“Back” To Reality

By Caroline Stanistreet

For competitive swimmers, there is a part of the body that seems to be taken for granted and vastly under-appreciated, until something extremely bad happens to it.

Take one guess…and no, it’s not the usually-overworked shoulder.
It is the spine, that all-necessary part of the central nervous system and the pathway to all great things our amazing bodies do.

I never had back issues until I began swimming. Before my college swim meets, I would lie flat on my back with my bent knees against the wall, stretch it out, then ice it after my distance events. But I could never figure out why it would hurt from time to time, and neither could my coach, nor my trainer.

You’d think in that choosing to swim over playing hockey, tennis, lacrosse, baseball, or most other sports, you’ve introduced your body to one of the most benign physical activities ever. You believe that training and competing as a swimmer will keep your joints happy-happy and body injury-free with this non-contact, non-invasive, virtually perfect way to get in shape.

Those “big” injury risks include whacking arms or hands with another swimmer in your lane, hitting your heels at the end while performing a flip turn too close to the wall, or, the occasional shoulder twinge from too much rotation from freestyle. Those injuries pale in comparison to concussions, torn ACLs (the “old football knee”), and limb breaks and sprains.

So when does the back issue come into the picture? Probably not while you’re young, but years later, when you return to the pool and think that flip turns are habitual, still a timesaver, and look cool to others who can’t do them. Never mind that you spent all those years flipping at practice, then flipping even harder and faster during meets. Your veteran ego tells you “Yippee, you’ve still got it, Sister!” Forget the fact that repeated, hard pushing from the wall then the quick twisting motion to the same side wears your spine out as it grows older. Poor technique may come into play as you age as well, especially if you have no coach hovering over you from the pool deck.

I learned this the hard way when I entered the pool 2 years ago, to train 3 to 4 times a week for an annual team sprint triathlon. My practice consisted of a couple thousand yards of freestyle, often with my head lifted to practice sighting the imaginary orange buoys in open water. With hundreds and thousands of yards of freestyle come the flip turns, and many, many of them.

Since my husband and other friends have suffered a host of shoulder injuries and eventual surgeries, I would often mix up my strokes to ease the shoulder rotation purely out of fear. However, the flip turns just a-kept-on-rollin’ along whenever freestyle was the stroke of choice.

Three weeks before the team triathlon, I bent over to tie my sneaker (Please…I won’t say training shoe, I’m a Baby Boomer), and then…suddenly…it happened.

Snap! Crackle! POP!!!

My lower back got its angry revenge on me. I practically collapsed to the floor, the shock and pain took my breath away, then I gingerly dropped to my knees, immobilized, and baffled as to why this would happen to a perfectly healthy and fairly fit fifty-something.

No one was home at the time, so the tears flowed, accompanied by an immediate effort to stand up. Failure. Just take some deep breaths, this is just a temporary nightmare and you’ll be fine, I told myself. I eventually waddled to my “stressless” chair and sat, but the discomfort persisted. The time grew longer and there I was, hunched-over, agonizing, and still in pain.

My husband eventually came home, took one look at me, and said in an effort to cheer me up, “ah, there’s my Old Lady,” which is a standing joke between us, but this was no joke. It hurt. Standing up straight? Nope. Breathing correctly? Nada. The triathlon…oh, no! I had to do something. My husband said to me “you really need to see a doctor if you even want to THINK about swimming in a few weeks.” I agreed, but where to start? Lucky for me, my husband is in a brotherhood of sorts, with friends who’ve run the gamut with injuries, aches, and pains in every body part imaginable. As a result, most of them have had surgery, physical therapy, and a breadth of other treatments and holistic remedies. Their lists of medical contacts is endless (likely on speed-dial for some of them) and he immediately contacted his best Go-To Guy, who gave us the name of his chiropractor.

So there I went and waited with all the other poor folks who are experiencing back problems, but I was surprised when I observed the mixture of ages, young and old, and in-between, like me.

The chiropractor took a spine x-ray and placed it on the light board. It looked like a yellow road sign for “Dangerous Curves Ahead.” He asked, “So… what did you do when you were about 15 or 16 to do THIS to your back?” Uh, no, it couldn’t be from swimming! I described to him the somersault, pushoff and twisting motion to my right side from flip turns and he said, “well, that’ll do it…and I can fix it!” That reply was my first sign of relief. That serpentine spine of mine was finally going to get straightened out!

Three weeks and several visits later, I was cured, for the most part, and swam a highly successful half-mile in the triathlon. However, flip turns are no longer part of my training regimen. I just can’t. There’s really no reason to since I haven’t had the opportunity to compete in Masters meets recently, but that day will come. I came to the realization that open turns aren’t really a sign of not being cool. It makes me a little sad, but it’s my new normal and I need to prevent any future injury to my back. The chiropractor gave me a list of stretches before and after ANY workout or activity – especially if I’m driving for a long period of time. He said that truck drivers are his most common patient, and sitting in a car is THE worst thing you can do to your precious back.

Lesson learned, make the commitment to take care of your back. No matter your age or swimming ability, STRETCH before and after your swim. Of course, that’s the obvious and first rule of any workout – although some of us tend to forget. Consider eliminating flip turns – unless you are young and competing, or if you’re older and think you absolutely “must” in a Masters swim meet. Moreover, if you want to look cool while practicing at your local pool, wear an extra suit, load yourself up with fins, paddles, a kickboard, an extra pair of goggles and a water bottle in a mesh bag – and skip the flips.

 

Taking The Plunge…Again

When I was a kid, there was nothing more exciting than heading to our club pool, swimming at team practice, and then waiting until the pool opened at 11 am for the entire day. The Almighty diving board beckoned, and my friends and I would spend hours performing all varieties of dives, flips, and of course, cannon balls (except when we were rudely interrupted for 15 minutes by “Adult Swim,” sigh…).

After my country club’s swim experience ended, I began attending, then working at, an overnight YMCA camp in the mid 1970s. Naturally, there were plenty of swimming opportunities for me, but this time it was on vast and beautiful Millsite Lake. There, I learned waterskiing, sailing, and even snorkeling, but the biggest thrill of all was taking a boat to the opposite side of the lake, crawling and climbing my way up a 30-foot cliff, then jumping off some jagged rocks into the dark water below. I thought I was invincible – especially since I was donned in my swimsuit, cutoffs, and navy-faded, trail-worn Converse sneakers, so my feet wouldn’t smack against the water nor get cut open in the nearby rocks. We would jump like it was an effortless feat, and back then, well, at least to me and my cliff-loving colleagues – it was just another fun experience at Camp.

Then came lifeguarding jobs and water safety instruction, and there was usually a diving board nearby. More fun for me! Combine that with 8 years of high school and collegiate swimming, and thankfully I never experienced pool burnout. The cool thing about our college pool was that it had a separate diving well with two 1-meter boards, and one 3-meter board. My talented housemate was on the diving team and performed the most amazing flips and twists with barely a splash. Sometimes after our swim practice, I’d head over to “the well” and stand on the end of the 3-meter board and simply jump in, knowing that an attempt at something stupid off that board would likely end in some nasty bruising and endless teasing and laughter from my diver housemate and swim teammates.

Fast forward to now, where I can be found swimming at our local Y about 3 times a week. I’m almost always there on “My Sunday,” which is my hour and a half away from work/family/dogs/life to enjoy that precious alone time, usually in Lane 3.

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On the Y’s monthly competitive pool calendar, I noticed the 1-meter diving board was open from Noon-1 p.m. on My Sunday. Well now, wouldn’t that be fun to re-live my childhood diving prowess after a swim workout? Why, of course! So, I strategically planned a 30-minute swim at Noon (sharp!) then I’d spend the remaining half-hour doing what I thought I did best, demonstrating to the world my awesome, signature inward dive. Ah, such a daredevil am I!

Really?

I stepped up the 3 rungs and stared down at the long, gritty, sea foam green behemoth.

I timidly shuffled a few feet down to the adjustment wheel and spun it forward with my foot to avoid any extra bounciness. Then I ever so gingerly walked to the end, which started sagging, just like my confidence. I looked down at the shimmering water below, and I might as well have been back on that 30-foot cliff or at the end of the 3-meter board looking down at “the well.” I continued to shake and was about to “about-face,” but then, an angel appeared.

Along came Alice, a senior citizen who knows no fear. She and her friend Bill show up to use that board faithfully every Sunday, chamois in hand, to dive, and dive some more (Alice even flips, I kid you not). She took one look at the terror in my face and said, “I’ve seen this all before honey, just take a practice jump!”

Practice jump? Who in their right mind “practices” on this thing?

(Sorry, Alice, but this is NOT practice, this is SURVIVAL)

My ego, quite deflated by now, told me to humbly obey her orders and just get it the heck over with. So I turned around and just stood there, shivering, with my toes curled over the end of the monster. I took just a moment to recite a quick Hail Mary, and performed what we called at our club pool “The Dead Man’s Walk” – just step off the end with arms at one’s sides – so that one step I took – and with little fanfare.

Plunk! Bubble bubble bubble…..

I popped right back up to the surface, all thanks to The Good Lord giving me the wonderful gift of extreme buoyancy. Alice applauded and exclaimed, “you did it!” – just like a schoolteacher would say to a child after reciting her ABCs. That inner child in me beamed with pride. I looked up at her, smiled, and thanked her, then thanked God again, knowing that surviving that first leap was truly was a miracle in my mind.

So now, part of My Sundays are spent “at the board” with new friends Alice and Bill. I watch with admiration Bill’s careful practice jumps and Alice’s skill to easily balance with her heels hanging at the end of the board, all before doing a back flip. Their unique ability to thwart any fear of height or potential pain – and as senior citizens – is amazing to me.

I continue to overcome that strange anxiety I developed from simply NOT diving off a diving board in almost 35 years. Currently, my repertoire consists of a solid forward jump and a front swan dive from a few steps back with little – or very little – bounce. That “signature” inward of mine is being slowly revisited. While my diving list is fairly short, each week I get a bit surer of myself, as there is still a lot of fight left in me. But, I can promise you this…those navy Converse sneakers will never, ever, EVER see the heights – or depths – of Millsite Lake again.

Ode To Lane 3

I finally did it. I started my own blog which lets me just write and have a great time doing it. This blog is dedicated to everyone, young and old, and in the middle, who just want to take a little time out and read about an event, a challenge, or special activity that they may also have experienced, or who may want to give it a try.

Here is something I wrote several months ago when venturing into the competition pool for the first time in a long, long time.  This very first blog post is dedicated to former competitive swimmers who loved to swim back then, and may return to the pool someday…. even though the whitewater we make these days may not be as white!   So read on and enjoy!

ODE TO LANE 3

It only took me 2 minutes to jump into you today. That’s rare for me. That first minute to adjust to the water temperature was always the worst part of practice. It used to take 5-10 minutes before my Coach would become frustrated with me and would give “the final countdown” before adding laps to my warm up.

I had to briefly share you, Lane 3, with someone who was unsure of proper “circle swimming etiquette” but we got through it. Sharing you with someone else challenged me to swim harder and faster. I made small goals of passing the swimmer – and catching up again.

Your close-to-the-middle spot in the pool enabled me to look at other lap swimmers on one side, and secretly cheer on the children taking their deep water test on the other side. Their goal? Swim one length, pass and graduate to the Almighty Water Slide. But you’re not a proving ground, Lane 3, you are there for people like me who get the privilege to escape for an hour and simply forget about the day to day challenges in life.

My arms felt weak when I started, but you were forgiving and allowed me to warm up and take as much time as I needed to get used to you. The instep of my right foot even cramped up like it used to (I forgot to eat a banana prior to heading to the pool). Hey, it’s been more than a few years since I swam “for real” in a 25-yard pool, having enjoyed much shorter laps in my backyard pool in the summer.

Common sense also told me not to overdo it on my first day back. So I stopped at one of your ends and used a starting block to stretch my arms, rest briefly, and return to my private workout. You and your fellow lanes were non-judgmental, and remained completely unconcerned about my age or ability if I had to stop.

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You were also the perfect distance from the side with the pace clocks, one which was digital – and the other clock that most competitive swimmers grew up with. From you, Lane 3, I could see that large white face and easily read the single black hand for minutes, and the red sweeping second hand…which at times seemed to spin too quickly.

Placed at your shallow end was a large whiteboard with a handwritten workout for “veteran” competitive swimmers, also known as Masters. If you know who the “Not Ready For Primetime Players” are from Saturday Night Live, then you may appreciate the group I began toward the end of my swim, the “Not Ready For Masters 4,500-yard Workout” – not yet at least.

Thanks to you, Lane 3, I was able to simultaneously swim and fill my head with an array of songs and even a few memories of past swim competitions. I’m pretty certain that I solved some of the world’s problems – without the use of a cell phone and social media. Imagine that!

I may have brought home a little bit of you…I swallowed some water after a flip turn, which I can still do fairly well after so many years. But my memory must’ve shorted out since every coach will tell you NOT to breathe out of your turn! (Gulp)

It’s no secret that swimming is THE best sport when it comes to maintaining flexibility, improving endurance and strength, and increasing lung capacity. So working toward those fitness goals may cause some aches and pains. But they don’t stem from you, Lane 3. I am not pounding my feet on pavement or jumping up and down on a floor. You are so kind to my joints and knees. You allow me to pull myself through you and resist just the right amount. For that I am grateful, especially on my first day back.

So thank you for the most satisfying exercise I’ve had in a long time, Lane 3. I’ve been gone too long and I can’t wait to see you again, and if you’re not available, perhaps you won’t mind if I spend some time with Lane 4?

 

SINK OR SWIM

This is the post excerpt.

Welcome to Sink or Swim!  This is dedicated to family, friends, former colleagues and especially all competitive swimmers, past and present.  My objective is to share my experiences and observations, and not to bore you non-swimmers too much with some of the swimming jargon used from time to time.  So scroll down and read below! Thank you for stopping by.

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