coach graduated me to move onto the length of the pool. The first day was a little scary. Every time I lifted my head out of the water to breath, I saw the long expanse of the water ahead of me. I was trying to figure out how to hold onto my energy levels so that I don’t take too many breaks while completing a lap. Also I ran the added risk of getting cramped in the leg, a problem that had been bothering me a couple of weeks back. On the second day, with each lap the number of breaks came down, from around 4 to 1. Eventually, I completed a full 50 mtr lap! Twice over! The final triumph in that level. I felt like putting out a spot for a McDonald’s celebration ad campaign.

Everyday in the pool probably someone completes their own personal goal and no one ever notices in the crowd. Its a source of immense joy and cannot be contained within oneself. Grinning in my head I walked back to office and shared it outright with a couple of folks who I knew would add to the joy with their words of honest encouragement. I had promised myself a blog for the day I completed a pool length lap and this is just that, albeit a day late.

I went back to the pool today and ran a total of 10 laps, 5 of which were complete laps done in ~5 minutes each. Before I move onto the advanced coaching next week, I am trying to gain some speed on my current stroke to cut down on the time for each lap. Considering the fact that my mother and father were both pretty good swimmers, I am counting on my genes a bit to help me ahead with this.

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