In at the deep end

With the winter nights drawing in and my cycling becoming limited I decided back in September to try to swim more often. With my desire to get into more triathlons in 2013 it seems like a good way to keep fitness up.

I’ve always been a swimmer. I started club swimming when I was just 7 or 8 with Houghton Regis Swimming Club, competing in various local galas, club championships and the occasional county level meet. When I went to senior school I stopped club swimming but continued regular training and competing for the school. My speciality was backstroke but I was decent at all four strokes so also ended up doing individual medleys.

Whilst I was technically good and at the level I was at able to get the odd win, I was never good enough to progress to the next level which would have involved a far greater dedication to training. When I went to university I went to a couple of training sessions but soon gave swimming up in favour of more usual student pursuits! Up until now my swimming has been limited to the odd trip to the pool, an abortive attempt to get into masters swimming when I lived in Southampton and a couple of Swimathon challenges.

After the HSV Sprint Tri in September I contacted the St. Albans Masters Swimming Club and arranged to go along to a Monday evening training session. It went well, although I had to drop down a lane halfway through due to lack of stamina. I soon joined up and have been to one session a week since (though I want to pick that up to two.) The sessions are well structured with a coach present, and it is good to do more specific work than just plodding up and down for an hour. It’s also a motivation to be swimming with others of similar or better ability.

One other motivation for joining was to see if there was any possibility of competing again. I have great memories of galas from my club and school days. The warm up; nerves as your races get near; focussing before the start; exploding off the blocks and, most of all, the pain!

Fortunately my chance to compete came quickly, and this Saturday evening saw me line up as part of the STAM B squad at the Herts Senior League meet in Bishops Stortford. I was pencilled in to do the Men’s 25+ 50m backstroke and the Men’s 25+ Medley Relay. Even though I am 37 I was swimming in the 25+ rather than 35+ category primarily because the 35+ category is particularly strong in our club. In fact, our A team was partially composed of recent National Masters champions and European record holders!

My B race for the backstroke saw me line up with two other swimmers. From watching other races it was clear that the standards in B races differed wildly, but given I was racing people as much as 12 years younger than me I just planned on having as good a race as possible. My one concern was the backstroke turn. I grew up being coached with the old style of turn where you stay on your back the entire time. Only in the last couple of years of my school swimming did the current style where you can flip onto your front and tumble turn come in. I was never coached it and when I tried it in school events it was not unusual to get a disqualification. The trick is judging the right point to flip onto your front. Too early and you can be DQ’d for either needing an extra pull, gliding or not touching the wall with your feet. Too late and you hit the wall with your heels or worse head! In either case you don’t get a good push off the wall. In training sessions I’d been practicing and maybe got it right 50% of the time. However it is difficult to do a lot of practice at full race pace.

I wasn’t worried about my start which has always been pretty good, and I got a decent start in the race, dolphin kicking underwater for about 6 kicks before flutter kicking to the surface at about 10m. A 50m is then basically about power whilst trying to keep as efficient a technique as possible. On the first length I couldn’t see either of my competitors. Passing under the flags I counted four strokes then turned and hoped the wall was there… which it was! The turn went perfectly and on surfacing I could see the splashes of the guy in my inside lane about a body length behind me. Now it was just a case of powering for all the second length, right into the wall. I managed to get a pretty good touch into the wall, I definitely couldn’t have got another stroke in, and knew I’d beaten the guy on the inside. A glance to the outside lane saw the other guy still halfway down the pool so I’d won!

The old feeling of elation came right back to me, as well as the feeling of needing to throw my guts up from the effort. I asked the timekeeper for my time, which was 36 point something seconds so not actually particularly fast but a good benchmark to work from. Team mates on the poolside told me I was trailing slightly coming into the turn but actually came off the turn in the lead, which was very satisfying.

The medley relay also went well. I led off on the first backstroke leg and got us into a good lead which we managed to hold onto and win the race.

Overall the STAM B squad actually finished the meet in fourth place, topping the B squads and even beating one of the other club A squads! All that was left was to head off for a big celebratory curry!

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