Open Water Swimming Brings Life Lessons

Swimming has been a life long journey for me.  My mother insisted on swimming lessons for me and my siblings, and when I was young, my stamina was not very good, so swimming any significant distance was very challenging.  However, between my perseverance and her persistence, I eventually earned my life saving certification, and in college passed my Water Safety Instructor’s course.

A couple years after I graduated from college, I developed sufficiently severe arthritis that I could not continue in my job managing Pizza Bob’s in Ann Arbor. Leaving my first full time job and wondering where this early onset of arthritis would leave me left me depressed. However, not being one to stay mired in depression or succumb to my body’s frailties, I made a commitment to never stop moving, with the very unscientific belief that if I continued to move, my arthritis would be unable to freeze up my joints.  It was at that point that I decided that swimming on a regular basis was critical to both my physical and mental health.

My decision to commit to a regular regimen of swimming in 1980 has continued for 35 years and its benefits have been many.  I routinely count my laps and strokes and find that doing so provides a meditative benefit along with the physical exercise.

But swimming in a pool has its drawbacks.  In addition to the annoying chlorine, turning every 25 yards means that both my exercise and meditation is interrupted frequently in the pool.  Fortunately, I have been blessed to have the opportunities during some winter vacations to be in a place where I can swim in the open water in the ocean.  Salt water has its drawbacks, but it is naturally occurring and a lot better than chlorine.

Open water swimming in the ocean has its own set of challenges which have provided me with some important life lessons.  In some places, I have had to battle large waves and/or wind.  In others, coral, though beautiful, needed to be dodged in order to avoid serious injury. A few times, I have learned what it feels like to be stung by a jellyfish.

Early on in my open water swimming ventures, I simply swam as long as I felt like it.  But, after a few episodes of doing this, I eventually realized that I had no idea how far I was swimming and if I swam beyond my physical capacity, as I was on my own, I had the potential for putting myself in a dangerous situation.  That led me to buy a waterproof watch with a timer so I could check my time periodically and make sure I swam a similar distance as I usually do in a pool (1000 yards).

But swimming 1000 yards in open water is very different than turning 40 times every 25 yards in a pool. To begin with, until returning to shore, there is no opportunity to stop.  In addition, swimming a straight line is open water is very challenging.  To deal with these issues, I count my strokes and switch between front crawl, breast stroke and back crawl regularly so I can make sure I straighten out and keep aiming in my intended direction.  I also keep a target point in view, and while it is hard to judge distances in the open water, by counting strokes and keeping my eye on my target, I can be sure that I do not exceed my physical capacity.

This week, I have the luxury of renting a house boat in the Florida Keys with my dear friend, Rachel Caplan.  Each morning, after I mediate, I jump off the boat and head out for my roughly 1000 yard swim.  While doing so continues to provide me with both physical and emotional health benefits I have described above, this year, my open water swimming has helped me draw some life lessons:

  • Staying physically and emotionally healthy are both critical to maintaining my engagement in the difficult work of systems change;
  • Swimming in open water is much like navigating life which often brings uncharted obstacles; and
  • In order to mange those uncharted obstacles, it is best to have a plan, adjust your plan as necessary, and stay within the limits of your capabilities in order to stay safe to continue the hard work that each day brings.

IMG_2441 Of course, open water swimming is not for everyone, but each person can find their own way of navigating life successfully by maintaining physical and emotional health and confronting the challenges which life brings on a daily basis.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

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