Work for Fun
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Perfect Your Crawl
Hoping to achieve a stroke of genius, our writer lets swim guru John Fitzpatrick unravel 15 years of muscle memory
by Noah Isackson
The last time I wore a Speedo was October of 1992, when my college swim coach told me I was too slow, that I'd be better off leaving the team to focus on my classes. I haven't been a serious swimmer since. But, one afternoon, I asked John Fitzpatrick to change all that. Fitzpatrick, head coach of the Chicago Blue Dolphins masters swim team, teaches private lessons designed to fix a swimmer's stroke. Far from an old-fashioned swim class, a session with Fitzpatrick, at $100 an hour, involves a flat-screen TV, mirrors, an underwater camera, and a Dual-Propulsion Endless Pool, which is a 240-square-foot water tank with machines that unleash a powerful adjustable current. It's the aquatic version of a treadmill, with Fitzpatrick filming and critiquing clients as they swim in place.
"We approach your stroke the same way a boat designer might build a ship," Fitzpatrick said, shortly after we both jumped in. "It's all about the way you move through the water." I took about 40 freestyle strokes so Fitzpatrick—his students call him Fitz—could make a diagnosis. "Your hips are too low," said Fitz, who was holding a remote control sealed inside a plastic bag, "and your head is too high." In other words, my ship was sinking.
Fitz then demonstrated two drills. In the first, Fitz swam freestyle while looking at a mirror attached to the bottom of the pool. Swimming while staring at that mirror quickly corrected my body position, but it was also a big tease. Why? Sooner or later, a swimmer needs to breathe. "That's where the stroke really breaks down," Fitz said. For years, my habit was to turn my head and lift it slightly out of the water, a move that, according to Fitz, forced my hips toward the bottom of the pool.
The second drill focused on breathing: Fitz started out kicking on his right side, his head resting on an extended arm; he then switched to his left side; finally, Fitz kicked while flipping back and forth. The idea was to change my body position so I spent more time swimming as if I were a blade knifing through the water. This new position would be more efficient and make breathing easier—all I had to do was turn, not lift, my head to take a "bite" of air. Following Fitz's example was not easy, however; at times I looked like an exhausted salmon swimming upstream. "This is hard," Fitz reassured me. "We're trying to erase the muscle memory you've built up over millions of strokes."
Near the end of my second hourlong session, the finale had come: I swam freestyle using the new techniques I had learned. At first, my arms pulled efficiently through the water and I felt more comfortable than I had in years. A postmortem analysis of the film footage showed that I was no longer dragging my legs through the water. But, after only 20 seconds, I was breathless and tired. Fitz explained that the new stroke would sap my strength until I got used to it. "It takes about 10,000 repetitions or six weeks before it becomes natural and automatic," he told me. The next day, I obediently hit the pool—200 down, 9,800 to go.
John Fitzpatrick, 2220 N. Elston Ave.; 773-251-5308, chicagobluedolphins.com