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Swimming lesson: Don’t wait to exhale

Tue., May 29, 2012

A mass of swimmers compete during last year’s Ironman in Coeur d’Alene. (File)
A mass of swimmers compete during last year’s Ironman in Coeur d’Alene. (File)

Preschoolers, wannabe triathletes both start with blowing bubbles

Whether you’re a preschooler or a marathon runner, learning to swim starts with the basics.

Lesson one for the grown-up newbies on Team Blaze Spokane: exhaling.

“We start with blowing bubbles in the water,” said Tristin Olson-Roy, who started the triathlon club with her husband, Scott Roy, who died in April.

Team Blaze has grown from a few members in 2004 to about 250 today. Its coaches have worked with many triathletes-in-training with no previous swimming experience, Olson-Roy said.

“We’ve had people who couldn’t swim at all, couldn’t put their face in the water, and they’ve finished Ironman Coeur d’Alene,” she said.

Besides the bubbles, new swimmers work on ditching their nose plugs. They work on bilateral breathing and to improve their strokes. They work on resisting the urge to kick to stay afloat. It’s keeping your head down that keeps your body level, they learn.

“I have swim lessons with 3- and 4-year-olds, and we do the same things,” Olson-Roy said, “except the triathletes catch on a lot quicker.”

Because some new triathletes are great swimmers in the pool and panic in the open water, they work on their fears – of seaweed, of fish, of the mass of people who’ll be launching into the water, too, inevitably grabbing at their feet and kicking them in the head. They work on “swimming over” fellow participants who are in their way rather than dragging them down.

Cindy Savino, a swim coach who works at the Spokane Valley YMCA, said she emphasizes efficiency when she’s working with new swimmers training for triathlons.

Runners and bikers are used to their legs serving as their “engines,” she said. They kick too much and waste energy they’ll need to run and bike.

At a training session last week at The Fitness Center in Spokane Valley, Gretchen Rose Wolf, a coach with Team Blaze, stood at the edge of the pool and assigned drills to swimmers who stood in the lanes. Lay your ear right on your arm during the “catch-up drill,” which aims to improve body position, she told them. For another, she urged, remember to kick from the hip.

“It’s more important to do something slow and well than fast and inefficiently,” Rose Wolf said.

It’s a lesson Suzanne Smail, 31, of Spokane, has taken to heart. While she’s nervous about her first open-water race this summer – it’s the mass of bodies that concerns her most – she said she feels like a competent swimmer now. It took her thrice-weekly lessons and most of a year to feel that way, and she’s continued working to improve, she said.

Technique is everything, she said. “If you don’t have it, you’re going to be exhausted.”

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