My earliest memories of the pool are pretty vague. I was maybe about three years old and had on a pair of bright orange blow up floaties to prevent me drowning. I splashed and played around in the little two foot deep kids pool at the public pool in our neighborhood. I couldn’t help but one day hope I could swim in the big pool just a few steps away where all the big kids were swimming and laughing. Shoot, I could’ve thrown the toy shark I was playing with and landed it in the big pool, but alas I was confined to the kiddy pool until I could swim. So I resolved to learn.
We occasionally traveled down to Naples, Fla to visit my mom’s side of the family. One day we were at their community pool and I think I talked my Uncle Bill into letting me swim with just one “Waterwing.” He relented and I started figuring out how to swim. From then on I practiced every time I was in a pool. Sometimes I wore one floaty on one arm and then I put the floaty on the other arm. Eventually, I got confident enough to tread water and finally start stroking without “waterwings.” My technique was horrible, I splashed more water out of the pool than probably anyone else, but at least I was swimming—or more accurately, not drowning.
When I went blind just before I turned seven, something changed. The pool and water weren’t as fun and inviting as they used to be. On one hand, I desperately wanted to play in the pool as all my friends were doing. But on the other hand, I wanted nothing to do with the pool. I was definitely scared. When my head went underwater all of my senses seemed to shut off. The only thing guiding me was my hands. I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear, I couldn’t smell or breathe. Nothing existed beyond the reach of my outstretched fingertips. It was my childhood friend, John Norville, who helped me get back in the pool and somewhat learn to enjoy swimming again.
John’s grandmother—whom we all called “Gaga”—lived just around the corner from where my family. She had a pool in her backyard and John and I’d often go over to Gaga’s and play. Sometimes other friends would join us, but most of the time it was just John and I. We practiced tricks off the diving board and then pretended like we were secret agents or pirates swimming underwater up to our unsuspecting targets. We pretended as though we were shipwrecked and desperately swam for shore.
When friends joined us we played our favorite game “Star!” Star is a game where one person sits at one end of the pool and speaks the initials of a movie. A group of people, usually anywhere from three to five, sit at the other end of the pool and ask for clues on the movie. When you think you know what the movie is you shout “Star!” and swim as fast as you can to tag the lone person at the end of the pool. Once you tag them you speak the movie title. It’s best when several people shout “Star!” at once. Then it’s an all out race to tag the “It” person. We did anything and everything to beat each other to the end of the pool. We’d try and swim faster, we’d swim over each other, we’d grab bading suits…anything to win. This friendly competition and banging around in the pool would certainly serve me well later on during the chaos of open water triathlon swims.
Despite the fun I had playing with John and other friends in the pool, swimming slowly lost it’s appeal to me as I got into my teenage years. I of course loved to get out on a motor boat and be dragged behind on an intertube, but I never enjoyed getting thrown off because I still harbored that fear of drowning, even though I’d proven to myself time and time again that I could swim. One time while being pulled behind a boat on a tube the tube completely flipped upsidedown. I, being stubborn, clung on for dear life as I was being dragged underneath the surface of the water. Somehow the tube righted itself and I was still there hanging on.
As I became a teenager, I also became conscious of my looks and body image. Being blind, I didn’t really know what I looked like with my shirt off and it just felt weird being at a public pool or at the beach dressed in nothing but my bathing suit. I imagined myself as a pasty white, chubby guy who had no business having his shirt off. I also hated, literally, bumping into people that I didn’t know. Which is an occupational hazard of being blind. So I started avoiding pools and beaches. Despite all of this though, friends would still occasionally talk me into doing stuff around the water with them. After all, we did live in Florida and Florida’s known for it’s water activities.
I spent one memorable day learning how to surf. A wrestling teammate, Kyle Manning, lived just a stone’s throw from the beach and invited a few friends over during one of our last days of high school. I admitted that I really didn’t like the beach but did want to learn to surf. Kyle made it his mission to get me standing up on a surfboard. So we spent several hours that day with Kyle teaching me how to paddle and feel the waves. When I finally did manage to feel the pull of the wave and the board underneath me it was unlike any feeling I’d had before. It wasn’t quite as awesome as dangling 100 feet up on a rockface, but it was still cool to feel the board suddenly become stable under me and then I was standing riding a wave, if only briefly. After that experience I tried surfing a few times but I determined that the ocean just wasn’t my thing. Swimming just wasn’t my thing. After all I didn’t have gills, and unless I grew some I didn’t think I could ever enjoy swimming. So apart from the occasional trip to the beach, I hardly ever swam from the time I graduated high school in 2010 until January 2015 when Mike Melton somehow convinced me that I needed to learn to swim if I had any dream of one day doing a triathlon.
Grasshopper, You Must Learn to Swim
Mike and I’d been running together for about six months while Mike trained to race in Kona and I trained for my first marathon. Shortly after Mike and I completed the Goofy Challenge (Disney half marathon on Saturday and Disney Marathon on Sunday) Mike took me to the downtown Orlando YMCA and began working with me on how to swim. I tried swimming from one end of the 25 yard pool to the other. I crashed into the lane lines on either side, splashed a shit ton of water out of the pool and lifted my head completely out of the water to desperately suck in lung fulls of oxygen. I couldn’t swim more than 25 yards without stopping for several minutes. My shoulders ached, my lungs burned and I thought there was no way in hell I was ever going to get this swimming thing.
But Mike showed tremendous patience. He taught me how to float. How to turn my head to either side to breathe. How to take a stroke. How to kick. And so on and so forth. He took me to several different swim coaches who changed one thing or another tinkering with my swim stroke, body position and breathing until I could somehow do something resembling a swim workout.
Over the course of 2015 and 2016 I transformed from a thrashing mess to being able to comfortably swim several thousand yards during workouts and survive in the open water. I somehow completed numerous triathlons ranging from sprint distance to my first Ironman and I thought I was becoming a pretty good swimmer for a totally blind triathlete.
At the end of 2016 I moved from Orlando to Carbondale, Colo and put my triathlon specific training on hold for several months while I concentrated my efforts on training for my first Boston Marathon. But I had signed up for Ironman 70.3 Boulder in August 2017 and Ironman Arizona 2017. So at some point I needed to get back in the pool. Eventually I did and just cranked out swim sets to the best of my ability doing workouts I found online. Somehow after only eight training swims I pulled off (probably thanks to Matt Miller mostly dragging me through the Boulder Reservoir by my tether) my fastest 70.3 swim at 34 min 16 sec. But I knew I had to spend more time in the water before tackling Ironman Arizona in a scant three months.
Swimming with Mere
In October 2017 I took a trip with my buddy Mike Melton to Kona, Hi during the week of the Ironman World Championship. Mike and I tried to swim in Kailua Bay every day we were there. One afternoon we were browsing through one of the Ironman merchandise tents and I got to chatting with one of the people working the tent. Her name was Meredith and she mentioned that she’d love to maybe meet up and swim with us the next day. She gave me her card and said to let her know when we’d next be down to swim.
Over a lunch of fish and chips—while Mike ribbed me saying I should’ve asked Meredith out on a date—I checked out Meredith’s website. Turns out she’s a former pro triathlete and is now an elite open water marathon swimmer. The open water swim races she competes in are 10 km or longer. Damn, this woman wanted to swim with me? Needless to say I was slightly intimidated.
The next day Mike and I met up with Meredith and Mike suddenly handed her the tether and said “Have fun you two” and took off. Ok, not what we were expecting but Meredith took it in stride. She’d never guided a totally blind swimmer before but she guided spectacularly. We swam together for nearly an hour and a half. Throughout the course of that swim Mere would stop me and make suggestions on how to change my technique. After about 20 min or so she began assigning me workout sets—20 strokes fist drill, 20 strokes easy, 40 strokes hard, etc. We occasionally would stop, tread water or float and just chat. Mere helped me learn that by improving little things in my technique I’d eventually get faster in the water and actually learn to enjoy swimming.
When I got back to Colorado I did my best to implement what Mere had taught me in Kona and I saw a dramatic improvement in my swimming. Maybe this swimming thing wasn’t so bad after all.
After completing Ironman Arizona with my friend Will Fisher in under 12 hours I took my training to a new level. I was pretty sure my 1 hour 14 min 42 sec swim in Arizona had more to do with Will dragging me through the water than my own swimming ability. So I dedicated myself to getting faster. My friend Tom MacPherson, who’d recently become a triathlon coach, helped me for a few weeks at the beginning of January 2018 to dial in some technique changes. Then I attended a triathlon camp hosted by elite blind female triathlete Amy Dixon where I worked with a couple other coaches on refining certain aspects of my technique. Then I hired multi-time Off Road World Champion triathlete Lesley Paterson to coach me. While Lesley didn’t focus a ton on swim specific technique with me she did help me drastically improve my swim fitness to where I was suddenly able to crank out 3000-4000 yards with ease three to four times a week.
I improved across all three disciplines of triathlon during 2018. When Alan Greening and I pulled off the first sub 11 hour Ironman by a totally blind athlete at Ironman Arizona, we didn’t have the fastest swim we were capable of, but it was one of the smoothest and most efficient open water swims I’d ever executed allowing me to have more in the tank for the bike and then the run.
Two weeks ago I moved to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs where I’m getting used to swimming five days a week. Having taken the previous eight weeks off from swimming my coach, Derick, has spent these first two weeks really stressing technique. Swimming is by far the most mentally taxing of the triathlon disciplines for me because there is so much to think about. Left hand enters water at the 11 o’cclock position; cup the water; point fingers at bottom of pool during entire stroke; rotate body to right side throughout stroke; reach right hand as far as possible to lengthen the body to cover more distance; left hand exits water at left hip; take a breath just before rotating flat and bringing left arm back up above the water to repeat. The slightest turn of the hand in the middle of the swim stroke, or the dropping of the elbow in front toward the bottom of the pool, over rotating to the side can throw off the entire stroke, direction and momentum. The faster I get, the more I focus on the littlest of details. Swimming is also pretty counter intuitive in that the harder you work the slower you go. Swim smooth to swim fast is a mantra I repeat to myself when I’m in the water.
No, I’m still not fast in the water. In fact, I’m probably one of the worst swimmers Derick and others here at the training center have ever seen. But already after two weeks of intense focus I’m seeing improvements in smoothness and efficiency. Yes, I’m impatient and want to be at peak swim fitness already, but I’m trying to trust the process and I know my swim speed and fitness will come back around. Now the question is where is my swim crest and can we make it higher?