Total Immerssion-swim Like a Fish
My personal experience with this swimming phylosophy.
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I think God had a higher purpose in mind when He did not give humans the ability to fly or live in the water, for He planted in them an ardent desire for both. Since the beginnings of time, myths and legends bore testimony to this compulsion, which seemed to grow stronger by the day. Although it appears that we might have conquered the heavens, we are still in infancy as far as the water is concerned. We invented devices that can take us to “where no man has gone before”, n outer space that is, but we are yet to be successful in sending a human being or even a machine to the deepest depths of the ocean. However strange, we don’t know where the end of the universe is, or if there is one, but we are able to locate, via satellite, the deepest ocean crevice. While we are capable of receiving signals from other sides of the Great Blue Yonder, we are completely ignorant about what creatures are populating the darkest fathoms of the deep.
While on the subject of water, let’s not forget a swimming legend, later turned Hollywood star, Johnny Weissmuller. Better known to the millions of fans as “Tarzan, King of the Jungle”, Johnny Weissmuller broke time records in the twenties, during the Olympic Games in 1924 and 1928. It was believed that humanity would never see anybody else swimming as fast. Today’s performances however, are so much faster than even what Johnny could ever imagine of achieving. We actually reached a point where too much improvement would not be physically possible anymore. The human body is a wonderful machinery, but with limitations. Are these limitations going to finally turn swimming into a boring, “nothing new happening” type of sport? Maybe not. We still can chip away a few thousandths of a second here and there, but we have to use a different approach.
Until recently, we thought that the most important assets a swimmer could have were sheer force and body length. “Not so”, says Terry Laughlin, promoter of the “Total Immersion” method of swimming, “What is important is the most efficient use of the body in moving through the water, and creating the least possible resistance”. Everyone reading these lines may think “Big deal” as if Terry invented the wheel. Actually, they are right, Terry did not invent the wheel, but he certainly managed to make it rounder. Joke apart, nothing from what Terry says is new. As a matter of fact, according to his own statements, most of what he is teaching here, in this country, it’s been done in the Eastern European school of swimming for years. Terry just synthesized all these concepts, drawing the connecting line among them and ended up with Total Immersion, which is not only a swimming technique, but a better way of swimming.
My first encounter with TI was as indirect as it can be. A few years back, when my daughter was swimming with her first club, my wife was totally frustrated by the fact that no one was teaching the kids any swimming techniques. The main purpose of swimming, at that time, was to make the youngsters as fast as possible in the water, to arrive first at the finishing block and to get as many medals as they could. Unfortunately, that was the best way to burn out young swimmers, and to strongly motivate them to get out of the sport as soon as they had the opportunity to do so. Looking at the attrition rates, it seemed that the approach worked. We thought at that time, unfairly, that the coach cared more for earning a living than building a swimming success for those kids. Now, after going through a considerable number of coaches, we realized that a lot of them have the misconception that kids, in the beginning, have to swim fast and only fast, because techniques may be learned later. For some reasons, the coaching community appears to be content with the number of kids that make it to the top, while ignoring the alarming number of those who quit frustrated. They also lack the understanding for one basic element of teaching psychology, namely, whatever we learn from the start, is what it stays with us forever. For practical purposes, it is almost impossible to correct anything that was wrongly assimilated.
One of the unhappy parents from the old club, ran across a book written by a Terry Laughlin, who contended that swimming hard may appear great in the short run, but it is not as good for the swimmer’s future. Swimming smart is a different story. Our daughter was about eight when we bought the book and she became fascinated by it. She read it from cover to cover on her own. We continued talking about this subject for a number of years, but never did anything about it, until one day last spring, when we went scouting for a summer swimming camp.
At first, we asked other parents about their experiences with such camps. Some of them had been doing summer camps for quite a long time. While checking the web for different opportunities, we ran into TI’s ad about a summer session in Wisconsin. We previously called other places also, but were turned off by the fact that most of them did not accept the parents to participate together with their kids. Considering that our daughter was only eleven at that time and that the camp would have been her first such experience, we did not want to send her off alone. The only camp where parents were not only allowed, but strongly encouraged to attend was the Total Immersion. When I later interviewed Terry for this article, he mentioned to me that it was a good idea for the parents to be present not only for the moral support for their children, but also for understanding themselves this method of swimming and its advantages.
Terry Laughlin, a Political Science graduate, coached all levels of swimmers, from high school to national, and was even invited to the US Olympic Team. After some good years of coaching, he decided, in 1987, to start his own enterprise promoting this new swimming method. It must not be easy for a swimmer to admit his mediocrity, but Terry confessed to me that in his early youth and even college years, he did not show any promise for swimming. He truly liked to swim, and he was doing his best, but the harder he tried, the worse the results. In time, he realized that wasting effort was not the answer. That is why he spent the next years watching people and water animals, analyzing their motions in the water, trying to understand the secrets of swimming. The water is a funny medium. It can push you ahead, as well as it can make you miserable by stopping your advancement. One of the first things that Terry noticed was that slow and forceful strokes, together with as little splashing of the water as possible, resulted in a strong forward propulsion of the body. A hundred ton whale following its yearly migrating path covers thousands of miles at a pretty good speed. However, if one watches a movie of a speeding whale, one has the feeling that the camera person used slow motion. To obtain the same results, Terry encourages all his students to use few and powerful strokes.
Other important element of this method is the after movement effect, namely gliding. Most of the swimmers are totally neglecting this huge advantage offered to them just by moving through the water. The proper gliding could be what makes or breaks a race, in which a thousandth of a second is crucial. Terry likes to say that swimmers should “grow in the water”, by gliding ahead a few fractions of a second, when the body can take a little rest preparing for the next stroke. As a result of the water dynamics, the correct hand and leg movements create a vacuum that sucks the body, propelling it forward.
Terry had some records of his own in long distance swimming. Mind you, he was no longer a youngster at that time. He was an experienced person, who understood how to take advantage of what the water was so generously offering every swimmer.
In my discussion with him, Terry conceded that when he started TI, his first students were not young swimmers. Of course, we have to keep in mind that a swimmer in his or her late twenties is already considered old by this trade’s standards. In the beginning, Terry’s swimmers had problems with inefficient swimming. He liked to call them “egg beaters,” and I have to admit, that as cruel as it may sound, it is the best description for a lot of the swimmers today.
As far as his business is concerned, TI is a growing organization, with affiliates all around the United States. It is not a franchise yet, although Terry is working toward that goal. Total Immersion is organizing camps and workshops around the country using certified coaches.
The camp that our daughter attended was offered at the University of Wisconsin in Stevens Point.
The pool was a regular 25 yards facility. An important factor for us in choosing this camp was also the coach to student ratio. For every six students there was an instructor. The head coach was Dave Kaster, who outside TI was coaching the girls’ team of a high school in Green Bay. His aides were some of his present and former students, as well as some coaches certified by TI in teaching this particular method. The day was divided in two sessions. The morning was dedicated to freestyle and backstroke, classroom teaching as well as swimming practice in the pool. The afternoon session was conducted in the same way, but for butterfly and breaststroke. To our surprise, and to everyone not familiar with TI, the kids were not drilled on long distance or sprint swimming. The first day after the roll call, every kid was video taped using an underwater camera. The taping was done to establish a starting line for progress follow-up. After that, the kids were assigned to the coaches and moved straight into the lanes. Each coach supervised them very closely and corrected their strokes. The same routine happened for the rest of the days in the camp. Dave moved from lane to lane, taking turns in watching every kid.
During the afternoon sessions, he talked to the audience about each stroke, and the advantages of rotating the body, creating a perfectly dynamic shape to allow for gliding in the water. He also taught the campers respiratory exercises and relaxation techniques. Dave stressed the importance of not breathing after each stroke. Without mentioning the word, Dave was teaching the kids basic yoga concepts. The campers also learned about the good habit of setting goals. He emphasized the paramount importance of discussing these goals together with their coaches. That was the only time when all the campers, who did not know each other beforehand, acknowledged to Dave in unison that their coaches never took the time to study, analyze, or discuss their goals with them.
Our daughter has been practicing Total Immersion swimming since last summer. It was very difficult for her at the beginning. Right after the camp, we went to a meet in Kentucky. She was as confused as she could be, but decided to stay with it. Of course, her performance was not the greatest, but her style began to improve. She was slow, because she was concentrating on the right moves. A few months later, people at our club started to notice the change. She is still slow compared to the fast swimmers in the group, but she is determined to make this technique work. The truth of the matter is that she may seem slow, but her speed is increasing. Her endurance during the practice is considerably higher. One of her coaches mentioned only the other day, that when he counted her strokes, he realized that she took the same number of strokes as he did. The only difference is that our daughter is almost half his size and definitely half his weight. It is very hard for her to see her teammates racing, but she is committed to become very proficient. At the last Olympic games, some of the best medalists displayed a Total Immersion type swimming. They all looked extremely good.
I never met Terry Laughlin personally, I only spoke with him over the phone. He gave me the impression of being a very laid back person, with a mild and very pleasant voice. He seemed to be the total opposite of a regular coach, who at times could be mistaken for a used car salesman, with a loud voice and fast gestures. I have the feeling that people joining his organization display the same easy going characteristics and mild manners, which I believe is a great plus. This kind of swimming technique would probably not make a perfect match with an aggressive personality.
Before I conclude, for anyone interested, Total Immersion has a web site to which we provide a link. Their address is http://totalimmersion.net A complete list of camps and seminars offered is also posted. Their camps and seminars are not as expensive as one might think and I have to admit they are well worth it.