Two weeks ago, while in Kona HI for a TI Open Water Experience, I had the good fortune to join the Kai ‘Opua Canoe Club for a paddle in an outrigger canoe on two mornings. And the even better fortune of encountering a pod of dolphins each morning. Each time, we stopped paddling then glided closer to watch in awe, all of us murmuring appreciatively each time one fin . . . then another . . . then another . . . breached the surface then slipped beneath again.
The same phenomenon occurred on a whale watch out of Provincetown last fall. From the first sighting–still at a great distance–until we’d seen dozens at very close range, every ‘watcher’ remained riveted for well over an hour each time one of those massive creatures–30 to 40 tons–slid sinuously over and beneath the surface with hardly a ripple. How can anything that large also be unimaginably graceful?
This morning I was reminded of this by a post by Maxine Fellows on her Facebook page “I will never be a fast swimmer and i don’t care…i want to be able to swim like this for miles and miles.” “This” referred to the following video.
Maxine gets that heedless pursuit of speed misses the point of swimming–the possibility of feeling harmony, of working with, of slipping through with as little commotion as the dolphin, and perhaps even to display form that moves others to compare you with sea creatures.
And yet, just as the most beautiful sea creatures are also the fastest, the goal of swimming in beauty is fully compatible with swimming faster too, as I learned 30 years ago while coaching competitive swimmers.
In 1980, a series of videos featuring the best American swimmers was released. Tracy Caulkins, the only swimmer to hold World or American records in every stroke (Michael Phelps never held a breaststroke record) appeared on every video. Tracy swam with a grace no other swimmer of her time came close to matching.
Though Tracy possessed rare gifts, I believed key elements of her form were teachable and decided to apply the ‘Tracy Standard’ team-wide. With each passing week, as more swimmers swam with more grace, I experienced a joy from Coaching Beauty that exceeded the pleasure I’d previously gained from coaching speed. A desire to see more beauty in my pool became my strongest motivator.
While speed changed little, from one day to the next, beauty could improve with startling speed. I began to dedicate more time to intensive teaching–and was rewarded every time with noticeably better pool-wide fluency.
And because, unlike speed, beauty is a widely-attainable standard, any swimmer has the potential to shine. Formerly marginal swimmers vied for the honor of demonstrating superior form for the rest of the team. Whereupon the team’s stars rose to the challenge and were usually the most beautiful in the water.
Inside of two years, swimmers from that group had won 10 National Age Group Championships and achieved dominance at Junior National Championships. Coaching Beauty not only brought me more intrinsic satisfaction, it also propelled individuals and the team to unprecedented accomplishments.
An additional benefit is how a focus on beautiful movement can demystify technique. While ‘stroke mechanics’ are often presented in such complexity that even coaches feel intimidated, nearly everyone feels confident in their ability to recognize grace.
The last three decades have confirmed that the greatest swimmers have the most beautiful strokes. Every swimmer of extraordinary accomplishment in that period has swum with strikingly more grace than their peers. This includes those who maintained world dominance for an unmatched duration–such as Vladimir Salnikov in distance swimming from 1977 to 1988, and Alexandre Popov in the sprints from 1992 to 2003. It includes those who broke records by stunning margins as Ian Thorpe of Australia did. And it includes those who achieved dominance over an extraordinary range of events like Michael Phelps and Tracy Caulkins. Today’s most exciting distance swimmer–Sun Yang of China–stands out as much for his silky stroke as for his stunning times.
But, even so, I’m still more impressed by the extraordinary grace of 95 year old Paul Lurie.